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    Japanese Gardens in the United States Essay

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    The role of gardens play a much more important role in Japan than here in the United States. This is due primarily to the fact the Japanese garden embodies native values, cultural beliefs and religious principles. Perhaps this is why there is no one prototype for the Japanese garden, just as there is no one native philosophy or aesthetic. In this way, similar to other forms of Japanese art, landscape design is constantly evolving due to exposure to outside influences, mainly Chinese, that effect not only changing aesthetic tastes but also the values of patrons.

    In observing a Japanese garden, it is important to remember that the line between the garden and the landscape that surrounds it is not separate. Instead, the two are forever merged, serving as the total embodiment of the one another. Every aspect of the landscape is in itself a garden. Also when observing the garden, the visitor is not supposed to distinguish the garden from its architecture. Gardens in Japan incorporate both natural and artificial elements, therefor uniting nature and architecture into one entity.

    Japanese gardens also express the ultimate connection between humankind and nature, for these gardens are not only decorative, but are a clear expression of Japanese culture. Although this extremely close connection of the individual with nature, the basic principle of Japanese gardens, has remained the constant throughout its history, the ways in which this principle has come to be expressed has undergone many great changes. Perhaps the most notable occurred in the very distinct periods in Japanese history that popularized unique forms of garden style—Heian 781-1185, and the Kamakura 1186-1393.

    Resulting from these two golden ages of Japanese history came the stroll garden from the former period and the Zen garden from the later. As we shall see, the composition of these gardens where remarkably effected by the norms of architecture and the ideals of popular religion in these eras. Therefor, in understanding each garden style in its context, it essential to also take into account the social, historical, and theological elements as well as the main stylist differences. Japanese aristocrats from at least mid-eighth century customarily had gardens near their homes.

    During the Heian period a somewhat standard type of garden evolved in accordance with the Shinden type of courtier mansion Bring and Wayembergh, p. 28-29. Characteristic of the Heian period was its extremely rigid class stratification; life for the farmers, merchants and artisans consisted of very simplified dwellings in comparison to those of members of the aristocracy. The architecture “norm” for aristocratic homes was in the Shinden-zurkuri style, “which was clearly based on the principle that the individual parts of the building should be merged as much as possible into the garden” Yoshida, p. 2. The main building, named the Shinden, represented the area reserved for the master himself, and always opened up to the south side of the garden.

    There were corridors, or tai-no-ya, connecting the Shinden to the rest of the buildings in the complex. There corridors created an enclosure which is where a lake would be placed and where the stroll garden was erected. Kinkakuji, also known as the Golden Pavilion 1394, serves as an example of this Shinden type. The site in northern Kyoto was developed as a large retirement estate by Ashikaga Yoshimitsu 1358-1409 beginning in 1394.

    The pavilion itself was sited the edge of a sprawling palace complex that no longer exists today. This was intended as proof that the warrior shogunate could contribute to the cultural and aesthetic life of the land to an extent equal to that of the imperial aristocracy. It has been recorded that the actual emperor of Japan visited Kinkakuji in 1408, the first time an emperor had ever stayed with a person that was not a member of the imperial court. The shogun died the year after. After his death the palace was turned over to the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism and it has remained under its control ever since.

    The Golden Pavilion is a three-story viewing and pleasure pavilion constructed on the edge of a pons as the focal point to a much larger garden on the grounds of the Rokuoni Temple. The pavilion itself is based on the Chinese Sung style, though each floor has a somewhat different aesthetic. The first floor was used as a reception room for the guests and as boarding site for pleasure boating around the small pond. The second story was for more private parties with an outstanding view of the garden. The third floor was an intimate space for meeting with confidantes and holding tea ceremony.

    Originally, only the ceiling of the pavilion’s third floor was guild in gold hence its name, but in 1950 it was burned down by a student monk Hayakawa, p. 18. A replica was quickly rebuilt in its place and is the example that contemporary visitors see. Equally important to the Shinden as its architecture was the garden itself. Another complex that contained a stroll garden is referred to as the temple garden. The grounds surrounding the pavilion lie on four and a half acres, but the use of landscape elements make its apparent size much bigger. The foreground is filled with small scale rocks and plantings.

    The more distant elements blend into the background, visually extending the garden. Mt. Kinugasa rises in the background. Meanwhile, the shoreline of lake rolls back and forth, hiding the true size of the small pond and making it appear as much larger than it truly is Ito, p. 93-98. “The introduction of a new form of Buddhism, and the symbolism of water color painting from southern China, had a direct influence on garden design” Yoshida, p. 14. This new religion, Pure Land Buddhism, was having an increasingly influential effect during the Heian period. The garden was seen as a place where beautiful pavilions stood among large ponds full of lotus flowers.

    The idea of paradise was central to the whole sect…[also] the emphasis was on immortality in this paradise and the longevity of life” Davidson, p. 21. The garden of Kinkakuji is an example of this new fusion. The stroll garden is a re-creation of a Western paradise with rock gardens created under the Zen spirit. There is nothing random about the layout of the garden of the Golden Pavilion. Every aspect has been preconceived and purposely manipulated.

    Kinkakuji is park-like in size, maintaining traditional elements such as islands, bridges, and paths. All of these elements, tough decorative, hold symbolic meanings. The islands “represent a symbol of longevity and continuing health…and the focal points for a pond” Davidson, p. 36. The bridges have practical functions such as connecting islands together, though the also have a special function of creating “alternative viewpoints that may not otherwise exist” Davidson, p. 37. In addition there were paths laid-out leading the viewer to numerous points of worship.

    This element clearly demonstrates how the garden of Kinkakuji is a combination of both a Heian stroll garden and the Zen aesthetic. The paths and the miniature rocks representing mountains in China fond along these paths were placed strategically to guide the viewer along a predetermined stroll, allowing the individual to experience orchestrated vistas. The Kamakura period experienced an increase in the popularization of Zen Buddhism, this was the religion of choice for the shogun or Samurai class. The shogun appreciated the strict precision of Zen culture in addition to its simplicity and refinement.

    These ideals led to the Zen garden. These gardens served a completely different purpose than their earlier counterparts. “There was a shift back to an emphasis on looking rather than using. These gardens were used specifically as aids to a deeper understanding of Zen concepts…these gardens were not an end in themselves…but a trigger to contemplation and meditation” Davidson, p. 22. Unlike the Golden Pavilion, the Zen gardens were not meant for viewers to physically interact with, but instead as visual stimulus in the meditative process—a spiritual aid.

    Ryoanji, at the Daiju-in Temple in Kyoto 1488-1499 is one of the most famous and celebrated gardens in Japan and is an example of the Zen aesthetic. Simply composed of stone and sand, it serve as a subtle and yet effective example of the dry garden type, or karesansui. The garden consists of a flat, rectangular surface measuring thirty by seventy-eight feet. It is located on the south side of the temple. On its north side is located the long verandah where the visitors appreciate the garden. To its east, the garden is bounded by a thin low wall.

    One the southern and western side, a low wall with thatched roof tile surrounds the rock garden. The wall, originally white in color has turned into a rusty earthy color, blending well with the rest of the garden. The garden itself is composed of fifteen stones in five groups, lying on white raked sand Kincaid, p. 66-73. As illustrated above, the arrangement of the rocks leads the viewer’s eye from left to right. The biggest rock makes the group of three in the left. As the big rock slopes to the right, it leads the viewer’s eye to the same direction.

    The group of five in the back lies low to elongate the horizon of the viewer, and incorporate the wall as the dominating horizon in the garden view. In addition, this group of five serves as the counter-balance to the sweeping rightward movement, as it leans to the left. The viewer’s eyes then meet a second group of five on the right, which continues the composition leading it to the right. Finally, the group of two in front copies the movement of the group of five, finisheing the complete movemnt in this garden Ito, 19.

    The result is an asymmetric composition which achieves a certain balance. Rhythm is achieved in the composition of the garden by arranging the stones in different alternating heights, creating a sense of movement for the eye. One can realize the importance of harmony and design of the garden as each stone is carefully placed in their own positions. Each factor—position, height, and color—is taken into account to create an environment of harmony. The use of the dry garden has had a long history in Japan.

    During the medieval ages, the Japanese began to experiment in unique and abstract ways with the use of rocks, while still keeping such traditional features such as the pond, stream, and artificial island. From this point on, rocks of various shapes and sizes where increasingly used to represent both natural formations and man-made ones, including mountains, cliffs, waterfalls, and bridges. Also, sand and white pebbles were used as “water” and therefor, in some of these old gardens, the pond was eliminated, which had been the central focus of Japanese gardens for centuries Kincaid, p. 22-23.

    In contrast to Kinkakuji, the garden of Ryoanji’s function is purely meditative. Unlike the Golden Pavilion, there is a designated area for viewers to sit and contemplate the scene before them. In understanding this garden’s function one must realize that it “relies on understatement, simplicity, suggestion and implication…leaving room for the imagination by providing a starting point” Davidson, p. 23. The design of this dry-rock garden stands in stark contrast to the elaborate gardens of the Heian period; no longer do we see an complex landscape complete with lake, winding paths, bridges, islands, trees and plants.

    This idea of rigid simplicity, not focusing on elements of elaborately constructed vistas, but on elements meant to symbolize these landscapes. The elements used to create this Zen garden are “simple abstractions of nature” Kincaid, p. 65. The rocks play an essential role in the design of this garden, while maintain two functions. “They have an intrinsic beauty of their own, and one the other hand, can represent something altogether larger and more universal” Davidson, p. 38. These rocks are used to symbolize religious meanings, and also to portray larger structures such as mountains.

    These rock formations can also represent islands, while the bed of gravel is seen as a body of water. Yet one must also note that this is merely just one interpretation of the garden’s meaning and perhaps the most widely accepted. Another element of this rock garden is the wall that lines one side. It is very old and weathered over time. The use of this wall to finish this Zen garden compliments it by bringing in one of the three key Zen aesthetics—wabi. Wabi refers to the poverty or rusticness; a preference for the old and worn.

    According to wabi, value is determined in what is wathered by time as opposed to the new and untouched. The use of this wall in completion of the garden was perhaps a conscious attempt by its creatures to instill one of the most important aspects of Zen thought. Both the Heian stroll garden of Kinkakuji and the Zen garden of Ryoanji express very different fundamentals in the art of garden design. Whereas the former relies on synthesized naturalism for religious significance, the latter uses abstraction and representation to achieve spirituality.

    In addition, the viewers actual physical relationship between the two gardens is fundamentally different. While the Shinden stroll garden invites the viewer to take an active physical role in the garden, walking along its winding paths and boating along the shores of its lake, the viewer of the Zen garden is physically removed from the actual garden; restricted to observing it from a specific verandah. Likewise, the architectual structures of the Heian stroll garden are completely integrated into the actual garden itself.

    The Zen garden, on the other hand, the architecture single temple serves as a mere background for the garden and not part of the whole composition. Despite these differences in presentation, design, and the relationships between the garden, viewer, and the architecture, the general goal of both garden types are inherently the same. In the Japanese tradition, these gardens are meant to function as aids in understanding in one form or another. In addition, both demonstrate the emphasis on the relationship between humankind and nature—perhaps one of the most important elements of Japanese art and architecture.

    This essay was written by a fellow student. You may use it as a guide or sample for writing your own paper, but remember to cite it correctly. Don’t submit it as your own as it will be considered plagiarism.

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    Japanese Gardens in the United States Essay. (2018, May 11). Retrieved from

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