Sino-Japanese garden

A tradition far removed from the formal garden of the oasis had evolved in China and was already established during the Han dynasty (140-87 BC). One of his distant heirs was destined one day to fertilize the West in turn and to influence not only the English landscape gardens and the Jardins chinois-anglais, but also the modern gardens of Northern Europe and America. His most direct descendant was imported with many other things of Chinese culture in Japan in the eighth century. The base of the Sino-Japanese garden is a veneration of nature that took its roots from the mysticism-Taoist naturalism, subsequently reinforced by Zen Buddhism, with its cult of the hill, the grove and the lotus pond, and its love for the quiet meditation.

The Chinese garden is essentially a place to philosophize, leaving aside earthly conflicts. Nothing in it can be rushed or improvised or flashy. The paths are not made, as in the West, to access directly from one point to another; but rather to savor slowly and fully every view and every atmosphere of the scene that manifests itself along the way. For this reason, they are tortuous and even zig-zag, while the bridges, with their steep arches or with a sudden change of direction, invite a break to admire the reflections. The natural landscape that the Chinese most venerated was the grandiose; high mountains, waterfalls, foggy valleys, and lakes. Their gardens were creations of the mind to such an extent that a great landscape could be indicated by a few carefully placed irregular rocks; the rest of the painting was filled with imagination. In this, he showed his affinity with Chinese landscape painting, in all its economy of shadows and evocative lines. There was indeed a very close connection, and the garden through which one wandered slowly was a tinkering remake of the long scrolls of Chinese landscape painters. When the Chinese garden came to Japan, it underwent many changes, but the basic principles were never lost. It was drawn with more solid lines in a better-defined composition, perhaps losing in poetry what it gained in clarity. Only in the sixteenth century was the tea ceremony introduced, which in the eyes of the West was the essence of a Japanese garden. For Europeans, the careful setting of this ceremony may seem an excessive emphasis on a banal rite, but for the Japanese, it has a profound meaning: it is a deliberate seclusion from the conflicts and ambitions of the world and a recognition of the spiritual values of philosophy and aesthetics. There is a fundamental difference in the relationship with nature between the Eastern Buddhist and the Western philosopher.

The Westerner will say, “Here is where I will plant this tree”. The Zen Buddhist will say, “I am this tree, and that’s where I want to go”. This ability to travel with the mind is well illustrated in the garden of Ryoanji, in Kyoto. It can only be observed from the wooden platform of the temple, and no one enters except the monk who raises the sand meticulously forming traditional designs that encompass the rock islands with such perfection that the contemplative mind can travel through the garden to eternity. Most Japanese gardens are less austere but still deeply evocative. They all draw their roots from symbolism and tradition, but although philosophical and religious reasons can be found for design rules, they are actually precepts of good composition. The prescribed grouping of 3, 5 and 7, the dimensions of the hills and the carefully correlated forms, the partially veiled waterfall, the location of the high guardian stone in the foreground in the painting, all this has its own traditional meaning, but everything is based also on sound design principles. Two of the fundamental principles of the Japanese composition is the grouping of the vertical, the reclined and the lying, and the contrast between static and dynamic forms. To compose these groups, rocks with familiar shapes are used, such as the statue-shaped stone, the arch-shaped stone, and the reclined ox-shaped stone. The rocks also have a name depending on the specific location in the composition, to underline a view, a focal point or an atmosphere. Such are the stone wrapped in mist, the shadow of the full moon, the guardian stone and the waiting stone.

Three main forms of the garden eventually crystallized, although later they were also used together in a large “garden for strolling”. Each form can be executed in a variable degree of perfection, from the pure indication of a sketch to the completed picture in the round. The three types of the garden were the flat garden, the garden without water and the garden with lake and islands or with hills and water.
The flat garden is often used in smaller courtyards or even in a lane. The soil can be covered with sand, sometimes raked to form a design. The composition is given by the careful grouping of rock, ornament, and plant. A lantern (the reclined shape), a bamboo (the vertical form) and a flat stone (the prostrate form) can form the whole picture. In the waterless garden, there are hills, but the water is indicated only by the placement of the stones, more or less as were the mountains in the Chinese gardens. The garden with hills and water is a landscape complete with clustered hills, a stream and a rock arrangement in the foreground, or a lake with islands. The completed view has infinite variations, but the basis of the garden project follows defined rules. At the imperial palace of Katsura in Kyoto, the garden for walking is a deeply evocative experience.

Observed on a superficial level, it is a landscape of incomparable beauty, in which an infinite variety is merged in a quiet unity; but below the surface, there is a profound philosophy of the relationship between man and nature. In the Japanese gardens, the shape and placement of the plants are as carefully controlled as those of the rocks. The tradition of artificially small trees is well known, and if a plant sooner or later grows too much for its placement it is replaced by a smaller one. The most used forms of plants are the very rounded reclined ones, such as Japanese azalea and dwarf conifers; the gnarled tree, exemplified by the pine bent by the wind; and the vertical shape of the bamboo. Some of the most beautiful Japanese gardens are entirely covered by a carpet of moss, a coating that accentuates the molded shape of the ground and creates the perfect structural contrast with the rock. The structure plays a more important role in Japanese gardens than any other historical tradition. Although it is an idealization of nature, the Sino-Japanese garden has always been closely related to buildings, and it is only in relation to oriental architecture that one can appreciate the shapes of lanterns and bridges. They show the same exuberance and the same dynamic form, which is nevertheless firmly rooted to the ground because of its sense of balance. In their setting, they are part of an entire world in tune with them but lost in western environments they can also look bizarre. The influence that the Sino-Japanese garden has had on the West is not easy to evaluate. Although the first descriptions of the Chinese garden may have been misrepresented, they certainly served to light up the imagination of the English landscape school and, if the results were totally different, the ideas behind the two types of gardens had much in common. Both were an idealization of nature, both relied on balance and natural form rather than symmetry, and both incorporated the traditional architecture of their respective civilizations. Above all, both were closely related to the art of landscape painting. It is a revealing fact but not surprising that the highest peak reached by the English landscape garden is derived from the translation of an idea into the language of English countryside and philosophy. The less successful result of the Jardin anglo-chinois derived from a more direct copy of an original not fully understood. The winding paths on the plan of an old Chinese park are clearly the ancestors of the winding avenues of the Anglo-Chinois garden, but what the plan does not show are the hills and valleys, the rocks and the changing views that justify the tortuosity. The map of a mountainous region shows the same swaying and sinuous roads, meaningless in the absence of the reliefs. The blind imitation of Japanese gardens does not give a better result even today, but we have much to learn from their infallible sense of balance, from the evocative forms, from the economy with which their landscape is sketched and by the quiet moderation of their compositions. The influence of Japanese landscape architects has played a vital role in the development of landscape design in the US since the mid-twentieth century, and since then their influence has spread throughout the world.