For centuries Japanese poets have been influenced by the beauty, magnitude and mysterious quality of gardens from their country. Their is an evocative yet subtle quality to Japanese gardens, that are usually depicted in an ideal landscape with a very stylized aesthetic and a precise perspective. Both in terms of the form and beauty, one can see the influence of these gardens on poets from Japan.
In general, nature has been a profound influence on Japanese poetry. Particularly, the rich and delicate landscape of Japan mixed with their ever changing climate. However, in a Japanese garden, nature is depicted in a highly stylized way without the intention of being artificial. On the contrary, a Japanese garden is supposed to appear real and an authentic landscape, as if it has grown there, organically on its own. The Zen monk, Kokan Shiren wrote about Japanese gardens. Most of Shiren’s writing depicted the connection and relationship man had with nature and the landscape. Further, Shiren was interested in how the garden could actually purify or cleanse the senses and soul of a man. So, in this sense, the effect the garden produced on this poet was of a spiritual quality which evokes a more imaginative and mysterious quality of influence.
One form of poetry that has been linked to the work of gardens is Haiku. Haiku’s specific structural form and precise historical context makes it an easy target for comparison with the Japanese garden. Many Japanese poets have used the influence of Japanese gardens within the realm of the poetic form of the Haiku. The 20th Century Japanese Haiku poet, Shuoshi Mizuhara was preoccupied with gardens and their effects to man. It is obvious how much Japanese gardens played a role in the poetical works of the past few centuries. Like sculpture or painting, Japanese gardens became a type of natural artwork that become an influential source of inspiration for many poets, architects, musicians, and teachers.
Japanese gardens not only influenced the poets of Japan but poets from other countries as well. The influence was international and widespread. It has also dominated in the works of architecture and other art forms both in Western and Asian cultures. Above all, Japanese garden making is a tradition built on centuries of knowledge and wisdom that has been passed down from generation to generation, very much like Japanese poetry.
Precise in structure yet allowing artistic creativity, the haiku is a form of Japanese poetry that can well be compared to the meticulously designed gardens that prove inspirational to those who craft using the power of the pen. This poetic art form goes back to 17th century Japan and the trick is to convey meaning within seventeen syllables in a precise five-seven-five format. Traditionally, haiku was used to express views and impressions of the natural world.
Matsuo Basho, whose birth name was Matsuo Kinsaku (1644 to 1694) one of the most recognized poets of Japan’s Edo period, is credited with fine tuning the “hokku” format. A hokku was an opening verse that introduced the “haikai no renga”, a form of collaborative poetry popular at the time. It wasn’t until the late 19th century, long after Basho’s death, that the word hokku was changed to haiku and the format became a standardized, stand alone art form.
Just as the haiku uses discipline for creating beauty, so does the Japanese garden. The Karesansui, or dry landscape style of garden is perhaps the best comparison. These gardens were influenced by followers of Zen Buddhism, who found the simplistic design conducive to meditation. One well known example of this garden style is in the Daisen-in sub-temple, part of the Daitoku-ji grounds in Kyoto, Japan. It was completed in 1513.
Much like a haiku, where the words on paper need to be studied to get the full meaning, these dry landscape gardens must be studied to interpret what the designer intended. In a Karesansui garden you must use your imagination to see that carefully raked gravel or sand as a tranquil pond. You must imagine that those rocks strategically placed in that pond are islands. The beauty of the garden and the haiku is this is that no two people will have the same vision, the same interpretation.
In Basho’s poem “Temple Bells Die Out” shown below, the poet describes dusk experienced by someone relaxing in a Japanese garden. The chiming of the bells is man made. The fragrance of the flowers is nature personified. The contrast, much as that found between carefully constructed pathways and the timeless sound of water cascading into a pond, both features of Japanese gardens, make for “a perfect evening.”
words upon a page
pathways through tended gardens
lead to inner peace
M. Rose 2010
temple bells die out
the fragrant blossoms remain
a perfect evening
Matsuo Basho (written between 1686 and 1691)
The Japanese people have always been in tune with nature and accepting of the concepts of change and the passage of time. This harmony is expressed through many artistic mediums, but none so evident, nor so pleasing, as the Japanese Garden. Just as Japan’s delicately crafted poetry demands structure, Japanese Gardens have their own Aesthetic Markers, as steeped in tradition as the 17 syllable haiku.
Roots caress a simple pot
White blossoms shimmer
The essence of all forests
Lives here in one small tree.
– Mastuyama Mokurai
One of the most cherished aspects of any Japanese Garden is the preservation of “shizen” or naturalness. An example would be in the use of cement or brick; they look more pleasing in their natural tones rather than painted. Another example is by complementing the natural surroundings with the selection of simple objects such as a single bonsai on the edge of a quiet pond.
Natural asymmetry or “fukensei” is preserved by placing elements in compositions using odd numbers, one, three or five. A solitary object can create a bigger impact on the senses than small groupings. An imaginary drawing of a triangle between the trained branches of a tree or the placement of stones also insures that the element of “fukensei” has been met.
The Japanese concept of “kanso” or simplicity is most evident in gardens of the Zen tradition. Just as the haiku creates powerful images by its element of simplicity, a solitary stone may represent an entire mountain or island by its simple yet precise placement.
The concept of “ma” or space used in a Japanese garden is a direct reflection of how the Japanese have viewed life through the generations. The concept that all objects interact within a given space and that nothing exists alone plays a big part in all aspects of Japanese culture. Even that single stone island is surrounded by water, real or imagined and the point at which they meet is the transition from the liquid to the solid; neither can exist without the other.
The Japanese love of things miniature and their capacity for patience is fully expressed in the art of bonsai. Whether the trees are trained to represent the oldest form of bonsai, the “informal upright” or more modern versions such as the “sharimiki” (resembles dry wood with live branches) these tiny creations are believed to represent all of nature “in one small tree”.
That does not mean that the Japanese were and are not without a sense of humor. In Nijo Castle in Kyoto, which was the center of military power in the ancient capital, the shoguns had their own way of enjoying their gardens. They would mix their love of poetry and saki by holding a poetry writing contest in the midst of the formal display garden. Poets of note would sit on large rocks at the edges of garden streams. Their task was to compose a poem before cups of saki, set afloat upstream, reached their particular rock. If the poem was not complete before the saki reached the poet, the poet must drink the saki before the contest could continue. In that vein:
vision of beauty
within your branches
Now, where’s the saki?
Above all else, Ichikawa Jozan was a poet. Perhaps it was his ability to manipulate words into phrases of great meaning that made his creation of Shisendo Temple and Garden in Tokyo possible. The very skills needed to coax words into their necessary order are similar to those used by a gardener when training a branch or a vine to grow a certain way. Both skill sets require a vision of the finished product before they are even begun.
Ichikawa Jozan (1583-1672) first became a samurai and after retirement in 1615 he turned his attention to the arts. He was a devotee of the Chinese classics and after half a lifetime of studying and creating poetry and artwork, in 1641, at the age of 59 Jozan created Shisendo. The gardens sit in what is now northeast Kyoto and are tended by a Zen Buddhist sect, the Sotos.
Shisendo, like its creator, is a blend of poetry and artistic vision. Almost like Jozan guided the eyes of readers down a page of his poetry, he guides visitors to his garden with delectable phrases that hint at what is coming next. One can enter the “Grotto of Small Possessions” and then follow a pathway that leads to the “Ancient Plum Barrier.” The humour is evident in such labels as the “Wasp’s Waist” describing a series of steps that leads to the “Hall of the Poetry Immortals.”
Another clever turn of phrase is the “Pursuit of Art Nest” name given to a tiny room that offers a panoramic view of the garden. Jozan’s humour surfaces again at his naming of a deer-chaser “Archbishop.” A deer-chaser is a piece of bamboo that fills with water and then tips making a clicking noise, which scares grazing deer. In Japanese it is known as a “shikaol.”
Jozan shows his romantic side in the garden as well. His affection and respect for the moon are reflected in garden areas named “Pavilion of the Lingering Moon” and the “Tower of Intoning Poetry at the Moon.” And of course there are the azaleas, pink and white and a complement to the white sand of the upper garden, kept perfectly groomed to resemble a sheet of white paper, ready for the poet and his pen.