Japanese gardens – Moss, rocks and contemplating life
Today, we give you a new entry in our column ‘6 traditional forms of expression’. Let’s talk about Japanese gardens. These miracles of garden architecture can leave you breathless, help you overcome internal conflicts thanks to its beauty and spirituality, and, most importantly, transport you to another world. Join us in our adventure and find out what exactly makes a Japanese garden so special.
What exactly is a Japanese garden?
The idea of what later would become the Japanese garden was influenced by the Chinese gardens during the Asuka period in the early 7th century CE. During that time, Japan was trading with China and when the merchants came back from China, they had stories about these beautiful Chinese gardens. Some aristocrats were interested and decided to use these merchants to bring back gardening techniques and supplies. Of course, Japan already had its own gardens, gardens were already mentioned in historical texts in the Nihon Shoki (the second oldest book of Japan), but they were not that well-maintained or stylised. After the introduction of the Chinese garden, the Japanese people were inspired and throughout the centuries the different styles of Japanese gardens were created. At first, gardens were mostly made for the richer people. After the introduction of Buddhism in Japan, gardens were also installed at temples and new ways of expressing oneself were found in the creation of a garden.
Now, what exactly makes a Japanese garden different from a Western garden? The biggest difference is the thought that feeds the creation of a garden. In the west, gardens were mainly made for the visual entertainment and to let people see the beautiful flower arrangements. In Japan, gardens are built as a way to express oneself and they have certain spiritual and philosophical ideas that help create the different parts of a garden. In a way, architects always tried to show a natural setting to show respect for the land and the spirits that exist in these lands. Every rock, tree, flower or even fish, was carefully thought about before they were put into the garden and each and every one of them have a meaning for the person who made the garden. There are many styles of Japanese gardens, but one thing that is always present in a Japanese garden, is water. It can be in the form of a pond, a river, or even sand. In the typical rock garden, white sand is used to represent water. Water represents the flow of life and has a cleansing power. It’s important to note that water always has to enter the Japanese garden from the east or southeast and flow towards the west. The water flows from the home of the Green Dragon, the divinity of the east, towards the home of the White Tiger, the divinity of the west, and in that way makes sure that the garden will be healthy and have a long life.
Different styles for Japanese gardens
As we have mentioned before, there is a great variety of styles for Japanese gardens. In this part, we will tell you more about the most prominent ones in a historical order.
Pond gardens or chisen-shoyū-teien
Most of the first Japanese gardens were pond gardens or chisen-shoyū-teien. The idea was imported form China and as the name might say, the garden is built around a pond or lake. This type of garden is always built behind the main building of a house. This building has two wings that reach out to the garden so guests can observe the garden from two different viewing platforms. It was also possible to tour the garden by boat and enjoy the beautiful scenery and even musicians who were placed on small islands in the pond for special occasions. Sadly, this day only reconstructions of this type of garden still exist.
Courtyard gardens or tsubo-niwa
The courtyard garden or tsubo-niwa, are tiny gardens that were made in the courtyard of houses and palaces during the Heian period. The size was about one tsubo, or 3.3 square meters and they were made to show nature’s beauty and provide some privacy for the residents. Throughout history, these type of gardens were also made by merchants and citizens. However, these gardens were not meant to be entered but only to be viewed. These gardens were usually made with a stone lantern, a small water basin, some trees and, ironically, stepping stones. Today, you can find tsubo-niwa in many Japanese homes, restaurants or shops.
The Paradise gardens were inspired by the concept of the Pure Land, or Jōdo, where Buddha contemplated a lotus pond. In this form of Japanese garden, a lake with an artificial island is the main element. This island is called Nakajima, and was the home of the Buddha Hall. It was connected to the main land by an arching bridge. One of these gardens survived time and can still be visited, the garden of the Phoenix Hall of the Byōdō-in Temple in Uji. It was built in 1053 CE and it is one of the only remaining Paradise gardens in Japan.
Rock gardens or karesansui
During the 14th century CE, rock gardens or karesansui grew in popularity. As the name might tell you, these gardens are made with just rocks, sand and sometimes some moss. This form of Japanese garden was meant for meditation and you had to sit down on the porch in front of it to contemplate life. The most famous example of this form of garden is the garden at the Ryōan-ji Temple in Kyoto
Teahouse gardens or roji
Roji is the path towards a teahouse and during the 14th and 15th century CE, and it was made to make people connect to their spirituality as they walk to the teahouse that is in the middle of the garden. These gardens are always lusciously green and moist and the path through it is made to resemble a mountain path. The roji starts from a fence and winds through the garden until visitors reach the teahouse. There, they have to wash their hands and rinse their mouths before entering the teahouse.
Promenade gardens or kaiyū-shiki-teien
The last form of Japanese garden in this article is the promenade garden or the kaiyū-shiki-teien. This style was introduced in the 17th century CE and was mostly used in gardens around villas or palaces. Visitors had to walk clockwise on a winding path that was made around a lake. This path would take them to different sceneries that each had its own story. Some of these sceneries might even be miniaturisation of famous natural items, such as Mount Fuji. The promenade garden used two different techniques called shakkei, or borrowing of scenery, and miegakure, or hide-and-reveal. The first one means that the architect would use external natural elements as part of the garden. In this way, a mountain in the background could be used to emphasize the way a tree was shaped. Miegakure just means that the winding path is constantly hiding following sceneries from the visitor. In this way, visitors can only see a scenery when they enter it.
As you can see, a Japanese garden can mean more than meets the eye. Hopefully you can see a Japanese garden in a different way the next time you visit one. If you’re in Belgium and you want to visit a Japanese garden, we suggest you visit the Japanese garden in Hasselt. It’s the biggest Japanese garden in Europe and certainly is worth a visit.
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