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Historical Gardens

Explore the hidden waterfall in the Romantic Garden and marvel at the fact that it has only been in existence since 2001, as it appears to have been there for centuries.

Here in Roji-en, designer Hoichi Kurisu has sought to create a garden complex for the new millennium. Its six distinct gardens are inspired by, but are not replicas of, famous gardens of Japan. Kurisu has created a unique garden conceived and constructed in the spirit of the masters. Discover each of the six historical gardens.

flat garden
late rock garden
lake view


(Heian Period, c. 9th – 12th centuries)

The Japanese nobility adapted Chinese garden design ideals that featured lakes and islands, emphasizing informality and appreciation of nature. Such gardens were usually viewed from a boat. Side-by-side and zigzag bridges carry us over the water.

IN JAPAN, gardens of this type once occupied the estates of the nobility in and around the capital city of Heian-kyo (Kyoto). The principal feature of such gardens, a large pond, lay adjacent to a residential complex called a shinden, which consisted of a number of buildings connected by open roofed corridors. A brook feeding the pond meandered through the shinden complex passing beneath the raised floors of the open corridors. Usually one such corridor also led to a kiosk built out over the water.

Such gardens were frankly sensory in their appeal, pleasurable environments to serve as backdrops for the elegant amusements of the Heian nobility such as impromptu exchanges of poetry. Access to the garden was principally by boat; Heian dress, at least for women, did not facilitate strolling out-of-doors.

No examples of shinden-style gardens exist intact today; our knowledge of them derives from the vestiges of a few remaining ponds, hand scrolls painted near the end of the period, descriptions in literature such as The Tale of Genji, and an early treatise on garden design, Sakuteiki, written in the 11th century.

AT MORIKAMI, two landscaped islands situated in the lake around which The Morikami’s gardens are laid out represent the shinden-style garden. The islands are reached by a stately arched bridge similar to those often painted vermillion in Japan after models originating in T’ang Dynasty China (618 – c. 907). Shinden ponds in Japan usually featured similar islands, one of which would have been reached by such a bridge. Other islands may have been connected by low, level bridges, a precedent also followed here.

From the islands a view to the northeast reveals a waterfall feeding the lake. Shinden lakes were similarly fed by a cascade originating in the northeast corner of the estate; here moved to the lake shore since no shinden actually exists. Between the waterfall and the lake a small bridge crosses the brook, a detail which characters from The Tale of Genji would surely recognize.

The word shinden can carry other meanings, apart from that of a residence of the Heian nobility, when written with different characters. One meaning is “god’s place.” According to the garden designer, the word’s spiritual connotations also enter into his conception of the island gardens. They represent a symbolic transition where worldly concerns are left behind, where visitors might begin to sense the spirituality of nature as distilled and interpreted in the Japanese garden.

(Kamakura and early Muromachi Periods, 13th – 14th centuries)

An earthly representation of the Pure Land, or Buddhist heaven. Such gardens were the first intended for strolling.

IN JAPAN, the paradise garden developed from about the 12th century out of a newly acquired faith in Amida Nyorai, the Buddha who presides over a heaven-like realm beyond the western horizon called the Pure Land (Jodo). The breakdown of civil order, which threatened the security of life among the Heian court nobility, and a preoccupation with mappo, the pre-ordained collapse of Buddhist law, fostered widespread belief in the salvation promised by this compassionate deity.

Paradise gardens were created at temples of the new faith as a means of visualizing Amida’s western paradise, the Pure Land, here on earth. Such gardens took many forms, some very similar in appearance to the secular shinden gardens which preceded them, although they were laid out adjacent to temple buildings housing images of Amida rather than aristocratic residences. The shared notion guiding the design of all such gardens was that they were to provide solace and hope for people jeopardized by uncertainty in their everyday lives.

AT MORIKAMI, the designer draws inspiration from a type of paradise garden that for the first time featured paths for strolling the perimeter of the garden lake or pond. Paths led from vantage point to vantage point from which changing scenery could be viewed. Such gardens were not built for the lifestyle of the Heian nobility but for the men and women of the newly arisen samurai class whose manner of attire allowed them greater freedom out-of-doors. Garden paths typically led to a pavilion overlooking the pond in which guests would gather to enjoy the recently imported fashion of drinking tea.

As in the earlier shinden landscaping, plantings in paradise gardens usually were not trained or trimmed to specific shapes but were allowed to grow naturally. Similarly, the use of garden accents such as stone lanterns and stepping stones were not yet a part of garden design, although the ponds of such gardens were sometimes laid out in the shape of the written character kokoro (“heart” or “soul”), perhaps an allusion to Amida’s all-encompassing compassion. This precedent is followed at Morikami.

(Early Muromachi Period, 14th century)

Such gardens were often inspired by Chinese landscape paintings in ink that depicted water cascading from distant peaks into the sea or a lake.

IN JAPAN, just as the popularization of Jodo Buddhism led to the development of the paradise garden, the acceptance of Zen a century or so later gave rise to the rock garden. This imported faith was embraced by the samurai class that came to dominate Japanese society politically and culturally by the end of the 12th century. The samurai were drawn to Zen’s philosophy of self-reliance, sacrifice and discipline as the means to salvation, a point of view often reflected in early rock gardens.

The first Zen-inspired gardens were dry cascades — dynamic arrangements of rocks meant to suggest waterfalls without the actual flow of water. Often such gardens were in imitation, not of nature directly, but of landscape ink paintings in the Southern Sung style, named after the Chinese dynasty that existed during the 12th and 13th centuries. This style of painting — spare, devoid of color, suggestive of a cogent inner truth — was introduced to Japan largely through the efforts of Zen practitioners. The same kinds of angular forms seen in the Chinese landscapes of such paintings can also be seen in the early Japanese rock gardens.

AT MORIKAMI, a dry cascade is situated in close proximity to the paradise garden, inviting comparison between different ways in which Buddhism served to influence Japanese garden design. The designer was inspired by a famous temple in Kyoto where a similar juxtaposition exists. On a deeply forested hillside numerous and powerful stones were placed to suggest a roaring cataract on the scale one would expect to find in nature. Austere and uncompromising, this expression of Zen’s profound asceticism contrasts with the Pure Land-inspired lower garden of the same temple, which presents a more comforting, optimistic, and conventional sensory experience.

(Muromachi Period, 15th – 16th centuries)

Dedicated by the Homer and Martha Gudelsky Family Foundation. Karesansui means “dry landscape.” In this style of garden, rocks were arranged in a bed of raked gravel, while plants took a secondary role. The style was perfected at Zen Buddhist temples.

IN JAPAN, flat expanses of raked gravel, with little more than a few well chosen rocks carefully placed here and there, were the legacy of the early Zen rock garden which represented a tumbling waterfall. Laid out beside residence halls at Zen temples, these later rock gardens called “dry landscapes” (karesansui) took abstraction of nature to an extreme never before seen in garden design. Almost devoid of plants, such gardens challenge our Western notions of what gardens should be, while their uniqueness as landscape designs have made them the most widely recognized of all Japanese garden types.

Such rock gardens were for viewing from vantage points within the adjacent temple buildings; the gardens themselves were not intended to be entered. They were conceived as an aid to meditation, the principle spiritual exercise of Zen in which a practitioner looks within himself for the way to salvation. Created as a means toward Zen self-examination and spiritual refinement, dry landscapes were meant to be the antithesis of gardens designed for pleasure or the gratification of the senses. Instead, the spare, austere arrangements of rocks were expected to help clear the mind of worldly attachments that would otherwise impede the attainment of enlightenment by this introspective means.

AT MORIKAMI, too, the designer has planned a dry landscape garden that dispenses with the superfluous in order to reveal only the essential qualities of nature. With a minimum of form and material, the garden at Morikami seeks to reduce and distill nature to its most elemental, capturing the whole of a cosmic world in a small and finite space.

(Edo Period, 17th – 18th centuries)

Evolving out of late rock gardens, flat gardens make liberal use of plant material and often visually incorporate outside elements through a design technique called “borrowed scenery” (shakkei); this garden’s signature stone pagoda is visible from the museum’s terrace.

IN JAPAN, the flat garden was a mostly secular residential garden type which also appeared adjacent to some temple residence halls. It was first mentioned in the Tsukiyama Teizoden, a garden treatise compiled in 1735 in which the flat garden, or hira niwa, was described in contrast with the hill garden (tsukiyama niwa), another type of residential garden. Although both terms were meant as classifications of gardens of the mid-Edo Period contemporary with the Tsukiyama Teizoden, some later historians of Japanese garden design began using them to categorize historical gardens as well.

Typically flat gardens consciously combined features of the late rock garden with others adopted from the tea garden. Even at temples flat gardens were without the rigorous spiritual connotations of the Zen dry landscape, but were designed in a pleasing, decorative manner with the introduction of many more plants. A flat area of gravel, typically adjacent to the residence from which it was viewed, was bordered on the far side by shrubs, trees and suggestive rock arrangements. Other features might have included garden ornaments such as pagodas (tahoto), water basins, wells, lanterns, and stepping stones used as accents and focal points. Such ornaments, particularly garden lanterns, water basins and stepping stones were innovations introduced to Japanese garden design in the landscaping of rustic huts (soan) intended for the practice of the tea ceremony. They did not appear in Japanese gardens prior to the late 16th century.

AT MORIKAMI, the designer has made the distant view of the museum the focus of the hira niwa here. Glimpsed between hills and shrubbery that define the actual physical limits of the garden site, the tile-roofed museum building is drawn in from afar to become the backdrop of the immediate landscaped area. The technique, called shakkei, or “borrowed scenery,” is common to flat gardens that offer views beyond their enclosures. While the usual element of scenery may be a glimpse of a distant mountain peak, man-made structures are not uncommon.

(Meiji Period, late 19th – early 20th centuries)

Dedicated by the Kohnken Family Foundation. A garden of this type may have reflected Western influence but also drew inspiration from the direct observation of nature following a period when gardens had tended toward abstraction. The long-legged kotoji lantern mimics the form of the movable bridges of the stringed instrument called a koto.

IN JAPAN, the changes which society underwent in the second half of the 19th century opened up new possibilities for Japanese garden design. With the opening of the country to trade with other nations, elements borrowed from the West, including lawns, formal arrangements of plantings, paved walkways and fountains, made their way into Japanese gardens of the period. More importantly, Japanese garden designers were discovering forms and materials from their own culture that had never been utilized to add new and interesting textures and experiences to their designs. The new trends were part of a renaissance that cut across many areas of artistic expression to redefine what it meant to be Japanese in a modern world.

Innovations based on native forms might include masses of flowers such as irises or camellias, which resonated with the aesthetic sensibility of the Heian nobility by way of the 17th and 18th century paintings of the Rimpa school. Materials appearing in gardens for the first time had been around for centuries, like roofing tiles used to pave pathways or to provide other decorative accents. New patterns, too, were familiar, such as stepping stones cut from old stone pillars across a garden pond, adding a contrasting geometric quality reminiscent of the strongly graphic surface designs of textiles.

AT MORIKAMI another trend of the period, naturalism, is explored in the garden. Lighter, more open in feeling, the modern romantic garden is freer in its choice of plantings while recalling nostalgically the love of nature expressed in the literature of the Heian Period.