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Tradition and Innovation in Japanese Garden Design

Thoughts and notes from a lecture by Mark Bourne at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, California

Tradition is often understood to be the rigid preservation of historical habits and forms, especially in Japanese arts, where a high value is placed upon the continuity of the arts. However, many “traditions” that are now accepted as part of classical Japanese culture were innovations at some point in history. The way of Tea provides one particularly clear example — the beverage of green tea was introduced during the Muromachi period of Zen monks; prior to that, neither the tea plant nor the beverage of tea existed in Japan. During the Muromachi period, the culture surrounding the preparation and drinking of tea developed into a central element of Japanese culture, incorporating and organizing many arts into new forms.

If we accept that things which did not exist as part of a culture at one point in time are now accepted as part of the classical tradition of that culture, we must accept that there is a process by which ideas, actions and values can be incorporated into “tradition;” the opposing necessities of preservation and innovation are rarely equal, but they must be balanced.

Tradition is changing. Things that now are at the core of the Japanese garden were once not there at all. Therefore, tradition becomes more malleable and exciting.

Seen in this light tradition is not an anchor, but a rudder; or perhaps more precisely it is the accumulated wisdom of a culture, the way in which we create the future out of our own history. As such, tradition is constantly in flux.

Those of us brought up in the Occidental culture tend to look at Japanese gardens in contrast with Western-style gardens. However, when the Japanese look at Japanese gardens, they do so in contrast to other Japanese gardens.

The cultural differences are substantial between Japanese and Western gardens, and even between Chinese and Japanese gardens. The idea of Chinese gardens is something that you walk through, like a strolling garden. For this reason, Chinese and Western gardens have more in common with each other than with Japanese gardens.

Japanese gardens always exist in relation to architecture and vice versa. They are people’s view of the natural world and a stylized interpretation of what is beautiful in nature. The understanding of the stones is emphasized. The Japanese gardener creates a special median zone that partakes both of man, by virtue of its spatial design (about 30 percent), and of nature, by virtue of its materials — the land, stones and plants (about 70 percent).

In Japanese architecture the roof sits on posts, not on walls like in the Western world. Outside walls are freely sliding panels (shõji) that can be removed to integrate interior and exterior spaces, provide ready egress to the outside and allow one to sit in a room with an unobstructed view. For this reason the Japanese traditionally had no design for walking through the garden and designed a garden to be viewed from the building.

The drama of the stones and intensity of planting gives continuity to the Japanese garden. How the space relates to the natural world must be considered. It is understood and known in the abstract, and applied to the material world. Beauty adheres to real objects in Japan and arises from the characteristics of the material. The Japanese aesthetic believes that weathering or aging makes an object more beautiful because it is an accumulation of experience.

To prepare for their gardens, the Japanese either flatten the ground plain or build mountains. They almost never build the garden without ground plain preparation. They enclose the garden, often with a bamboo screen, a fence or a hedge, which represents the connection between the world inside and the world outside. There will be different heights of plants and different plants to add seasonal interest. The spacing and size of the objects within the garden give either a sense of motion or a sense of stability. There is, therefore, what may be called a tension, a dance or an energy relationship between the objects.

Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto is a pond-and-island garden that dates from Japan’s Kamakura period when it was owned by the powerful Saionji family. The best time to visit is in autumn, and after a snowfall in winter. The famous three-tiered Golden Pavilion, the focus of the garden, was destroyed by fire in 1950 and reconstructed in 1955. The larger the stones are, the more energy is in the stones. In the Kamakura period stones were still somewhat understated. They tended to behave more as a large aggregation of stones than as individual stones. Mirror Lake is one of the best ponds; if ever you visit this garden, ignore the building long enough to notice the pond, with its skillful placement of crags and islands. The pond’s main island is planted with pines and rimmed with stone compositions to be enjoyed while boating.

Also located in Kyoto is Ginkaku-ji, a paradise garden of the Muromachi period. It is particularly beautiful in autumn. As a companion piece to the Golden Pavilion at Kinkaku-ji, here there is a Silver Pavilion, the first example of Sholin style — a major change in Japanese architecture, at the introduction of tea to Japanese culture. The corresponding pond is much smaller. The temple was formerly the villa of a shogun and about 130 years later was the property of the shogunate who were losing political power, militarily threatened at the edges of their domain. Here we see a lot more stones, although the stonework is still reasonably muted. It’s breaking away from naturalism toward more abstract stonework. At Ginkaku-ji there is a sense of walking through the garden introduced for the first time, and a path climbs the hill behind to a spring. Here there are two ponds, one with more stones than the other, both planted all around with lotus blossoms. It also is noteworthy for a building behind the main hall that contains Japan’s first tea room.

At Entokuin, a Momoyama period garden, the stones are bigger and the shapes are more vigorous. Now we have the resources to pull a 40-ton stone bridge into the garden. There are technological advances that have a substantial impact on tradition. At the back of the garden there is an earthen berm. Here the stones are much more massive and relatively few.

Nijojo is an early Edo period castle across the street from the Imperial Palace. Not many Edo period (1615-1868) gardens remain. Here the garden is spread out and opened up; the garden fades into the background. There are lots of standing stones with an emphasis on the outline of the pond and standing stones to emphasize that outline. The gardener is working with a lot of individual stones. There are a lot of political statements in this garden and it has a militaristic feel.

Shokuho-en is a Meiji period garden in a private residence owned by wealthy and powerful people. It is more muted and understated. Stones play a supporting role like in the Muromachi style. Ogawa Jihei, renowned gardener of the villa Murin-an in Kyoto owned by Yamagata  Aritomo around the turn of the 20th century, used a large variety of plants different from what had been traditionally used up to that time. There was a shift in the use of Japanese gardens being like a slice of nature whole with parts of it edited. There is a massing of plants and an introduction of plants not historically common in Japanese gardens, such as fir trees. There is a lot of evidence that there was more emphasis on flowers in this garden than in the past.

Tradition has to change or it is irrelevant or dead. The challenge is to take the patterns of the past and make them relevant today. The Japanese garden offers opportunities to do interesting and exciting new things like:


♦ Employ different gates and designs of gates.
♦ Use stones of different shapes and sizes. Look at the natural world and their patterns, introducing the patterns of the Japanese garden into California gardens.
♦ Adapt the garden to local materials. Bamboo is weathered and usually gone in 2 to 3 years. The slight imperfections of the human hand are important to Japanese gardens. The garden merges into the natural world. Momoyama has vigor in the stonework.
♦ Take the patterns and techniques and change them slightly.

How does the form of the garden relate to the people who enjoy it? How was the garden used? Take what is beautiful in the natural world and bring that into the garden.

There is a tendency for Zen Temple gardens to be really unusual. They are meant to be viewed from a seated, stationary position.

Since the middle of the Muromachi Period (from the 14th to 16th century), the Japanese have liked the idea of the tea house being located in a deep rustic mountain retreat. However, the garden is not meant to be enjoyed while actually drinking tea. Having the garden there but not being able to enjoy it is essential to the tea ceremony experience in Japanese culture. The Japanese have a tendency to want just a certain amount, not more and more like Westerners do. Often we in the West mistakenly think that the Japanese culture can be summed up in the phrase, “less is more.” But this is incorrect. For the Japanese, “enough is enough.” There is the idea of satiation and being very reserved. One of the primary principles Sen Rikyu, the great master of chanoyu, teaches is Chisoku anbun, i.e. “learn to be content” or “be content with a way of life in proportion to your means.”

There is an ethereal, intellectual component in Japanese gardens. However, here in the West the culture in California comes into play. The landscape is more open. In Japan the garden is constructed in a smaller space that enables you to control different visual elements. The larger, more open-spaced garden is one of the biggest challenges to designing Japanese gardens here in California.