The art of gardens in Japan, or the originality of a tradition


Wednesday April 2, 2014: conference The art of gardens in Japan, or the originality of a tradition by Antoine Gournay, Professor of History of Art and Archeology of the Far East, University Paris-Sorbonne.

It is interesting to examine the gardens of Japan in the light of its distant Chinese origins and to see how the Japanese not only adapted this traditional art to their country but also gave it an entirely new interpretation.
Arousing belatedly the interest of Europe, Japanese gardens seem to be better known than the traditional Chinese gardens from which they originate despite the latter's greater age.
It was in fact only from the Meiji era (1868-1912), that is to say the end of the XNUMXth century, that Japanese gardens created a fashion due to the development of contacts between the Western world and the Japanese world.
Infused with Chinese culture and its poetry that sang and commented on the beauty of the early flowering of a variety of prunus appreciated for its flowers and the subtlety of their fragrance (prunus mume), the Japanese became interested in other varieties. . It is in this spirit that the custom has developed to appreciate the beauty of flowers and particularly that of cherry blossoms, the most appreciated moment being the appearance of the first flowers.

 The oldest known work on gardens is the Sakuteiki (Garden design book). Written in the XNUMXth century by a monk, Tachibana no Toshitsuna for amateurs and designers, this book deals with the aesthetic design of gardens and other open spaces according to the architectural style developed in the environment of aristocratic properties called shinden. The central design elements are rocks, water and trees and, among them, bonsai (trees cultivated in their dwarf form), arranged near the rocks in such a way as to recreate a landscape, also have their origin in China. Tang.
However, the Japanese have emancipated themselves from their Chinese neighbors, as Sakuteiki, by introducing the sea into their landscapes, as it can be seen in the famous bay of Matsushima with its pine-covered islands.
These sites served as references as much as the Chinese bookish tradition to the creation of Japanese gardens. In the garden of the imperial villa Katsura (Kyoto) created in the seventeenth century a landscape near Matsushima was summed up with the help of small pine-covered islands in the middle of a pond.
The aristocracy that lived in the imperial capital had gardens that fit into the architectural and urban environment. Nishi Honganji Temple (Kyoto) occupies a large quadrilateral with gardens where ponds have been dug and where land has been used to raise mounds and create a varied miniature landscape. Thus, as in China or Korea, gardens are embedded in the architectural environment.
The illustrations of Gengi Monogatari often refer to the way gardens complement homes. Some small gardens are laid out in the courtyards and, individualized, they are supposed to reflect the personality of the one who lives there.

14.04.29.Gengi Monogatari-Ch5_wakamurasaki 14.05.07-Sento Gocho-Seika-tei with pebble beach 14.05.07-Ginkakuji_2012

Gengi Monogatari-Ch.5-wakamurasaki.
17th century Burke albums sheet.

Sento Gocho - The pebble beach. Kyoto.

Ginkaku-ji. Kyoto.

If there is practically nothing left of the great classical period of Japan that was the Heian era (794-1185), the temple Byodo-in survived. This temple, originally an aristocratic villa belonging to the Fujiwara no Michinaga regent, was transformed into a temple in 1052 by his son Fujiwara no Yorimichi. The Phoenix Pavilion, built in 1053, is the only miraculously preserved building of the Fujiwara era. It houses a colossal statue of Buddha Amida, which contemplates with an opening the pond in front of the pavilion (evocation of the Paradise of the West where souls are supposed to be reborn in lotus flowers).
The Sento Gocho, a beautiful garden that is part of the Kyoto Imperial Palace, has a pond dotted with islands that can be reached by bridges, and on the shore, there is a replica of what would be a pebble beach to evoke on a miniaturized scale the bay of Matsushima, this inside a pen in the heart of the city.
The principle of combining an architectural element and landscaping is central.
The famous Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji), built from 1397, under the Muromachi era (1336-1573), is all that remains of the villa built in Kyoto by the third shogun Ashikaga when he retired power. It is made to be contemplated from a specific place and is in itself a spectacle, but it is also a belvedere from which one can discover the garden. The Silver Pavilion (Ginkaku-ji) was set up by shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa in 1482 and had to compete with his grandfather's Golden Pavilion, but he was never covered with money because of the Onin war. This building, which should have been ostentatious, is now considered a model of refinement in simplicity. The pavilion provides the main stage of the garden, but it is also the place where you can discover different rooms and seated positions with different views of the surrounding nature.

14.05.07-Tenryu ji-Dry cascade 14.05.07-Daisen-in2  14.05.07-ryoanji-Dry_garden

Tenryu-ji - Dry waterfall. Tokyo

Daisen-in. Tokyo

Ryoan-Ji - Dry garden. Kyoto

This principle was particularly developed from the 13th century with the development of temple architecture zen. The most beautiful temple zen, east of Kyoto, the Tenryu-ji, founded in 1345 by shogun Takauji Ashikaga is remarkable for its garden where a great master of the gardens intervened zen, the monk Musō Soseki, to whom we owe a large part of the innovations. This master was an expert in the art of gardens, but particularly in the art of arranging rocks. In front of the main building, on the other side of the pond, we can see a "dry waterfall" made up of rocks arranged to evoke a waterfall such as it could meet in the mountain. This garden is designed to be viewed from the main room of the abbot's residence but also includes developments that allowed some monks to retire to meditate. Saihō-ji or Koke-dera (Kyoto) temple is famous for its unique moss garden. Here too, Musō Soseki would have intervened and he is credited with piles of stones in the undergrowth that have been admired and commented on in Japanese literature relating to gardens. This evocation of wild nature is done without water and this idea will lead to Zen gardens which are centered on rocks. The Daisen-in Garden (Kyoto), an outbuilding of the Great Daitoku-ji Temple, was created as a three-dimensional representation of the monochrome paintings of the Song period and is an archetype of style gardens karesansui, that is, dry gardens. Indeed, the movements of the water are represented by raked gravel or by stones and we deliberately let mosses grow there. Thus, in a very small space, the evocation of high mountains, a waterfall and a rushing river is recreated using stone, gravel and a few plants.
At the time Muromachi (1336-1573), the shoin (place of study) appears in the residence of the abbots of the Zen temples and will be transposed in the aristocratic residences. This room can open to the outside when the sliding walls are pulled out and thus allow the contemplation of the gardens which are its extension.
As in painting zen inherited from Chinese literary painting where we try to create the maximum effect with a minimum of resources, we give in the gardens an impression of immensity with the help of some rocks and raked gravel (which can evoke the islands Taoist Immortals or an Ocean). This custom of raking gravel is ancient in Japan and in shrines Shinto it is usual to see the buildings surrounded by white gravel surfaces to evoke the purity of the place.
Among the most famous Japanese gardens, the Zen Garden of Ryoān-ji (Kyoto) Temple is the most famous. The design of this garden dates back to the 16th century. It is a dry garden (karesansui) where the mineral is omnipresent and the water is absent, but the skilfully arranged rocks are home to mosses and small plants. Beyond the wall, we can see today foliage that did not exist at the time of creation. The effect produced by this garden is calculated to be seen sitting from the elevated veranda (Hojo) opening on the main room. The skilful use of rocks arranged in Japanese gardens is also a reminiscence of Chinese culture.
The aesthetics of Zen gardens certainly influenced the whole garden design in Japan: cultivating plants in small courtyards and creating places where one could isolate oneself for meditation. This has been transposed into the aesthetics of tea for which we have created a particular architecture and gardens chaniwa at the time Momoyama (1568-1600). Tea pavilions are generally accessed through a "dew path" (roji, allusion to a sutra speaking of such a path where one is reborn after escaping material desires), hence the other name given to these gardens rojiniwa. Tea pavilions are a secular transposition of a religious concept, a place where one can withdraw to understand the true nature of things.

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Ancient Shoin - Imperial Villa of Katsura. Kyoto

Shisendo. Kyoto

Kiyosomi Kôen Gardens - not Japanese. Tokyo

 In the Katsura (Kyoto) villa, the former Shoin has a room open to the gardens that also includes a bamboo platform to contemplate the moon. The garden is not only a haven for architecture but it is intimately combined with it. In this garden of Katsura, a route that leads to different tea pavilions has been created.
The other imperial villa Shugaku-in, east of Kyoto, is also famous for its very large gardens: the lower garden houses a villa, the middle garden has two buildings as well as waterfalls, a pond and stone bridges. , the spectacular upper garden includes a pavilion from which you can see the entire property and the surrounding hills as well as a waterfall and a pond. By moving from one point to another one discovers a whole program of successive views. This garden combines the style of the contemplation garden with the “walk around the pond style”.
Another famous garden in Kyoto is the Shisendo Temple built in 1641 by Ishikawa Jōzan, a disgraced samurai who withdraws there. From the main room, the view is of a landscape made of cut azalea bushes and decorated with a stone stupa.
With the Edo period (1600-1868) the architecture of the great castles developed and on adjacent land gardens were set up with ponds and tea pavilions as in Okayama Castle. These gardens can also be of the “walk around the pond style”. At Ritsurin-kôen (Takamatsu) a building is built above the pond to benefit from the view on three sides but a route is planned to discover the varied landscapes. The Kiyosomi kôen (Tokyo) was laid out during the Meiji era from 1878 to 1885 according to classical principles, by the transport financier and industrialist, Iwasaki Yataro. There is a passage made of flat stones ("flying stones" also called in the West "not Japanese") arranged so that we can stop at certain places to contemplate the landscape. These gardens mix the different styles inherited from the past and are often more complex with a richer decor (statues, stone lanterns, pagodas, etc.). It is not uncommon to see tiny gardens in the city where we find the different elements (rock, mosses, lantern, etc.) which are sufficient to reconstitute a small universe.


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