In Japanese gardens curves and asymmetry reign. The marrow of the format of these typical gardens is the location of all or at least most of the elements of nature: trees, flowers, rock grasses and of course, water. Some unsuspecting people believe that the Japanese simply reproduce a given landscape in the form of a painting.
Far from that. What the Japanese artists or landscape architects want is to give life to a microcosm that contains the sum of these essential elements. And the main function of this micro world is to provide the walker or who is simply limited to visiting an environment of deep silence that invites reflection, basically, on oneself.
Within the formats of Japanese gardens, the summum is given by the “kaiyushiki” or “circular gardens”. These, always include a large pond, surrounded by a path. But also, they have small artificial elevations and tiny islands located in the middle of the pond. There are also bridges, arbors, and rocks.
There are some other objects whose function is to reproduce specific places in different regions of Japan. One of the peculiarities that amaze Japanese gardens is that the characteristic of the landscape varies according to the place where the viewer is located, the time and the season of the year in which we find ourselves.
Japan and its three most famous gardens
The first Japanese gardens date back to the Nara period (710-794). There are different styles of gardens, which evolved over the centuries. The Jodo (Pure Land) style dominated during the Heian (794-1185) and Kamakura (1185-1333) periods. Then, during the so-called Muromachi period (1333-1568) the “karesansui” or “dry gardens” reigned, those that dominated in the “Zen” temples typical of Buddhism. Rocks, sand, and stones predominate in this class of gardens since the main objective is to reproduce the landscape of the endless islands of Japan.
There is also the roji style or chaniwa (tea garden). It is about the gardens that are built next to the tea houses. The Japanese feudal lords built circular gardens surrounding their castles or mansions.
Approaching the present, during the Meiji period (1868-1912) the members of the Japanese ruling classes ordered the construction of gardens in their residences, although fashion also extended to public buildings and hotels.
In recent years, the phenomenon has occurred that many Japanese gardens once belonging to the feudal lords have become part of the national or local cultural heritage and have been opened to public access, to the delight of tourism. Kyoto is one of the cities with the largest number of gardens of this type since as ancient capital of the Empire was inhabited by a large number of enriched aristocrats.
The most famous Japanese gardens today are: Kenrokuen (located in the city of Kanazawa, Ishikawa prefecture), Korakuen (located in the city of Okayama, Okayama prefecture), and Kairakuen (in Mito, Ibaraki prefecture ). All of them are of enormous size and were commissioned by feudal lords under the Edo period (1603-1868). They are visited by millions of people a year.
The gardens of the Pure Land
If we had to choose a single element, essential and constitutive of Japanese gardens, we would certainly choose rocks. This is demonstrated by a manual found dating from the late Heian period (794-1185) under the title Sakuteiki (Directory on the creation of gardens) dating from the year 1289 where we already talk about the placement of rocks. What emerges from this is that the rocks are not placed randomly but that they depend on the landscape in which they will be located.
To achieve perfection, attention must be paid to the place where the rock is extracted to reproduce this location once placed in the garden. Japanese gardens not only reproduce nature but also express deep ideas. For example, the gardens of the “Pure Land” are influenced by a Buddhist sect that gives them their name. This sect tries to evoke through its gardens the image of paradise.
In Kyoto, the famous dry garden or karesansui known as the Zen temple of Ryoanji is located. In these gardens, water is not used, but rather sand or white stones and rocks.