Until this century,
traditional gardens in Japan were closed to the public. They were built
by the ruling elite and by monasteries as places for peaceful contemplation
and worship, places away from the maddening strife that marked much
of Japan's history. In their origins, the gardens may have represented
a utopia of ancient Chinese gods in a mythology brought to Japan in
the 6th century. Later they came to represent a paradise of Buddha.
Zen Buddhism, much modified by indigenous ideas, has shaped the character
of Japanese gardens since the 15th century. In garden design, the visible
patterns in the Western sense of forms, textures, and colors are less
important than the invisible philosophical, religious and symbolic elements.
Symbolism: The key elements are water, stones, and plants. From
ancient times, the Japanese as an island people had an affinity for
the sea. Water is crucial in garden design, not as a substance but as
a symbol of the sea. In a chisen style garden, a pond or lake occupies
the most significant portion. The presence of water is not even required;
in the dry karasansui gardens, patterns raked in gravel or sand express
the state of the sea.
A sea without islands is unthinkable and in designing islands in the
garden, the Japanese developed various concepts. One of the earliest
was that of a sacred place remote from ordinary human society; in the
form of an island of immortal happiness, this was called horaisan. Crane
and tortoise islands are especially auspicious because in Chinese mythology
the crane lives a thousand years and the tortoise ten thousand. Such
islands are inaccessible to human beings and no bridges are constructed
Groups of stones representing a rocky seashore may be arranged by the
edge of pool. Among the most orthodox styles of stone arrangement is
sanson; it consists of three upright stones, the largest in the center
representing the Buddha, the others two Bodhisattvas.
Plans are closely interwoven with the physical and spiritual life of
the Japanese people. Pines are major structural elements in their gardens;
being evergreen they express both long life and happiness. Japanese
red and black pines symbolize in an yo, the soft, static female forces
and the firm, dynamic male forces in the universe.
Esthetics: The complex esthetic values of traditional Japanese
gardens stem mainly from Zen Buddhism. Among Zen concepts expressed
in garden design are: asymmetry and a preference for the imperfect and
for odd numbers, naturalness and avoidance of the forced and artificial,
hiding a part of the whole to achieve profundity with mystery, the quality
of maturity and mellowness that comes with age and time, tranquility,
simplicity, and austerity.
The teahouse became a major element in gardens in the 16th century,
when the tea ceremony became another way of Zen. The path to the teahouse
was designed to be traversed slowly, giving participants a mood of tranquil