Japanese gardens

Many thanks to Daniel Isaacs for this excellent article on Japanese gardens.

Above all, Japanese gardens demonstrate the Buddhist influences that were brought into Japan in 612; Ono-no-Imoko, an emissary from Japan, visited China and was able to absorb enough of the Buddhist way of life to recreate it once he returned home. At this time, gardens in Japan were solely created as religious representations of various beliefs - which established a comfortable common ground with the Chinese Buddhists.

Every element of a Buddhist garden bursts with religious significance; pathways lead to enlightenment, whilst the soil represents the fertility and nurturing nature of Buddha's mind. Nonetheless, whilst some of the Buddhist ideas were adopted in Japan, it was not to be at the expense of the ancient Japanese religion, Shinto.

It has always been firmly believed that the two religions, Shinto and Buddhism, are able to coexist in harmony; rather than separate each other the two religious intertwine. This fusion of religion has been widely demonstrated in Japanese culture; reflected within the foundational design of Japanese gardens.

The tea ceremony

Further influences infused Japan in 1192 with the arrival of Eisai, a Buddhist monk from China. Eisai introduced the "Chan", or "Zen" way of teaching to Japan as well as the tea ceremony - a ritual based on the preparation and presentation of a powdered green tea (matcha).

Between 1333 and 1573, Zen monks promoted the tea ceremony to such an extent that the ritual was sewn into the cultural fabric of Japan, and has remained intricately fundamental to Japanese culture ever since. Before long, chaniwa gardens (those specifically designed for tea ceremonies) began to thrive throughout the Japanese landscape, giving a weighty indication of just how highly regarded the ceremonies became.

Nonetheless, the tea ceremony's most significant impact on Japanese garden design came between 1568 and 1600 (known as the Azuchi-Momoyama period) in which tea ceremony pavilions began to feature prominently as popular garden characteristics; lanterns, stepping stones and arched bridges were increasingly fashionable in these new gardens, which today are considered the iconic objects of Japanese gardens.

As a result, these features became intrinsic to Japanese garden design- and thus the religious significance that once accompanied the creation of Japanese gardens was forfeited to accommodate those who wished to use them for alternatives pastimes, or merely to enjoy a meditative environment.

The Edo period

Further development occurred between 1603 and 1867 (the Edo period) when the "strolling" garden was established. These gardens were primarily created to satisfy the aristocracy of Japan by providing space for the leisure and amusements of its wealthier classes.

The strolling gardens, usually built on an aristocrat's estate, were much more personal environments; designers would reconstruct landscapes taken from the owner's personal experiences, or even recreate some of the most iconic places in the world.

The Edo period of Japanese history is renowned for its feudal system, in which shogun leaders (military commanders) would rule various areas of Japanese landscape. Shogun men were rewarded with land for their loyalty, especially in the case of samurai warriors - thus gardens were often used to demonstrate the individual and unique styles of each samurai leader. The incorporation into the political world forced gardens into the mainstream of Japanese politics.

Beyond the Edo period

Indeed, as the exuberance and glamour that accompanied Japanese garden styles began to experience the credit they deserved, businessmen and politicians were expected to display their success not only through the luxury of their homes, but through the majesty of their gardens as well. Indeed, as the power of the Emperor was diminishing in Japan, the power of the industrial man began to blossom, and along with them gardens were elevated to a much more significant status.

During 1926 and 1989, the Showa period, Japan became the first East-Asian country to become industrialised. Whilst the country became more susceptible to modern influences, Western designers were just as eager to experiment with the more unusual Eastern designs.

Therefore, the cultural fusion that has always dominated Japanese garden design came to a climax; the modern Western world permeated the Orient, and Japanese gardens lost the consecrated status they had once held, and were reborn as primarily commercial environments.