Tips for Enjoying Japanese Gardens

Visiting a well-maintained Japanese garden is a great way to understand the traditional Japanese aesthetic and mindset as well as Japan’s history. If you have a little background information, you will be able to appreciate them even more.

Types of Design

There are three main types of Japanese gardens in terms of design. A karesansui (“dry garden”) design incorporates a large-scale landscape into a small-scale garden by using rocks and sand to symbolize islands and water flow. This type of garden is usually made to be viewed from inside a room. A garden in the kaiyu style, on the other hand, is designed to be enjoyed by walking in and around the garden. A kaiyu garden is typically very elegant and involves a pond (or more), trees, shrubs, and flowers, as well as a teahouse, viewing deck, and boardwalk. While these two types of gardens originated centuries ago, the third main type of garden is a contemporary style that combines abstract and modern elements with the traditional karesansui style.

The Garden’s Owner

Knowing who the original owner of a garden was helps us understand a garden’s style and features. If a garden is affiliated with a temple, for example, it is usually a Zen garden made in the karesansui style. The garden tends to reflect the principles of Buddhism and is designed to produce tranquility. If a daimyo (samurai lord) commissioned a garden, it typically was designed to show his wealth, aesthetic sense, and philosophy and is often a gorgeous kaiyu style garden. The handful of gardens that were made for the Japanese royal family are especially elegant.

Time of Construction

The oldest gardens we can still visit today were created as early as the ninth century, and new gardens are still being made. Different periods have different social dynamics, political systems, and aesthetic and cultural trends. For example, during the Heian period (794–1184) nobles governed the country in a feudal system, while during the subsequent Kamakura period (1185–1333) samurai governed society as Buddhism began to spread nationwide. The following Muromachi period (1334–1573) was a time when Japanese aesthetics really blossomed and took on more independence from Chinese styles. After decades of war, Japan became a stable society governed by the winner of the war, the Tokugawa clan. During this time, the Edo period (1603–1867), commoners became more culturally empowered than ever. After the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate in the late nineteenth century, Japan started embracing Western ideas, which started to influence the developing Japanese modern culture. The gardens listed at right reflect the social climates in which they were built.

Essential Japanese Gardens

Essential Japanese Garden

Kairakuen (Ibaraki Prefecture)

Considered one of the three great Japanese gardens, Kairakuen was orig-inally built in 1842 by Lord Nariakira Tokugawa. It is a kaiyu-style garden constructed by reclaiming a mountain facing Lake Senba. Kairakuen––kai (together), raku (to enjoy), and en (garden or park)––was named in hope of making it a place where the lord could spend time with the people–-both nobles and commoners alike––of his region. Three thousand plum trees make this garden particularly attractive.

Rikugien (Tokyo)

Yoshiyasu Yanagisawa, the highest-ranked samurai and political advisor to the fifth Shogun, Tsunayoshi Tokugawa, designed this upscale kaiyu-style garden in the late seventeenth century. It took seven years to create the ponds and mounds in this flat region to reproduce famous views that were described in poems.

Hamarikyu Onshi Gardens (Tokyo)

This typical daimyo garden was built in the late seventeenth century. Originally used as a place for the Shogun to hunt birds, the site later became home to the Shogun’s villa. The garden has been renovated and expanded several times. The current design dates from the early nineteenth century. The garden is unique in the way it uses seawater from Tokyo Bay in its moat.

Kenrokuen (Ishikawa Prefecture)

This kaiyu-style garden was developed between 1620 and 1840 by the Maeda clan, the richest clan after the Tokugawa clan. The garden has six aspects: vastness, profoundness, human power, antiquity, spring water, and a vista, giving it the name Kenrokuen (a garden with six features). With a different look for each season, this elegant, gorgeous garden is considered one of the three great Japanese gardens.

Saiho-ji Temple (Kyoto)

This temple is commonly known as Kokedera (the Moss Temple) because it is covered with moss. The garden was originally built in the eighth century, when it did not have any of the moss that gives it its identity today. The original was a beautiful garden that combined karesansui and kaiyu styles and was used as a model for the gardens in the Golden Pavilion and the Silver Pavilion in the fifteenth century. It was ruined, however, after repeated floods. After that, it grew moss gradually and naturally and became today’s uniquely beautiful garden.

Daitoku-ji Temple (Kyoto)

This Zen temple, established in the fourteenth century, has more than 20 sub-temples, most of which are related to daimyo warlords from Japan’s war period. The gardens in the temple are mostly made in the karesansui style. The Hojo Garden, a national special landmark, is not open to the public, but some other beautiful Zen gardens are on view.

Tofuku-ji Temple (Kyoto)

Constructed in 1939, the four gardens in Tofuku-ji were designed by Mirei Shigemori, whose style is described as “Eternal Modern.” Each one is de-signed in the karesansui style, but unlike traditional karesansui, in which the garden materials (rocks, sand, and moss) are used to directly signify things, Shigemori’s style expresses abstract concepts––all Buddhism-related––in the gardens.

Murin-an (Kyoto)

Aritomo Yamagata, a powerful politician during the Meiji period, commis-sioned one of the leading landscape artists of his time, Jihei Ogawa VII, to design this garden. Yamagata gave Ogawa three instructions: create a bright space with a large lawn, use trees like fi r, hinoki (cypress), and cedar––until then not used as central trees in Japanese gardens––and create a pond using water from the newly developed Lake Biwa waterway. The garden reflected Yamagata’s intention to incorporate the new world (the West)’s style into Japanese traditions, and Ogawa answered his request amazingly. The garden was completed in 1890.

Korakuen (Okayama Prefecture)

This garden is the third of the three great Japanese gardens and was originally created by Lord Tsunamasa Ikeda of the Okayama clan for his recreation. He enjoyed viewing it from rooms in several houses and cottages built in the garden. His son, Lord Tsugumasa, later expanded the area around the Noh theater that he loved, created a mound in the center of the garden, and built waterways to connect two ponds into one big pond. Tsugumasa also started allowing non-samurai to enter and enjoy the garden.

Adachi Museum Garden (Shimane Prefecture)

Adachi Museum Garden (Shimane Prefecture)

Opened in 1970 by local businessman, Zenko Adachi, the Adachi Museum is known for its extensive collection of Nihon-ga (Japanese paintings). The garden, spanning 1,776,038 square feet, is divided into six sections, each of which is designed as if it were a painting. Using the shakkei (borrowed land-scape) technique, which incorporates the landscape outside the garden into part of the garden view, this scenic garden is internationally acclaimed.

Ritsurin Garden (Kagawa Prefecture)

Ritsurin Garden (Kagawa Prefecture)

Constructed in 1939, the four gardens in Tofuku-ji were designed by Mirei Shigemori, whose style is described as “Eternal Modern.” Each one is designed in the karesansui style, but unlike traditional karesansui, in which the garden materials (rocks, sand, and moss) are used to directly signify things, Shigemori’s style expresses abstract concepts––all Buddhism-related––in the gardens.

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