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Edo, Japanese Garden Transformation

The strategically situated castle town of Edo, destined to become modern day Tokyo, was the seat of power for the Tokugawa Shogunate from 1603 to 1868.  Following nearly a century and a half of war known as the Sengoku period, the Edo period welcomed a much needed period of social harmony.

This change in mental attitude also signified change in the purpose of the many castles that dotted the Japanese landscape.  Rather than having a primary purpose of defence, these elaborately built structures became luxurious homes for the daimyo, or feudal lords and more attention could be paid to aesthetics. Elaborate Japanese gardens became a must have for residents of these lavishly furnished homes that became symbols of power and wealth.

Gardens constructed in the Edo period often centered around the Japanese tea ceremony which became an important part of local culture during this era.  Known as Chianwa gardens, they usually consisted of a water feature, either a stream or pond, crossed by small bridges or stepping stones that would lead to a simply constructed tea house.  Stone basins would be provided for guests to purify themselves before participating in the ceremony.  Gardens would also be constructed in the waterless Karesausui style, of Zen Buddhist origins and the Tsukiyami garden style which creates, with great accuracy, depictions of actual landscapes found throughout Japan and China.

zen © marilyn barbone

One of the surviving Tokyo gardens from this period is the Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens, created in 1629 by Yorifusa Mita, the Daimyo of the Mito Tokugawa family of that time period.  Meticulously tended and expanded over the years, the current garden consists of wandering pathways through gates, across stone and wooded bridges and around a central pond studded with islands.  The Cultural Properties Protection Law of Japan has listed the garden as a Special Historic Site.

Though the capital of Edo was the center of this societal evolution, the influence of the Edo period expanded beyond its borders. The city of Kyoto is home to Manshu-in, a Tendai temple in the north eastern sector of the city.  The temple’s main hall dates from the early Edo period and features a Waterfall Room decorated with slides by Kano Tanyu (1602-1674).   The same artist also created a Mont Fuji Room, a Snowy Scenes Room, a tea room and a Twilight Room, complete with royal throne.  All are decorated with an assortment of screens, prints and paintings. The garden is done in the Karesausui, or waterless style and features an island bound 400 year old Japanese white pine.

Another Kyoto treasure is the Shisen-do Buddhist temple.  The temple was established in 1641 by Ishikawa Jozan (1583-1672) and is also registered as a historic site of Japan. The main temple has a room displaying portraits of thirty six Chinese poets, painted by Kano Tanyu. This room is part of the original structure.

The gardens reflect the Tsukiyami style.  It makes use of an ingenious water feature known as a sozu, designed to scare off wild animals.  Using a simple bamboo tube, the device gradually fills with water and then tips when the liquid reaches a preset level.  The water is discharged and the tube pivots upright to strike a strategically placed rock that makes a loud clapping noise.  Such creativity is a reflection of the Japan’s cultural growth that has its beginnings in the post war, relatively peaceful Edo period of this country’s rich and varied history.

Japanese Garden, a short history

Though there is evidence that early Japanese Gardens were created long before the reign of Empress Suiko, circa 592 AD, she is most often credited for popularizing these idyllic retreats. These early gardens already had incorporated the ornamental ponds and the gently rolling landscapes that are still very much a part of modern day garden design.

During the Nara period (646 to 794) trade between China and Japan increased. The Chinese influence began to show up in the gardens of Japan’s elite citizens. The trend was to design gardens that were more suited for parties and social gatherings, rather than quiet places to wander. Some of the Nara period gardens added animals, fish and birds to augment the elaborately arranged flowers, trees and water features.

There was an interest in going back to the more traditional Japanese Garden style during the Heian period (794 to 1185) and a form of design known as Shinden became popular. The Chinese influence was still there, but subdued. Gardens during this period were elegantly laid out according popular myths and legends of the times. As an example, an ancient Chinese belief is that all things pure came from the east, while impurities left the land towards the west. Streams put in a garden during this period had to run east to west.

The Shinden style predominated with little change until the mid Kamakura period (1185 to 1392). At this time Buddhist priests started creating meditation gardens. These were less extravagant and usually favoured evergreens, water and stones, with little seasonal variation.

Gardens got even simpler during the Muromachi and Higashiyama periods (1392 to 1573). Gardens began to be designed using only stones to depict various objects in nature. These meditation gardens, known as Karesansui or dry gardens, can still be seen today either on their own or as part of a larger Japanese Garden display. The tea garden was also introduced during this period, which usually added landscaped pathways leading to a small house specifically designed for the formal tea ceremony.

During the Azuchi-Momoyama periods (1568 to 1600), the tea house and garden became more prominent and later, in the Edo period (1603 to 1867) the tea house was complemented by more elaborate stroll gardens that would offer different landscapes at every turn. Owning a Japanese Garden was still limited to the Royal family and high ranking court officials during this time period.

It was during the Meijii Period (1868 to 1912) and to a greater extent the Showa period (1926 to 1989) that the elegant stroll garden was adopted by the merchants and industrialists that had the means to create and maintain them. The combination of the stroll garden and the minimalist Zen meditative design became a garden art form created and enjoyed by all. This design trend has continued into today’s Heisei period.