Article - Spirit of a Japanese Garden

There is no 'typical' Japanese garden. The showy temple and gardens of Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto are a statement of Imperial power. The gardens have glistening water of a mirror lake, an imposing pavilion covered in gold leaf and surmounted by a golden phoenix, wonderful stone bridges and stunning trees - a truly classical Japanese garden.

Ryoan-ji however is just a few miles away; the temple garden here has just fifteen rocks set in small groups in a sea of meticulously raked white gravel. The other gardens in the temple grounds include a wonderful lotus lake and are often overlooked.



The Western idea of a Japanese garden can be seen in a visit to Meimei Teahouse in Matsue on the northern Honshu coast, which has a classical Tea Garden with stepping-stones, ornate lanterns and water basins. 

The small teagarden at Sesshu-ji temple shows a common basin layout – one of the few proscribed aspects of the teagarden. These gardens are all very different, but all share a common theme of the magic of the Japanese garden. It is said it takes 20 years for a Tea Master to learn the Tea Ceremony, but it takes a lifetime to truly understand the mystery of the gardens.

The underlying principle of the Japanese garden is quite simple – a fundamental harmony between the yin (low, damp, dark and feminine side) and the yang (high, hard, bright, spiky masculine side) achieved with rocks, stone, sand, water, bamboo and plants.

Everywhere you look there must be a balance between the yin and yang. Erect stones must be balanced by supporting recumbent stones, water balanced with rocks as is the yin of the night balanced with the candle in the lantern (Adachi Museum garden right).

Although the basic notion of harmony is simple, the search for it is much more difficult to explain. A Japanese garden is a place for divine spirits, which they share with us. The balance of the yin and yang means that good spirits will be drawn to the garden and the evil ones will leave it in peace. But there is more to this spirituality than just the harmony between the yin and yang. Everywhere the garden is full of devices to ward off evil spirits along the lines of Feng Shui. Trees and stones are grouped in odd numbers ‑ threes, fives and sevens. Even numbers are unlucky ‑ the character for the number four is a homonym for death! Three is the most important number, representing, from Buddhist teachings, heaven, earth and man. The evil spirits are deemed to walk in straight lines and hence paths twist and turn. A flat [stepping] stone is never placed near a bedroom window, nor is a tree planted at the centre of a garden (Reiun-in sub temple "Zen" garden).

Great care has to be taken when placing stones, for the spirits within these rocks will be angered if changed from their position in nature. Everywhere the garden is full of meaning ‑ strict codes are followed, which all began with the Sakuteiki scrolls in the 11th century. This is in effect the world’s first gardening book.

The philosophy of our Western gardens is very different. The Japanese garden is a place where emotions are calmed, a tranquil place to please the spirits; this is known as wabi.  In contrast in our Western gardens, we seek to heighten the emotions and impress our friends and neighbours. The most important aspects in the Japanese garden are non‑living ones ‑ the Japanese word for gardener (kawaracbo) means "He who makes the bed of streams". By far the most important items are water, stone, sand, gravel, bamboo, aged trees ... and space. For us the focus is so often flowers, and flowers  and there’s a space so lets fill it with even more flowers (Shugaku-in Imperial Villa - Dragon bathing pond).

There are three basic styles to be seen in the Japanese garden. Michiko no Takumi brought over the first of the styles in 612 from China in the form of the Paradise Garden, water ran from a spring in the east to the lake in the west. There were rocks, artificial mountains and islands ‑ a portrait of mountain scenery painted in stone, water and trees. A rock and water garden for the spirits to enjoy, but then came the great Civil War in the 15th century and it was only in the Buddhist monasteries that gardening survived.

In these Zen temples the gardens took on a very simple form - raked sand to represent the ocean and stones to represent gods, mountains or animals. This was the dry garden (Karesansui) full of symbolism where the monks spent many hours in meditation seeking enlightenment from the stone and the sand (Ryogen-in temple garden).

The purpose of tea before the 16th century was purely practical and not at all spiritual. It was used to keep the Buddhist monks awake during their long hours of meditation. "The Way of Tea" however, became a highly spiritual ceremony to cleanse the mind and the Tea Garden (roji) was born - a place of winding paths, mountain like beauty and the rustic structure in which the Tea Ceremony was held. It was a winding path designed to distance the tearoom from the everyday world. There are no impressive floral displays but a tradition of restrained colours, perhaps a touch of melancholy, a distinctly asymmetrical look and trained trees (Meimei-an roji at Matsue).

The origin of the name roji gives a clue to its feel and ambience. Roji is translated as "dewy path or ground" and is derived from the Buddhist Lotus sutra text and occurs in the context "escaping from the fire stricken habitations of the Three Phenomenal Worlds they take their places on the dewy ground". There are few rules for the design of the tea garden, however it should comprise of two parts separated by a gated entrance. It will contain a water basin, as washing the hands and mouth before tea is cleansing the spirit and removing the