An introduction to gardening with a light touch

The garden, like any art form, has evolved over most of the world. As with other art forms, the garden has developed in many different directions. In England, where much of the American gardening heritage hails from, clipped lawns and formal rose gardens rule the day. Across the channel, France has given us the parterre and the allee, sure marks of man’s hand on the land. Even the Italian villa lays out its paths and beds in formal, straight lines. The Western view, indeed the scope of civilization’s progress in the Western Hemisphere, has been the story of man’s domination over nature, bending it to suit his own needs and desires. It is therefore natural that our gardening traditions reflect this paradigm.

The Eastern philosophies see nature in an entirely different light. Nature was viewed as an ally in putting food on the table, and revered as the ideal of beauty. It was not something to be subjugated. Instead of imposing a man-made ideal of beauty on the landscape, nature was synthesized in miniature in the garden. This philosophy of gardening reached its height in ancient Japan. Borrowing heavily from the Chinese model, the Japanese distilled a form of gardening that reflected (and defined) their own culture. What had simply been a place to enjoy a sunny day now became not only a place for deep reflection, but also the seat of cultural refinement for thousands of years.

In the Japanese garden, one can find the key to the soul of its people. From the carefully washed and swept path of the tea garden, to the veiled view of a pine tree glimpsed through the opening in a sleeve fence, the psyche of this ancient culture reveals itself. Koko, the veneration of timeless age, shizen, or the avoidance of the artificial, and yugen, or darkness (implying the mysterious or subtle), best revealed by miegakure, or the avoidance of full expression; all these are to be found in the lowliest Japanese garden. Perhaps in coming to understand the art of gardening, we can gain understanding of its people and a deeper appreciation of the world around us.

From China to Japan

As previously noted, the garden as we know it came to Japan from China. During the Han Dynasty, the emperor Wu Di (140-87 BC) established a garden containing three small islands, mimicking the Isles of the Immortals, who were the principle Taoist deities. These gardens of lakes and mountains became the standard of the day, always representing (in abstract) the fabled lands of legend. There was no effort made to approximate nature; it was stylized into something otherworldly. In 607AD, the emperor Yang Di opened relations with Japan, and received the first envoy, Ono no Imoko, at his lavish park. Imoko returned to Japan with many ideas (including Buddhism), and four years after his return, the first hill and pond garden was established in Japan.

Asuka era- The Shinto Tradition

This is not to say that gardens were unheard of in Japan up to this point. The Shinto religion followed a deification of nature, down to the worship of particularly beautiful rocks or trees. The area around them was cleared, and the rock or tree was bound with a rice straw rope, or shimenawa, announcing the area as a holy site where man and nature could commune. This area was known as a niwa, a word that can also denote a cultivated field, which shows the close ties the Japanese people hold with the land. These niwa were the gardens of the first half of the Asuka period (552-646AD). The Chinese model dominated the latter half.

Nara era – Blending of traditions

During the Nara era (646-794AD) there was a blending of Chinese and Japanese thought. We find the first use of the word niwa to denote the more formalized Chinese style garden in a work of this period. The architecture of the period, a style known as shinden, used walkways between buildings. These walkways were accompanied by simple gardens of stones and plants that complimented the buildings (usually temple complexes or royal palaces). This period also saw the introduction of the shumisen, a Buddhist representation of the center of the universe with a large central mountain stone as the dwelling place of the Buddha, surrounded by lesser stones for his disciples.

Heian era – The Rise of Opulence

The Heian era (794-1185AD) was a period of luxury and elegance in Japan. The gardens became more opulent and complex, and served as playgrounds for the rich and famous. Any well-cultured aristocrat was expected to be versed in the design of gardens, and garden viewing or boating in the garden pond was the preferred pastime of the day.

It is in this period that we find the Sakuteiki, or Book of Garden. Written by Tachibana no Toshitsuna, this work is the true starting point of Japanese gardening. Chinese gardening, indeed much of Chinese life, was ruled by the laws of feng shui, or geomancy. These rules only allowed for gardens in specific places (a river to the east, a mountain to the north, etc.). The Sakuteiki gave remedies to some of these problems (e.g., three willows could be planted to the east in place of the river). In effect, this gardening manual freed the designers of the period from the last constraints of Chinese thinking. The Sakuteiki also stressed stone placement as the primary concern of the designer, a further change from the previous model.

Kamakura era – The Garden as a Place for Reflection

As we enter the Kamakura era (1185-1392), we see another profound change to garden design. As the new shogun and his samurai began to embrace Zen as their religion, the garden transformed from a place of recreation to one of contemplation. In keeping with the more religious tones of the garden, the new garden designers were not aristocracy, but priests.

Muso Soseki (1275-1351) was the leading designer of the time. His gardens were the first to incorporate some of the major design changes of the day. Instead of being viewed from a building or boat, Soseki brought the viewer out into the garden to contemplate the changing views as one moved through the landscape. Some of the integral concepts of Japanese garden design (borrowed scenery and hide and reveal) are directly attributable to Soseki.

Rise of the Zen Influence

The Muromachi era (1393-1558) was a time of great unrest in Japan, marred by civil war. Suprisingly, it is also noted as period of great culture with the development of Noh theater, landscape painting, and the cha no yu, or tea ceremony. The birth of a merchant, or middle class, also led to tsuboniwa, or courtyard gardens that fit inside the smaller, less ornate homes. The increasing influence of Zen is clearly seen in the arrival of the karesansui, or dry landscape style.

The Momoyama era (1569-1603) is sometimes referred to as the ‘rococo’ era of Japanese history. Gardens became even more elaborate, with cut stone beginning to appear in pathways and bridges. This led to a backlash at the end of this era.

As the tea ceremony became more important to Japanese culture, Sen no Rikyu (the leading tea master in Japan) started a movement towards a more rustic style of ceremony, decrying lavish ornamentation in favor of implements that might be found in the meanest peasant hut. His tea garden followed this line of thinking, and simple, unpretentious gardens became the new hallmark of good taste. Another famous tea master of the period, Kobori Enshu, began to design gardens professionally breaking the tradition of the ‘stone setting priests’.

Gardening goes Mainstream

As Japan moved into the Edo period (1603-1867), professional gardeners became more prevalent, catering to a burgeoning middle class. Many of these designers were of lower classes and the social fabric began to change as former peasants rubbed elbows with the high and mighty. This period is not really known for any particular style, as the gardens became products of a client’s whim rather than any prevailing design. Most of the styles previously discussed can be found in the gardens constructed in this period. Towards the end of the era the isolation that had shielded Japan for centuries came to an end, and outside influences began to find their way into the Japanese society marking the close of the traditional garden.