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Cornucopia - The Japanese Way

The Japanese Way
Organoman

What a difference half a day makes - by which I mean 180° of longitude. And the difference is - don't say it with flowers, say it with stones! In the garden I mean, of course!!

It is thought that the craft of stonemasonry arrived in Japan along with Buddhism in the sixth century AD. So they have had a very long tradition of stone working, and if you couple that with the very rocky, mountainous terrain of that country, it is easy to understand that the Japanese are hugely sensitive to the statements that stone can make, whether worked or natural. Initially, stone-working was mainly for the foundations of temples and palaces, but as skills developed, stone lanterns, pagodas, and other religious imagery were produced. The lanterns were originally used to provide muted lighting around temples and palaces, but after several centuries, many temples fell into disuse and decay. This coincided with a massive rise in the popularity of tea culture, and the Japanese being always alert to recycling opportunities, the tea-masters of the day were quick to lay their hands on redundant stone lanterns and put them to good use as part of the ritual of the tea garden.

This ritual involved preparing guests for the tea ceremony itself, and required a cleansing of the heart and mind of all the stress and troubles of everyday life, and inducing a calm and contemplative mood before guests entered the teahouse. This was achieved by a symbolic washing of the hands and rinsing of the mouth with water provided by a stone basin, again often recycled, suitably located in the tea garden. Stone lanterns would be placed nearby to light the way if the tea ceremony was held at night.

In the early years, the tea-masters laid down very strict rules for tea gardens, decreeing that there should be no trees or shrubs, no ornamental stones, no ground cover of sand or gravel, as these were all deemed to be distractions from the contemplative mood the tea garden was supposed to instil. So there would be bare earth, which would often be muddy, and to avoid guests soiling their footwear, stepping stones formed an appropriate path to the tea house. Once again these would often be recycled, perhaps from the pillars or foundations of disused temples.

And so the preparation for the tea ceremony performed in the tea-garden called for the use of these three elements, the stone water basin, stone lantern, and stepping stones, and they became essential features of most if not all tea gardens. The whole process was intended to reflect the journey from city to a hermitage located in some remote mountain retreat. Bearing in mind the pressure on urban space, even in the middle ages, this imaginary journey had to be compressed into perhaps no more that an alleyway down the side of the house, allotted to the tea garden. Indeed, in 1477, Hannyabo Tessen, chief priest of the Ryoan-ji, wrote that “thirty thousand leagues should be suppressed into but a single foot”. This was perhaps a slight overstatement, but clearly demonstrated the problem.

As the centuries rolled by, the strict disciplines laid down by the early tea-masters were allowed to relax, and so aesthetics began to creep in, in the form of decorative stone arrangements and ornamental planting. With advances in technology the functional need for stepping stones and stone lanterns disappeared, while the rigours of the water basin ritual were also relaxed. So while the three original essential features remained, and still do to this day, in the courtyard gardens which succeeded the tea gardens, their purpose was now purely decorative and symbolic.

Other styles of Japanese gardens are not necessarily centred round the tea culture, but may nevertheless contain lanterns, water basins, and stepping stones. Additionally, they may contain ornamental arrangements of natural stones or rocks, often grouped in threes, sometimes symbolizing Buddhist triads. Many hours will be spent by garden designers in the careful selection and placement of such rocks to ensure that they look right and form a well-balanced asymmetric composition.

Planting in Japanese gardens is often restrained and may be based on the notion that it should add something to the statement that the composition is intended to make, otherwise leave it out. Planting should be naturalistic but at the same time in a controlled manner. In smaller gardens, this often leads to the close clipping of shrubs, particularly azaleas, into low bun shapes representing rocks or mountain ranges. Where space permits, larger shrubs may be grown, which will have the lower side branches and foliage removed to expose the main stems. Trees, especially pines, are given the cloud pruning treatment. The aim here is to develop trunk, branches, and ‘clouds’ of foliage in the shape and structure of a mature tree, but whereas a free-growing white pine may reach fifty or sixty feet, the pruning regime controls height to perhaps seven or eight feet. Nature copied, but in a controlled manner.

Water, bridges and gateways are also important. In dry gardens, water is often represented by raked white sand, but sand is also used to symbolize perfect purity, one of the ideals of Shinto religion, on the one hand, or the concept of nothingness, a tenet of Buddhist philosophy, on the other.

As you begin to see, there is a very long history and much deep philosophy, religious and otherwise, enshrined in Japanese garden design. This article has barely begun to scratch the surface.

First published in the Rutland Group Newsletter Spring/Summer 2008
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 25.
© Copyright for this article: Organoman

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2010. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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