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Japanese Gardens and Aesthetics

Guiding Thoughts
Heian Gardens
Zen Temple Gardens
Strolling Gardens
Tea Gardens
Tsubo Gardens
Garden Timeline
Suggested Reading

Portraying a Japanese Buddhist Monk in the SCA

Japanese Films

Essential Dharma


The Clan of Matsuyama

SCA Resources
(The Chatelaine's Box)



Japanese Aesthetics and the Garden

Funa Asobi (pleasure boat style) and Shin-den Heian Mansion Gardens


· Built and designed by the Imperial aristocrats.

· Connected to mansions, often taking up half the allotted land of a Kyoto-city mansion (up to 3.5 acres).

· Heavily influenced by geomancy, Buddhist symbolism and Shinto.

· Sparse plantings but colorful flowers and deciduous trees.

· Pond containing an island-mountain connected to shore by two or more bridges.

In the Heian era (10th to 12th cent.), Japan was breaking away from a long period of aping the styles of T’ang Dynasty China. New ideas were developing as the Imperial court “Japanified” what it had learned. In the area of garden design, however, Chinese thought was still a powerful force. Most of the aesthetic principles we see as Japanese had not yet developed.

The dominant architectural style, called Shinden, was essentially a modification of Chinese design. Buildings were arranged somewhat symmetrically and according to the laws of Chinese geomancy. (note: Feng shui is part of Chinese geomancy) Within the mansions, a central building, the shinden (lit. sleeping hall) would be linked to other outlying buildings by covered causeways. Beyond the tiles roofs and verandas was the garden. A large empty area was set aside for open-air gatherings such as dance performances or games. The rest of the garden was intended for viewing and limited strolling. Punting on small boats to catch and grill fish in the pond was one popular activity. Poetry reading and writing was essential.

According to the laws of geomancy, all structures had to be laid out carefully along compass lines and in certain configurations to allow “ki”, the mystic energy of life (Chinese “chi”), to flow properly. Poor ki flow in a home was thought to cause sickness and disharmony. For example, the builders, after consulting with a Yin-yang diviner, would usually create special arrangements to prevent bad ki from entering the home from the northwest (where most of it comes from apparently). In the first Japanese garden design manual, the Sakuteiki, it is explained how water courses should flow from the northwest to the southeast so that any bad ki could be cleansed by the protective deity of the east Kamogawa (blue dragon), then proceed west again passing under a veranda of the house so as to draw away any evil spirits that might have somehow slipped into the house. Heavy stones were thought to serve as gates or landing points for spirits and were thus placed very carefully.

Other design rules applied as well. Influenced by esoteric Buddhism, the garden design was expected to include an island in a pond connected to the mainland by a bridge. This represented the world of enlightenment separated from the world of man. The bridges were frequently arched and coated with bright red lacquer (another Chinese influence).

The Heian nobles also imbued their gardens with special aesthetic ideas which are almost unique to this time. Miyabi is refined taste. Mujo is a sense of melancholy which arose from a Buddhist awareness of the impermanence and transient nature of all things; from the seasons to beauty and life itself. Aware is an overwhelming emotional reaction to beauty; especially to subtle beauty in the presence of mujo. Plantings were sparse but of bright flowers such as irises and chrysanthemums. Flowering and deciduous trees were popular for their passing beauty. The Heian gardens wore a different face in each season.

At the end of the Heian era, chaos ensued. Most of the Imperial court culture withered away as civil war shook Japan. Most of the great shinden mansions of Heiankyo were destroyed. As a result, there are no extant examples of Heian mansion gardens. However, they have been found in archeological sites and are well represented in literature such as The Tale of Genji and paintings of the era. Yet this garden style never really died and was to be reborn, in part, in the strolling pleasure gardens of medieval warlords.