Nature Tamed: Impressions of Japanese Gardens

Ryoanji Temple, Kyoto

HAVING LOOKED AT many gardens around the world and pottered about in my own for a decade or two, I have come to feel that those of Japan and the British Isles seem to best delight the eye and stimulate the senses – with those of Japan perhaps taking first place. The ordered parterre gardens of continental Europe have always left me cold with their clipped shrubs and ordered geometry, feebly declaiming dominance over nature, and I have always found them so unnatural that I cannot imagine what was going on in the minds of their creators. Likewise I have never really warmed to rectangular shaved lawns and their attendant curse of Sunday-morning mowers, nor just about any garden ornaments unless they are very ancient and weathered. And I’m not too keen on gaudy hybrid flowers or variegated leaves either – but that is just a personal taste.

Native plants and trees always look most at home but gardeners have been captivated by plants from foreign parts since ancient times and the more skilled will mix in exotics if that compliment rather than jar. In some gardens around the Italian Lakes I have seen familiar Japanese plants such as azaleas and wild hydrangeas that seem to enjoy the European soil and flourish even more magnificently than they do at home. I’m sure that the most natural-looking garden today would contain many plants whose ancestors were born elsewhere and no doubt if we could see a mediaeval garden we would find its plants would look very different from those we see today.

I have been fortunate to visit gardens in Canada, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Singapore, the US, New Zealand, Switzerland and Italy, and have admired pictures of others in Brazil, Mexico, various Caribbean nations and other countries. They all look wonderfully seductive, employing their special local vegetation to good effect, but it seems that most have been inspired to some extent until recent years by the garden ideals of Britain. Nevertheless, inspiration today seems to be coming from the ancient temple gardens of Japan as their unique components of gravel, water and stone compliment the clean lines, forms and surfaces of modern architecture, and are being emulated around the world.

What can their similarities be when at first sight the gardens of these distanced island nations seem so markedly different? Perhaps in both it is the taming of nature; maintaining its vigour and beauty while editing out the mayhem found in the wild. Nature with manners, in fact. In England this manifests itself in a park-like abundance of trees, shrubs and climbing plants, planted together to create the harmony seen in idyllic landscape paintings. These are gardens that perfectly compliment traditional buildings of stone, brick or stucco, and are meant to be felt – sat in and walked around. In Japanese gardens, too, the aim is to make everything look as natural as possible, but as the nature in that country is uniquely different to that in the rest of the world, the gardens look different too.
Nevertheless there are common features to be seen in gardens of both countries. One is the use of borrowed scenery where views of distant natural features – perhaps on someone else’s land – are calculated to enhance the garden’s design. Around very grand English gardens, a ha-ha was excavated to conceal a boundary wall below ground level so that seen from the house, the estate seems to carry on to the horizon, while in Japan a wall, or bushes, might be carefully placed to hide a neighbouring house while still maintaining a view of its trees. This shakei (borrowed scenery) is much seen in Kyoto where gardeners work carefully to conceal other buildings – as well as power lines and those transmitters for relaying mobile telephone signals – while including views of the surrounding mountains. There is however one big difference between classical Japanese gardens and those of other countries and that is, almost without exception, their plants are native.

Originally Japanese gardens were modelled on those that had been observed in China by priests and other officials on diplomatic exchange visits, the general designs being adopted along with Buddhism, writing, and just about everything else during the 7th and 8th centuries, and then – along with all those other imports – modified over time to become uniquely Japanese. Whereas Chinese gardens evolved to display strangely shaped rocks and underscore Geomantic and Taoist principles, those in Japan evolved to reflect the county’s splendid scenery and unique vegetation more than revealing symbolic references.

The first of these scenic gardens were constructed for Imperial family members and court nobles, planned with leisurely strolling and the appreciation of seasonal changes in mind. Great care was put into the choice of trees, plants, rocks and water and their arrangement to not only include choice resting and viewing spots but also to symbolise images from Chinese legend such as Mt Horai – an idealistic paradise for immortals. They were constructed to include lakes large enough for pleasure-boats, and an elaborate system employing springs and streams to ensure a continual flow of fresh water. The aim was to create a vision of the Western Paradise ruled by the Amida Buddha that was central to Pure land Buddhism – a sect more accessible to ordinary folk than the exclusive and unfathomable Esoteric Buddhism that had previously held sway – and many of them succeeded. One certainly feels in another world in one of these gardens, watching the calligraphy of fireflies in June with the soporific scent of moss and wild gardenias in the heavy damp air, or in the early spring when clouds of cherry-blossom are softly lighted by hanging lanterns.

Complete examples of these early gardens have mostly disappeared leaving only fragments, although we can get an idea of what they were like in the 19th-century replica at the side of the Heian Shrine in Kyoto and the superb 17th-century example at the Imperial Shugakuin Palace to the North-East of the city. Closer to the classical style is the Heian ((794-1185) garden enclosing the Byodoin Temple, (the one depicted on the 10¥ coin) that was started during the 10th century, before the temple was built. And a smaller but authentically styled classical garden can be found at the more secluded Mayaku-ji Temple outside Hamamatsu City in Shizuoka Prefecture, that was built during the Kamakura Period (1185–1333), and like many gardens is all the more charming for having survived through benign neglect. Here the islands and stones hide their symbolic role as islands of Paradise, cranes and longevity turtles under encroaching natural vegetation, but as the place is so little visited, (despite having a superb small collection of early religious sculpture in a temple annex), the rural peace and quiet allows for dreams to flow.

Whereas these gardens invite the pleasures of strolling and picnicking, a new type of garden appeared with the proliferation of Zen Buddhism and its ideals during the Muromachi period (1336-1573) that was designed for contemplation and viewing from one side only. As with Zen-influenced architecture, painting and calligraphy, such gardens were severely edited to remove anything considered extraneous, leaving only an essence – the bare bones or structure – to set an example for monks to control their minds, banish wayward thoughts and concentrate on nothing, at which point intuitive insight is thought to be generated.
As a centre of Zen culture, rich in temples, Kyoto is blessed with many such gardens and is also lucky in being surrounded by hills supplying beautiful vegetation and rocks that look just right. Attempts to emulate Zen gardens in other countries – or even other areas of Japan – often fail because the stone just looks out of place. An eroded greyish granite gets close to the ideal while sandstone, limestone, or any sedimentary rock doesn’t look right at all. Also important is that the rocks – like ice-bergs – need to be buried with most of their mass buried in order to look properly settled and to survive earthquakes.

The Daitokuji complex of temples in North-West Kyoto is famous for some of the most extreme forms of Zen gardens – reduced in some examples to just rock and gravel with perhaps a touch of moss and a severely-clipped azalea bush or two – and often reduced in size to fit tiny spaces between adjacent temple buildings. And not far away, Ryoan-ji Temple is world-famous for its arrangement of stones in a sea of raked gravel. It is worth sitting quietly for a while to study this extraordinary creation, which is so far distanced from what we normally consider as a garden in the West, and is all the more surprising when we realise that it was constructed during the late 15th century. Many words have been spent trying to explain the rocks’ arrangement: ‘a tiger accompanying her cubs across water’ and other such imaginings, but such are really unnecessary. Probably some symbolism of Mt Horai is suggested in the rock arrangements but the garden’s real purpose is similar to that of a Zen koan – one of those imponderable riddles calculated to judge a monk’s progress and shift his mind into another gear. Words are a hindrance on the path to enlightenment as we can see on the Ryoan-ji website where the garden is described: ‘The rock garden is one of the cultural heritages of which this time academy should boast and four big mysteries are kept secret in it. The mysterious one side that they cause one of factors to which original beauty is made to stand out further more. When you look at the rock garden while demystifying it an expression different from always might be shown.’

Got it? Me neither. But then I suspect the writer is trying to nudge us into perceiving this extraordinary creation more through sense and intuition rather than rational thought and with this aim I could not write it better myself. Nevertheless, it is apparent that much thought went into the design and structure of the Ryoan-ji garden not to mention the man-power involved in seeking and moving these rocks from the mountains when there were no roads or machines. The rocks are laid out in a way that not all of them can be seen from any one spot, although it is said that enlightenment will bring all into view. The larger rocks and groups of rocks are surrounded by a border of moss that softens their outline against the raked gravel and on two sides of the garden, a wall of pounded earth mixed with rape-seed oil has weathered through the centuries to reveal an abstraction of muted browns that mitigates the glare of the gravel in bright sunshine. Like so many of Kyoto gardens, Ryoan-ji looks best in the soft rain of the summer monsoon.

Another garden at its best in the rain is that of Saiho-ji Temple – also known as Kokedera (moss temple) located in the southeast of the city. You need permission to get inside (ask your hotel concierge) and you have to sit through a Buddhist ceremony for 20 minutes or so before you are allowed to wander around one of the most beautiful gardens imaginable – and it is definitely worth the effort. The rather large strolling garden is a dream of maple trees and moss that vary their colours with the humidity conditions and changing of the seasons. Strangely it was not meant to be so as records indicate that the garden originally was closer in Zen severity to the rock and gravel gardens seen elsewhere in the city. Hard financial times led to neglect, and together with damage caused by a couple of historic floods, moss and trees invaded and completely changed the garden’s appearance. The path meanders around a small lake shaped like the Chinese character for ‘heart’, in which are two or three small islands and, as in most Japanese strolling gardens, a flat-topped meditation stone can be found secluded in one of the best viewing positions.

While the best Zen gardens are to be seen in Kyoto, many large strolling gardens have survived throughout the country wherever there were old estates of war-lords and nobility and all are now open to the public. During Spring and Autumn many gardens have light-up events and extend their open hours into the night. That in the Kodai-ji Temple in West Kyoto is memorable for its reflecting pond so still that it is hard to distinguish reflection from reality. Gardens reward as they are ever changing, generating subtle moods and impressions just as we respond to them in different ways according to our own feelings and perceptions, and are surely one of the noblest of art forms.

BY MICHAEL DUNN