Reasons for traditional Japanese gardens, in consideration of religious beliefs and recreation over time

The first thing that must be appreciated when referring to the ‘traditional Japanese garden’ is that this spans a great history of many different eras, possibly to the origins of tangible culture upon this island. Thus, the history of gardens incorporates many evolutionary forms from their simplistic beginnings.


In extremely simplified terms, gardens started in an almost subconscious manner: a need to fence off land for territory, livestock etc. as in many cultures. Shinto religious beliefs gathered importance, and took the form of deity abodes in objects such as rocks and the construction of simple shrines. Later, it blossomed slowly into conscious garden planning for auspicious and religious (Buddhist) reasons over the course of centuries. This was likely a result of relative affluence, as in the history of many gardens globally. As culture developed, they became intertwined with painting, poetry, music, theatre and the tea ceremony. Finally, gardens evolved purely as places for pleasure and leisure of the masses, which continues today, alongside modern art and creativity.

During Asuka (538–710 AD) and Nara (710–794 AD) eras, we only have a glimpse into garden composition and thus the intent behind their creation. Within the Nihon Shoki (a chronicle of Japan’s early history), passages about Emperors of the time reveal slips of detail, for example in the spring of 74 AD Emperor Keiko “resided in the Kuguri Palace, and letting loose the carp in a pond, amused himself by looking at them morning and night.” Other short passages further reveal the use of boats in ponds for feasting upon, islands within the ponds, winding streams, man-made mountains, flowers, hedges and “walking alone in the garden”. Despite being short and sparse, these passages disclose a good impression of their purpose – they were at least in part for recreation. However, it is of course difficult to read too much into these texts, and it is very possible they do not reveal the full story.


The ‘Tale of Genji’ written during the late Heian era (794 to 1185), gives insight into the early part of it. The tale highlights the central concepts within these gardens, called ‘chisen shuyu teien’ or pond-spring-boating garden. Namely, these are ‘kisetsu’: an awareness of the seasons and ‘mono no aware’: sensitivity towards beings, with a melancholy tinge of the awareness of mortality. The general feeling of the time was coined in the term ‘mujokan’, an ephemeral quality of life. Nature was emulated, but aimed at surpassing it in its ambience – ‘fuzei’. Gardens expanded and incorporated more leisurely ideals such as boating upon large ponds during festivities, which held a more light-hearted feel. They were fashioned so that visitors could express their love of nature through poetry and music. Thus they were developed from a conscious need for a place in which to create, and enjoy, the arts – as well as to find remittance from a world misted in twilight. They were not religious, but recreational – a luxury of the ruling classes and their fortunate acquaintances.



Garden design here was a symbol of Taoist mythology (incorporating Yin and Yang), as the first wave of Chinese influence really began to become embedded. Geomancy and feng-shui (in Japanese fusui, literally translating as wind-water) were defining characteristics. They took precedence on the placing and design of settlements to the temples of Amida Buddhism to the palaces and gardens within. For example Kyoto (then Heiankyo) was located in its position because of the surrounding mountain ranges. Gardens were strongly associated with the Shinden architecture: the arms of buildings unfolding onto a south-facing garden. This was in-line with the Sino-japanese geomancy principles. Representations of Chinese mythology related to geomancy were created within the garden: Mount Horai (center of the universe) usually upon the Isles of the Blest (immortals), near to a turtle-shaped island (the Isles of the Blest were thought to be upon a turtle’s back) and a crane-shaped island (representing the backs of cranes upon which people flew to the Isles of the Blest). These islands were all distant and seemingly unreachable. Platforms at the pond shores were created upon which to communicate with the immortals. Thus, garden creation during this time was very much informed from Chinese mythology. This resulted in a safe and auspicious location for living within the surrounding landscape, and indeed the universe.

Later in the Heian, the Fujiwara Princes (who dominated politics within this era) began to fund and construct gardens in the grounds of temples. These were based upon Pure Land Buddhism, within the symmetrical Shinden style architecture. This marked a change from gardens of enjoyment, to those of religion. The last surviving remnants of these in Kyoto are at Byodo-in Uji. A sense of gloom presided, as Buddhist’s thought the world had entered the final phase of its history, and savior could only be found in reciting the Amida Buddha’s name.


Over time, these carefully considered gardens became an indulgence… a quest to find the Isles of the Blest and become immortal.

The ‘karesansui’ dry landscape gardens of the following Kamakura era (1185–1333) delved deeper into consciousness and creativity – resulting in abstract forms emulating natural energy fields and patterns, gained from meditation. They had their roots within the large Heian gardens as subordinate formations of rocks, first thought to appear in Saiho-ji, now famous for its moss. Their transformation came from a second wave of Chinese influence, in which Zen Buddhism was undertaken. Instead of the previous era’s search for solace in projecting outwardly (reciting Amida Buddha), the focus was on inward thoughts and enlightenment from within. Thus, these gardens were mindful: protrusions of nature’s influence. They were much more solidly rooted in religion through Zen Buddhism and were created within the temples.



The following Muromachi era further developed these karesansui as stand-alone gardens (including the creation of the famous Ryoan-ji). However they also incorporated ‘pond strolling’ gardens, with the Buddhist and mythology inspired features from the previous era. Fixed vantage points influenced by Chinese paintings and Zen Buddhism also became popular. ‘Yugen’ (profundity, austerity and elegance concealing multi-layered symbolism) and ‘yohaku no bi’ (the beauty of empty space) were both aesthetic ideals of the Muromachi era which reveal rich thought and belief behind these garden designs.

As time progressed into the Momoyama / Early Edo eras, Daimyo warlords developed a taste for showing off their power and wealth through large gardens, ponds and rock formations. They were emulations of garden stereotypes of the preceding eras, but with a less conscientious attitude towards nature and the beliefs of Buddhism that were intertwined with it.

Alongside such grandeur, they installed ‘roji’ (dewy path) or ‘cha niwa’ (tea gardens), to show their apparent knowledgeable and learned side. However, it was highly esteemed tea masters whom originally developed roji during this time, employing the rustic materials and architecture of a grass-thatched hut ‘so-an’ within them. Although new garden designs, the roji and so-an represent a development of thought flowing from the Kamakura and Muromachi meditation-inspired inner path to enlightenment.


Following Meiji, Taisho and Showa era gardens were largely imitations of the previous eras. However, they were larger, simplified, and simultaneously less and more naturalistic than before – less in their conceptual design, more in their exterior appearance. The reason for their creation was more about providing leisure space for mass populations, than religion. This, including their simplification, was due to a new wealth of merchants and a loss in the traditional knowledge of the principles behind Buddhist-related gardens. Instead, mans personal resolve can be seen to be projected upon these gardens, of which is still apparent in current times.

Thus, there is a rich, complex and somewhat convoluted history to the routes behind traditional Japanese gardens. Perhaps we may now see a slow change in the conscientiousness of gardens, and revert back to observing their place in the wider landscape, as environmental concerns grow more pressing. Can the teachings of Shinto and Zen Buddhism aid with this?


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