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Japanese Garden History

Japanese garden history is long and interesting. With the beauty we associate with the idea of Japanese gardens, it is only natural that we should have an interest in how it came to be.

Japanese garden history tells us that the beginnings of gardening in Japan came from China. During the Han Dynasty (140-87 BC), the Emperor of China established a garden that mimicked the larger landscape, including the Tao Islands of the Immortals.

This style of gardening caught on, and in 607 AD, this gardening style was spread to Japan when the Japanese emissary saw China's vast Imperial garden. Four years later, the first pond and hill garden was established in Japan. During this time, known as the Asuka period (552-647 AD), gardening was practiced according to Shinto traditions, which deified nature.

Beautiful trees and rocks were worshiped. The area around them would be cleared and a straw rope would be tied around the plant or rock to signify this was a holy place where man and nature could communicate. These areas were called niwa.

This practice was common during the first half of the Asuka period, with the second half being dominated by the Chinese garden ideas.

During the Nara era (646-794 AD) the Chinese and Japanese styles blended. Niwa was now used to describe the more formal Chinese style. During the Nara period, the architecture style was known as shinden, and it utilized pathways between buildings.

The pathways were decorated with gardens of plants and stones that decorated the buildings. These were found in large complexes like palaces and temples. It was during this era that a large central stone was first used to represent shumisen, the Buddhist symbol of the center of the universe with a mountain stone as Buddha's home. It was sometimes surrounded by smaller stones, representing the homes of Buddha's followers.

The Heian era (794-1185 AD) introduced opulence and elegance to Japan. Gardens became more complex and luxurious, being the central meeting places of the rich. Garden design was expected to be a skill of aristocrats, and garden strolls were a favorite pastime. The Book of Garden (Sakuteiki) was written by Tachibana no Toshitsuna during this era. This book is the real beginning of Japanese gardening style.

While Chinese gardens followed the rules of feng shui, allowing gardens to be planted only in the best areas that fit these rules, this book provided remedies for problems that may exist in an area where they wished to create a garden.

An example might be to plant three willows in the east of the garden if no river existed there. This book not only broke the final ties to Chinese gardening, it stressed the importance of stone placement above all else, creating further divergence from the Chinese gardening ideals.

The Kamakura era (1185-1392 AD) brought spirituality to the garden. Now a place of contemplation, the gardens were designed by priests rather than the aristocracy. Muso Soseki was a well-known garden designer in this era. He changed more concepts of Japanese gardens, introducing the hide and reveal concept as well as that of borrowed scenery. He is responsible for taking the viewer into the garden, rather than looking at it from a viewing point.

The Muromachi era (1393-1558 AD) brought civil war to Japan. At the same time, many staples of Japanese culture appeared, like landscape painting, Noh theatre and tea ceremony. With the birth of a new merchant class, gardens became prevalent in smaller areas like courtyards in private homes. Karesansui, or dry gardens made of rocks and sand, came into being during this era.

The Momoyama era (1569-1603 AD) brought more elaborate garden designs into being all over Japan. Cut stone was used on pathways and bridges. Private garden designers began supplanting the priests. Sen no Rikyu, a tea master, simplified the tea ceremony and did the same to his tea garden. Simple gardens became all the rage toward the end of this era, and Kobori Enshu, another tea master, actually began designing tea gardens for others.

In the Edo period (1603-1867 AD) professional gardeners became popular, planting gardens for the growing middle class. Social classes began to change as these gardeners, many of them from the lower classes, started conversing with the upper classes. During this period, Japan's isolation ended, and as they were increasingly influenced by the outside world, traditional gardens became less important.

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