A modern concept of ‘shakkei’

In December last year I visited Tokyo’s Hamarikyu  Edo era garden, which lies low on the original coastline of the city. It is a relatively large garden spreading in the mounds of man-made mountains, across a tidal pond, duck-hunting grounds and salt fields beneath the cities towering heights. It was primarily a pleasure filled garden, fit for the Shoguns of the time. Later, its history is affiliated to the military.


Beyond this, however, it is a garden that cannot escape its new, modern background. From the man-made Mount Fujimi, metallic sheaths of skyscrapers replace the old views of Mount Fuji that once loomed into the distant sky.
I have glimpsed its majestic slopes glowing burnt-red in a deep winter sunset from the artificial island of Odaiba, which juts out into the sea, now blocking the view of the ocean from Hamarikyu.
The only hint of Mount Fuji was able to be seen from Hamarikyu as well remains in this mounds name: ‘fujimi yama’ means Fuji-view mountain. Lying south east of the garden, the peninsula of Boso could also once be viewed from the man-made Mount Ochin.

sea_view_logoHamarikyu is probably one of the greatest gardens to observe our modern form of ‘shakkei’, or borrowed scenery. The stretch of dark rippling inlet waters of the ocean that quietly creep at its feet intensifies the effect of the steely giants, which soar beyond. Shakkei is a concept in Japanese gardening that has been used for centuries, and which gathered popularity during the Edo era. Of this time, great natural scenery was desired: textured mountains of woolly woods and sleek snow-capped peaks, long peninsulas extending into the azure abyss. This clever incorporation “captured alive” (‘ikedori’) these features adding a fourth plane to the garden and enhancing its composition.

boat_view_logoShakkei and ikedori also assimilated man-made structures into their concepts. However, in stark contrast to today’s monsterous monoliths, the curved slate blue pagoda roofs and rustic straw-thatched teahouses of these previous eras melded well into the often-naturalistic gardens. Exploring around the mosaic of Hamarikyu’s grounds, I could not help but wonder what the original creators of this garden, and indeed of all shakkei gardens, would think of these new additions? Perhaps they would find them obtuse and dark beasts, hanging over in distasteful languidness. However, it is conceivable that they would also find them awe-inspiring, bright and grand in design. Unfortunately, we will never know.

Beyond this, what new impressions do they create upon our experience of the garden? Are they sub-consciously blocked out of the background, ignored in preference to the surrounding, more immediate nature? Natural scenes fulfill a need to escape the grey-grind of city life. Or do they lead us to a new level of vision, perspective.


Perspective is important – it refocuses and grounds us. Being able to see a far away peak, or stand upon a mound overlooking a distant expanse of land creates a mirroring effect upon our minds: we are simultaneously distanced from our problems. We can see over them, beyond them – they miniaturize. Inhaling the air over such a landscape is like filling the mind and body with luminescence, expanse, nothingness. We become as light as it. Exhaling, the mind descends softly onto solid, sure-footed earth. The effect is one of being refreshed and ready to start anew. I believe a similar experience comes with viewing a mulberry black sky, illuminated by the moon and beaded with the suns of other worlds, as was a past time from a teahouse within Hamarikyu. Perspective, as an important aspect of life, relates the deep value of retaining these gardens within modern life.


These new features of shakkei are, however, of the imposing type. Clustering in thickset ranks they often block out whole stretches of sky. They cause us to crane our necks upwards in order to see them in full. When upon a man-made mountain,
they dominate the perspective, taking away from the garden beneath, rather than adding to it. They shrink the majestic old trees and quaint cedar teahouses beneath. When walking below them through networks of streets, their cumbersome shapond_skyscrapers_logodows are felt heavily, as if a burden upon the shoulders.
However, in the same moment they are awe-inspiring. Was it really man that created such ogres? What is the perspective like from within their dusky domains? Some traditional Japanese gardens of eras such as the Momoyama and Edo often incorporated multi-story buildings (although nothing akin to the height of modern structures!) from which to view the gardens below, unfortunately most of these have been destroyed in various fires. Although from a more distant location, perhaps we can gain a sense of their viewpoint from our modern towers.

green_walls_logoWould it alter the imposing effect of skyscrapers if they were wreathed in green as the mountains of the original shakkei? To infuse the skyline with emerald, would it be less tiresome to look above, and enhance the gardens below? Garden designers of traditional Japanese gardens often used similar colour, texture and form from the shakkei subject within the garden itself, in order to complement it and draw the eye. I hope that I will live to see an advancement of green walls, so that I may know.

Alternately, must we create new gardens in which to better incorporate them? Space constraints render this problematic within Japan. Despite this, there is a new form of garden beginning to take shape in patches throughout the city. Keep an eye out for a following installment about these interesting conceptions…


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