Japanese Gardens 101 - Part 3: Common Japanese Garden Elements
We conclude our garden discussion with a brief description of some of the common Japanese garden elements.
Waterfalls are used to indicate where water enters a pond, to highlight a scene or to provide a focus. The decorative use of rocks, another of the most lauded aspects of Japanese gardening, can be found in both pond and dry landscape gardens. Rocks are often used to help create waterfalls. The artful arrangements of upright stones may produce a dry tableau that resembles a waterfall (karetaki), or water may be forced over rocks to create the real thing. Stone bridges, white sand and pebbles are often placed in front of the dry stone waterfalls to symbolize a running stream.
Garden waterfalls can take various forms: straight plunges from on high, two or three-stepped cascades or streams rushing over rock beds. Water was revered as a purifying, life-giving form in ancient Japan, and mountain waterfalls were seen as the highest expression of purity and energy, and thus as spiritual entities. A surging waterfall in a garden can evoke the same feelings of otherworldly strength. Some waterfalls are designed to model the belief that a carp that can swim up a waterfall will turn into a dragon.
Ponds were created in a variety of shapes. Geometrical forms such as rectangles and circles were usually avoided, except in smaller, domestic gardens. The pond should look natural with an irregular shoreline. Rocks were often used to create a rugged coastline or pebbly beach. Whenever possible, ponds were fed by natural streams or springs, or by water that was piped in.
Ponds in Japanese gardens symbolize the ocean, and accordingly many gardens feature manmade peninsulas. It may be difficult to build an artificial island in the center of small garden ponds, so peninsulas were constructed instead. A peninsula adds a refined touch to a pond garden and makes it look larger than it really is. It can also add harmony and balance to a dry landscape garden, as when a peninsula of moss is set beside an ocean of white sand.
Rocks can be classified into three types: suisei-gan (sedimentary rocks), kasei-gan (igneous rocks) and hensei-gan (metamorphic rocks). Sedimentary rocks are usually smooth and round, and therefore are best suited for edges of ponds and stepping stones. Igneous rocks are usually rough in shape and texture, and are normally used for stepping stones, or to provide a highlight, such as a mountain. Because metamorphic rocks are very hard, they are often used around waterfalls and streams. Cut rocks (kiriishi) have become popular in modern times. Because they are often soft and easy to handle, sedimentary rocks are usually used for this purpose. Cut rocks are used for bridges, water basins and lanterns.
The size and shape of the rock is very important when selecting a rock for a garden. Rugged mountain peaks require large rocks with sharp, angular edges, whereas weathered hills require gentler shapes of water-worn rocks. Some compositions may call for rocks covered in lichens or mosses, in which case they must be collected and handled with care. In general, the Japanese prefer asymmetrical, natural-shaped rocks, and place more emphasis on integrating the rocks into the composition of the garden.
Rock Arrangements Symbolizing Eternal Life (Horai-iwagumi)
According to Shinsen thought, a mythical philosophy taught in ancient China, there is a land in the eastern ocean known as Horai where mountain hermits live in accordance with a philosophy of eternal life. Buddism propagated this belief and with the spread of Buddhism in Japan, dry landscapes or pond gardens with islands became increasingly popular as a symbol of popular longing for this mythical paradise.
Naka-jima, or islands in garden ponds symbolize islands in the ocean. Adding an island to a pond makes the landscape look more elegant and natural. Islands can also play an important role if the designer wishes to prevent the visitor from seeing the entire pond, another example of "hide-and-reveal". Naka-jima can be regarded as another aspect of the Shinsen thinking from ancient China, which proposed three mythical island utopias; Horai , Tsuru (Crane) and Kame (Turtle). Cranes and turtles are regarded as long lived creatures in Japanese culture, making them popular symbols of longevity in Japan. Islands vary considerably in size, depending on their role in the overall composition, and the size of the pond. Some islands are large enough to contain a hill with several trees, whereas some are only large enough for one or two rocks.
Bridges are important elements of Japanese garden design, not only for pond gardens, but for dry landscape gardens as well. Bridges may be made of wood, stone, earth, copper or many other materials, and their design is equally varied. A bridge may be a simple wooden span or one with handrails or a roof. Some bridges are flat, while others are curved or sharply arched. The type of garden often determines the bridge architecture. Steeply arched bridges in paradise gardens, for example, symbolize the desire of garden designers to span the ocean separating paradise.
Stepping Stones (Sawatobi-ishi)
Sawatobi-ishi are stepping stones placed in ponds and streams in strolling gardens. They are often added mainly for decorative effect however they can be used for walking as well. The most common way to arrange stepping stones is to use two different sizes if stone, but stones of varying sizes can be used. Stepping stones are also sometimes used on slight slopes, where they're arranged like steps in a stairway.
Paths are generally constructed of beaten earth that can be left plain or covered with sand or fine gravel, on top of which stepping stones can be placed. Irregular, flat stepping stones were used in the tea roji to guide the visitor to the tea house. Later stepping stones were introduced into other gardens. The most commonly used materials are slate, schist, flint and granite, left as natural slabs or shaped into more regular forms. In most gardens, stepping stones are of different sizes and are arranged in a variety of patterns.
Stone Pavements (Ishidatami)
Garden passages paved with intricately combined stones were exquisite expressions of early Japanese gardening techniques. Stone paths connected the many buildings in temple districts and were often a visual focus of tea gardens. In later years, particularly during the Edo period, influenced by tea ceremony aesthetics and Zen, stone pavements became even more refined.
Buddhist Trinity Stones (Sanzon Iwagumi)
According to the Sajutei-ki, a guide to gardening principles written during the Heian period, one of the main features of a proper garden should be the arrangement of one large, upright stone flanked by two smaller stones of varying sizes. This trinity has Buddhist overtones, since the three stones can be likened to images of the Buddha supported by two Bodhisattvas. Whether used for its religious overtones or not, however, this grouping of three stones is generally recognized as the most fundamental stone arrangement in Japanese gardens. There are two types of rock triads: a horizontal triad where the three rocks are arranged to form a triangle when viewed from above (hinbonseki) and a vertical triad where the rocks are arranged to form a triangle when viewed from the side (sanzanseki).
Ancient Japanese believed that all natural phenomenon were endowed with a spiritual force, and that huge rocks and mountain peaks were occupied by god-spirits that needed continuing homage, in the form of prayer and offerings, This animistic view of the world around them endured in the form of Shinto. Sand mounds or cones of sand in gardens are considered to be sacred sites where spirits live.
Sand Designs (Samon)
In dry landscape gardens, pristine white sand came to symbolize the ocean and the sand was manipulated to form ripples and other aquatic effects. Temple priests rake the sand into the form of big and small waves, tiny ripples, running water and scrollwork.
In creating sand patterns, the size of the sand grain is very important. If the grain is too small, it is easily disturbed by wind or rain. But if the grain is too large, it is difficult to rake. Color is also important. White sand carries connotations of purity and can be dazzling in the sunlight, while darker colors such as gray or brown are said to convey feelings of tranquility.
Curved Streams (Kyokusui)
A popular pastime among aristocrats of the Nara and Heian periods was to hold gatherings known as kyokusui-no-en. These drinking and poetry-writing festivities, based on Chinese practices, were always held on March third in the lunar calendar. Participants would sit by a curved stream and labor to compose traditional poems called tanka before a cup of sake floating downstream reached their spot. These narrow, pleasantly-meandering streams (yurimizu) became indispensable elements of the Heian period garden. The waterway was typically made to flow from the main house to a small pond.
Tools to Make Sound (Tensui)
The sound produced by using flowing water and a shishi-odoshi is intended to frighten away wild animals that have ventured into the garden. Water flows into a long bamboo tube set seesaw-style atop a wooden base. When the tube fills with water, the bottom automatically swings downward to empty the water. When it swings back up it strikes a large rock set on the ground for that purpose, making a loud, resinous sound. This not only scares off unwanted intruders, but its intermittent reverberation acts as a refreshing counterpoint to the tranquility of the garden, and emphasizes the importance of appealing to all five senses when designing a garden.
Stone lanterns were brought to Japan with the arrival of Buddhism from China. In the Nara period, they were incorporated into temple architecture as a type of votive offering to the main image of Buddha, and were placed in the front garden of a temple's main hall. Later they were adopted by Shinto shrines, becoming essential fixtures at both temples and shrines. The great Momoyama-era artist and tea master Sen-no-Rikyu was said to have first introduced stone lanterns to private gardens. He collected exquisite lanterns from deserted temples and shrines and installed them in tea gardens as a type of outdoor lighting. Soon stone lanterns became popular adornments for ordinary gardens. As in most things related to the tea ceremony, understatement was the key. So the number of lanterns was kept to a minimum. Other design concepts included planting a tree next to the lantern with one branch hanging over or in front of the lantern. Also, lanterns were often flanked by a composition of two or three rocks of lesser height.
Unlike the pagodas at temples, garden pagodas are small stone structures that have a purely decorative function. They were often placed next to streams and ponds so their images can be reflected in the water, or erected on artificial hills to provide a focal point.
Like pagodas, Buddhist statues normally have religious functions and meanings. Used in a secular garden, such statues may be the object of certain amount of reverence, but their function is basically decorative. While statues in the gardens of Buddhist temples are often made of bronze, stone statues tend to predominate in secular gardens.
Stone Water Basins (Chozu-bachi)
Chozu-bachi were originally placed for visitors to wash their hands and rinse their mouths before praying at temples and shrines and were later adopted for garden use. With the spread of the tea ceremony, a kind of stone water basin called a tsukubai became a common sight in tea gardens. A hole was chiseled into the stone to make a tsukubai bordered by three stones, one on either side of the basin and one in front. Stone water basins come in all sizes and shapes. Some of the more frequently seen include those that employ the stone's natural shape. Water is typically introduced to the basin through a bamboo pipe (kakei).
Waiting Areas (Machiai)
A machiai is an area where guests can sit and wait for the commencement of a tea ceremony. All tea gardens feature an eye-pleasing machiai, usually in the form of roofed benches. Tea garden designers take meticulous care to ensure that the machiai complements both the garden and the adjacent tea house.
Gardens are usually bound by fences or walls, and in Japan most fences are constructed of bamboo. Bamboo fences play an important aesthetic and functional role in Japanese gardens. They can be used in conjunction with trees, shrubs and hedges, to frame distant scenes and incorporate them into the garden. Fences can also be used to screen a view or to force visitors to look or move in a specific direction. Temples have created their own style of construction, earning each type its own name such as the Kennin-ji fence, Ginkakuji fence, etc.
Windows, Sliding Paper Doors
Kato windows shaped like candle flames and round windows are frequently found in Zen temples. Round windows with sliding paper doors behind them, especially designed for teahouses, were first introduced during the Edo period. When the doors were open, a circular segment of the garden could be seen from the inside of the teahouse, and the window served as a kind of picture frame, enhancing the visual effect. The scenery viewed through the window changed depending on how wide the doors were open.
Borrowed Scenery (Shakkei)
Shakkei which literally means "borrowed scenery" is one of the best known and highly regarded of Japanese gardening techniques. This approach allows one to incorporate natural elements outside the garden into the garden's visual landscape. Such elements as mountains, streams, seas and trees and buildings such as temples and pagodas are commonly "borrowed" by the landscapes, becoming a central visual theme of the garden and making the garden appear on a much greater scale than it is.
Trees and plants in a garden can either be cultivated naturally or trained to grow artificially. Trimming techniques can also be used to produce greenery that can hold its own as the main focus of a garden in the same way that rock arrangements are often the stars of a dry landscape garden. There is considerable variety in trimming effects. Wave trimming results in bushes that resemble large ocean waves, while trimming in tiers is often applied for borrowed scenery gardens. Pruning bushes to represent scenic mountain views is another popular garden technique.
Hills can be covered with grass or planted with trees. They were frequently constructed on islands to contrast with the flat pond or to hide part of the pond. Hills were also created as an elevated spot from which to view the garden.
Garden structures include pavilions, teahouses and small ornamental features such as water wheels. Pavilions are most commonly found in tea roji and larger stroll gardens. In tea roji, they are places where visitors can wait for the tea ceremony to begin. In stroll gardens, they are used as resting places. The latter type of pavilion usually has a good view of the surrounding scenery.