Authenticity in Japanese Landscape Design

Authenticity in Japanese Landscape Design

Huo Hsi (1020 to 1090 A.D.), one of China's great landscape painters, was an astute observer of how the moods of nature affect the human senses. "The din of the dusty world and the locked-in-ness of human habitations are what human nature habitually abhors," he wrote, "whilemist and the haunting spirits of the mountains are what human nature seeks, and yet can rarely find. How delightful then to have a landscape painted by a skilled hand! Without leaving the room, at once we find ourselves among the streams and ravines" Japanese garden design, like landscape painting and haiku, developed out of this yearning to experience our essential oneness with nature. For 14 centuries this landscape art has been responding to the beauty of nature and to human culture.

Today, more than a century after being introduced to the West, Japanese gardens are enjoyed throughout the world. But the quality of these gardens and our understanding of what constitutes good design run the gamut from sublime to stereotypical. Are these gardens satisfying the deep yearnings of which Kuo Hsi wrote? Or are they relying on clichés for their appeal? What makes for authenticity in Japanese landscape design?

Two Paths to Authenticity

There are two quite different paths to authenticity in Japanese gardening. The quickest way to tell them apart is to consider two key aspects of the design process—the sources of inspiration and the choice of materials. The first and most facile of the two approaches is a literal interpretation of the tradition—the lower path. Here, creative response takes a back seat to precedent: formulas and stereotypes guide the design, rather than the intrinsic nature of the situation and universal design principles. This path to authenticity often results in gardens empty of significance and unintegrated with the landscapes around them. Two obvious examples are "Zen" gardens and the use of stone lantern replicas.

A wealthy Japanese industrialist, in a gesture of friendship for an American city, offered to create an "authentic" Japanese garden. From Japan, he sent 500 orchid trees, a 300-year-old lantern, six additional stone lanterns, an eight-ton, eight-foot-high granite statue of Hotei (the smiling god of prosperity), a 15-foot-tall stone pagoda, three bridges, a teahouse, and an arbor. He also hired a famous Japanese landscape architect, six Japanese carpenters, and three Japanese gardeners. Yet the resulting landscape was burdened by clichés and lacked the sublimity we immediately recognize in the best Japanese gardens.

On the precedent-driven path to authenticity, the authority for the design comes from the outside and is imposed—upon those who will use the garden, upon the site (a certain amount of adaptation to the site is acceptable as long as it does not violate precedent), and upon the choice and use of materials (if the "right" types of rocks, ornaments such as stone lanterns, and plants are not available locally, they are imported. Indeed, importing them from Japan makes them more authentic).

The second, higher, path to authenticity follows a metaphorical, situation-driven approach to the tradition. Here, the inspiration for the design comes from within—from the desires and culture of those who will use the garden, from the site and its surroundings (including the regional landscape), and from locally available materials. While those with a shallow understanding of tradition tend to adhere more rigidly to convention, those with a deeper understanding are free to respond to the situation and, in so doing, break with precedent. My teacher, Kinsaku Nakane, put it this way: "Japanese garden design is totally free." David Engel, who apprenticed under Tansai Sano in Kyoto in the 1950s, recalls his teacher's frequent insistence that "I feel free when designing gardens. 'Don't be held down by tired, outworn ideas and practices,' he would say."

Examples abound of Japanese garden designs that broke with precedent in inspired responses to specific situations. The dry landscape garden (karesansui) of Daisen-in was created during the same era when Japanese monochrome ink painting emulating the Chinese masters of the Sung period reached its peak in Japan, the late 15th and early 16th century. The garden translates the atmospheric effects of this style of painting into a three-dimensional composition of rocks and plants, almost as if the landscape had been painted on the outer walls of this Zen Buddhist temple. The craggy peaks, set against the white plaster wall (which serves much the same function as white paper or silk), seem shrouded in mist. Gardens like Daisen-in and the now-famous garden at Ryoan-ji are prototypes—inspired responses to their cultural environment that lend fresh new voices to the tradition of landscape evocation.

Necessity is the mother of invention, as the adage goes, and played an important part in the evolution of another Japanese garden prototype, the tea garden. This new landscape form sought to re-create the experience of imbibing a cup of green tea in the ambiance of a rustic hermit's hut. In Space and Illusion in the Japanese Garden, Teiji Itoh tells the story of a 15th-century shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who, returning one day from a hawking expedition, stopped at a tea master's hermitage. Because the path through the garden was muddy, Yoshimasa's attendants spread out things for him to walk on. As the story goes, this gave the tea master the idea of laying flat stones at intervals along the garden path. So it appears that stepping stones were at first used as a practical solution.

Half a century later, the great tea master Sen no Rikyu (1521-1591) asserted that stepping stones were 60 percent functional and 40 percent aesthetic. By the early 17th century, Rikyu's distinguished disciple, Furuta Oribe (1544-1615), had reversed his teacher's formula, and a tea garden without stepping stones was unthinkable. In a still later development, the courtyard garden, a style developed for the space between the outer shop and inner living quarters of Kyoto's urban commoners, stepping stones were used purely for their aesthetic appeal; they had no practical function.

Prototypes become types and, finally, stereotypes. By the time Englishman Josiah Conder went to Japan in the 1870s to teach Western architecture at the Imperial University of Tokyo, the gardens he saw were clichés. His Landscape Architecture in Japan (1893) was the first detailed book on Japanese gardens available to Westerners. "In spite of his really great efforts to learn about gardens, Conder's knowledge of his subject was extremely limited," asserts Loraine Kuck in The World of the Japanese Garden, "for it was derived almost entirely from the decadent [late] Tokugawa [and early Meiji] gardens in Tokyo" and from the popular how-to books of the time. "The pictures and his report on the curiously poetic names for rocks and trees and the astounding conventions said to rule the garden craft of Japan," she wrote, "aroused interest in Japanese gardens which has never abated. It also led to considerable misunderstanding." Unfortunately, such misconceptions continue to mislead many today.

A gardener at one public Japanese garden once confided to me, with some chagrin, that at a committee meeting some members had expressed the desire to "enhance" the garden by adding black rope and wood crutch supports to the pine trees, something they apparently had seen in other Japanese gardens. The problem, of course, is that they were fascinated by the trappings but did not reflect on their purpose. Fortunately, other committee members rejected the idea, comparing black rope and crutch supports for the pines to a perfectly healthy person walking around with bandages and a cane. In fact, this technique of using black rope and wooden crutches to support or alter the position of tree branches is rarely needed, and rarely used, in Japan. My apprenticeship taught me that the primary technique for guiding the growth of trees is selective pruning, done throughout the life and according to the growth habit of the specimen.

No Japanese garden motif has been governed by more formulaic rules, or more freely interpreted, than another tea garden element, the stone water basin. Usually set on the ground so that one must crouch down to dip the water, the basin evokes a mountain brook flowing into a pool of cool, pure water where one can rinse away the cares of the world and refresh the spirit. There are basins with natural shapes, basins hollowed out of recycled foundation stones, and others with geometrical designs. Northeast of the Shokintei teahouse at the Katsura Villa in Kyoto, stepping stones lead down to the rocky shore and out into the pond, where guests can rinse their hands. Here, the water basin archetype has been expanded to embrace the shores of a pond, an idea attributed to famed garden designer Kobori Enshu (1579-1647). This is the kind of metaphorical leap that occurs when a designer is sensitive not only to the demands of tradition but also to the possibilities of the site and the client's taste. Enshu manages to evoke a mountain hut perched on a rocky shore and at the same time remind us of the origin of the water basin—a crystal stream where people, as well as other creatures, would come for cleansing and refreshment.

Why not take our cues from such examples? Why not tailor ornaments like stone lanterns and water basins out of local materials to meet the needs of the individual garden and make it the exception to use imported designs? A recycled old barn stone might serve as a "lighthouse" on a desolate shore, or native stones might be used to create a stone lantern. A water basin might be a hollowed-out glacial granite boulder, or cast-in-place concrete with the aggregate exposed by washing before it fully sets up. The water basin spout, if there is one, might be made of black bamboo, if it happens to be growing locally, or from the branch of a sycamore tree.

Samuel Newsom offers a useful guideline for incorporating stone ornaments in Japanese landscape design. "People are sometimes carried away by an object because it is old or has a history, regardless of its suitability and artistic value," he observes in Japanese Garden Construction. He encourages readers to resist that tendency and include in their garden designs "only necessary things, or things which truly contribute to the beauty of the scene."

General Design Guidelines

Design the garden so that its beauty accords with the site and responds to the passage of time as sensitively as do leaves in a whispering breeze, with nothing clumsy or coarse about it. The result must be fascinating in a quiet, graceful way.

The above passage from Illustrations for Designing Mountain, Water, and Hillside Field Landscapes (1466), sets a high standard for landscape designers, one that cannot be achieved simply by following rules. Even the author of Tsukiyama Teizoden (1828), the first "do-it-yourself" Japanese garden manual, cautioned against taking the rules he set down too seriously: "Though these are called rules, they are simply intended to show the general principles to which people should adhere. These laws are not fixed and immutable. A stone by such and such a name need not be placed here and another there unless desired. They are only suggestions to be developed appropriately. People fettered by formal ideas should realize this and strive to improve their art." Josiah Conder, if he was aware of it, did not transmit this caution to his Western audience.

If rules are too rigid, then what sort of principles might better guide us when we create Japanese gardens? If we think metaphorically, we can find some general guidelines applicable to a wide range of design situations, and avoid getting bogged down by formulas and details.

I found my own bare-bones framework for responding to design situations in the theory of landscape design implicit in the opening two pages of the Illustrations. The gist of this theory is that a good garden results when the designer is attuned to three essential sources of information and inspiration: the needs and desires of the persons for whom the garden is being created, the nature of the site and the surrounding landscape, and the nature of locally available materials. It's handy to have a name for this triad of essential sources of information and inspiration, so I call it the "Accord Triangle." Some things to consider about the user's nature and needs are: what is his or her favorite landscape? What is the budget? More universal design strategies come into play here as well, such as making the garden pleasing to the senses, and making it resonate with its cultural context. Site considerations include topography, solar orientation, prevailing winds, and any existing trees and architectural elements. The nature of the site and surrounding landscape are important sources of inspiration for the garden design. For example, a wooded hillside might suggest a path leading to a small viewing pavilion. Rocks and plants are locally, or at least regionally, available materials that can inspire the design. Are the rocks, which are used to create geological effects, smooth or craggy or in flat slabs? Is the soil rocky, sandy, or clay loam? Is it poorly or well drained? Is the site sunny or shady? Such factors will determine which plants will best evoke the desired landscape experience.

This approach to creating a Japanese garden is driven by both the specific situation and universal principles of human perception. It makes us responsive to the range of feelings, forces, and qualities that manifest themselves in each unique design situation, rather than forcing us to adhere to a limited range of acceptable forms prescribed by an external authority. It is a way of working from the inside out, as opposed to superimposing an external style or set of ideas. It also encourages us, as we are urged by the author of the Illustrations, to "maintain an attitude of reverence and respect, and not simply do what [we] alone find interesting." Neither the garden designer nor the viewer is a blank slate; rather, each of us is a reservoir of past experience. The Japanese garden tradition opens our eyes not only to the beauty of the landscape of our own country and region, but also to its reflection in our own cultural heritage and personal experience.

Timeless Design Principles

An intuitive awareness of timeless principles—universal truths of nature, including human nature—enables us to effectively design the garden in accord with both the natural environment and the human body. The timeless truths of nature are built into the very fiber of our being; we need no formal learning to apprehend them. We all grasp intuitively the "meaning" of a mountain torrent rushing through its rocky chasm; of a meandering river, wide in the foreground and narrowing to a thread in the distance; or of an ancient gnarled tree, with snaking roots anchoring it in the rock and a thick, twisting trunk spiraling out in a dance of windswept branches.


Registering on our senses directly, proportional relationships have the power to evoke such aesthetic feelings as movement, depth, harmony, and serenity. Certain ratios occur frequently in nature and exert a special pull on our senses. The Golden Section (1:1.618) is the supreme example: it occurs in nature in everything from coiled fern fronds to sea shells and has been applied in the arts of cultures as different as those of Japan and Greece. One does not have to look far in Japanese gardens to discover the use of this proportion. For example, the 15th-century garden manual, the Illustrations, specifies how different-size rocks relate to one another in landscape compositions; by far the most common proportion is the Golden Section. It is clear in the Illustrations, however, that such proportions should not be taken as absolutes, but rather as guides, to be interpreted according to the situation, through the designer's intuition.

rock formation

Thinking in terms of horizontal, vertical, and diagonal planes helps structure a garden design. As in the rock formation above, the diagonal plane evokes exciting dynamism. (Photo: David Slawson)

The Horizontal, Vertical and Diagonal Planes

Working closely with proportion are the "Three Forces" (also described in the Illustrations)—horizontal, vertical, and diagonal. The Three Forces are powerful tools for structuring our designs, as each one can be counted upon to elicit a specific and fundamental aesthetic response. The horizontal plane, associated with level earth and bodies of water, evokes an expansive, easy movement, and thus serenity. The vertical plane evokes the tension and power required when movement is heavenward, in opposition to the force of gravity. In the garden, or nature, this is felt in towering rock formations, and the threadlike waterfalls that sometimes plummet from such precipices. Daisen-in's twin peaks, like Manhattan's early skyscrapers and Gothic cathedrals, use diminishing proportion (they progressively narrow toward the top) to heighten their verticality. The diagonal plane, associated with such vertical objects as trees succumbing to the force of gravity and upthrust rock formations, evokes an exciting dynamism ring on instability. Together, the Three Forces form the three sides of a scalene triangle, a triangle with unequal sides. An asymmetry of forces always feels more natural, dynamic, and inviting in the garden, just as it does in the natural landscape.

The S-curve and Z-zigzag

To the Three Forces, we need to add one other essential element that enlivens both Japanese gardens and natural landscape with its well-proportioned twists and turns—the S-curve. A softening of the Z-zigzag, the S-curve is evident in the flow of rivers and highways, as well as in the lines that define the edge between land and sea, foothills and prairie, or hills and valley. While the sharp-cornered Z-zigzag may be used to evoke rocky mountain landscapes, the S-curve is found in more gentle terrain, where the topography has eroded over the ages.

The S-curve is also one of a number of techniques used to enhance the sense of mystery and depth in Japanese gardens. An S-curve path, for example, invites further exploration and is universally preferred over a straight path, which reveals all at a glance. The sense of mystery can be deepened with techniques of "hide-and-reveal" (mie-gakure) by obscuring the path here and there with plantings, rock outcroppings, or hillocks in a natural way.

The partially concealed S-curve works its magic in the vertical plane as well as the horizontal ground plane. In nature, and in Japanese gardens, we find it in the sculptural trunk and branching of evergreens like pines and junipers, with their green-tufted foliage floating in cloudlike layers. The Chinese and Japanese for centuries have used pruning techniques that simulate the effects of wind and age: an umbrella-shaped crown, an S-curved trunk, and a zigzag branching structure revealed in the spaces between masses of foliage at the branch tips. A visceral sense of rootedness, of connection to the earth, is evoked by the thick, gnarled trunk and outstretching branches of the tree's lower portion, while an ethereal sense, the visual equivalent of the sound of wind soughing through pines, is evoked by the airy filigree of upper branches silhouetted against the sky.

We need not be limited to pines or even conifers to achieve such effects. We can choose other trees that appeal to us from our own environment and experience. A similar gnarled branching pattern and proportionate decreasing of branch spacing is characteristic of such North American natives as sassafras and persimmon, for instance. It is very much in the spirit of Japanese design to look to locally available materials, rather than exotics, to satisfy our design needs.

Evocation of Natural Scenery

Evocation of natural scenery is at the heart of Japanese landscape design. This is emphasized in the general guidelines at the beginning of the 11th century manual, Sakuteiki (Notes on Garden Making):

You should design each part of the garden tastefully, recalling your memories of how nature presented itself for each feature...Think over the famous places of scenic beauty throughout the land, anddesign your garden with the mood of harmony, modeling after the general air of such places.

While Sakuteiki's author could not have imagined that his words would be read by foreigners eight centuries after he wrote them, he would have understood our fervent desire to grasp the underlying spirit and principles of this landscape art. Were he to travel to North America and other foreign lands today, I think he would be the first to recommend that we take the metaphorical path to authenticity—that is, take inspiration from our own native landscapes.

Japan Sea

For centuries, garden designers in Japan have found inspiration in such coastal scenery as that along the Japan Sea. (Photo: David Slawson)

When Kinsaku Nakane designed Tenshin-en, the Japanese dry landscape garden at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, he found inspiration not in the scenic landscapes of Japan but rather, as he put it, in New England's "rocky coastlines, deep forests, soft hillsides, and craggy mountains." A composition of 150 boulders brought from Boston's North Shore and set into undulating earth mounds evokes the geological structure of nearby mountains and offshore islands. Plants like Japanese cryptomeria, stewartia, and maple are combined with Eastern hemlock and American holly to evoke the natural habitat of a New England mixed hardwood-conifer forest. Native conifers with lighter green needles, such as tamarack or white spruce, could easily have taken the place of cryptomeria to serve as a contrast with the darker green hemlock. And native small trees like amelanchier or mountain maple could have served as well as Japanese maples and stewartia to evoke the hardwoods. Using native plants is very much in the spirit of Japanese garden aesthetics, and planting so as to re-create the essence of natural habitats is a basic principle of Japanese garden design set forth in the Illustrations. Which habitats one chooses to evoke will, of course, depend on the site and design inspiration. The beauty of Japanese garden design is in large part due to integration—things are done because they are fitting rather than for show. This larger principle underlies the higher path of authenticity and is aptly illustrated by an exchange between between tea master Sen no Rikyu and a pupil as related in Cha-no-Yu: The Japanese Tea Ceremony:

Seto Kamon Masatada of Omi was first a retainer of the house of Hojo and afterwards served Toyotomi Hideyoshi. He was Rikyu's pupil in Tea and became so expert that he was numbered among the Seven Masters of the day. He was once invited to Rikyu's house and after the tea was over he happened to notice a dipper that lay on the shelf and was much taken with its shape, praising it exceedingly.
Rikyu asked what he saw in it, and he replied that it looked a better shape than those commonly used. "Indeed," said Rikyu, "and why?" "It seems to be a bit shorter than usual, and that gives it a very interesting appearance," replied Masatada. "I should like to have one like it." Some time after this Masatada invited Rikyu to his house, and when the tea was over and the utensils were being put away, Rikyu remarked, "The dipper you used today seems a bit too short." "Ah, but I liked the look of the one I saw at your house so well that I made my own short to match it," replied Masatada. "Ah," said Rikyu with a sigh, "I am afraid you don't yet understand the real spirit of tea, though I thought you did. I am a little man, as you see, and so I have a small dipper to suit my size. But you, on the other hand, are a big fellow, so it is natural for you to use a larger one. What do you want with a small one?" At this enlightenment dawned suddently on Masatada, and in the future he had a large size dipper made.

Sometimes we need encouragement to move from focusing narrowly and literally to seeing the larger picture—to move from the low to the high path of authenticity. Japanese garden design is not just a style of landscaping. It is an art deeply rooted in a way of thinking and feeling about our place in nature. To me, one of the wonders of the art of the Japanese garden is that it has shown a great capacity for seamlessly merging evolving human knowledge with the wisdom of wildness. For this reason it can serve as a beacon to human cultures in the coming centuries, as we seek ways to live in harmony with our earthly home.

Reprinted from Japanese-Inspired Gardens: Adapting Japan's Design Traditions for Your Garden, Patricia Jonas, editor. Published by Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 2001.

David Slawson is one of the most sought-after designers of public and private Japanese gardens in the United States. His Secret Teachings in the Art of Japanese Gardens is one of the most influential books on the subject. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio.

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Image, top of page: Antonio M. Rosario