The Viewing Garden

The curious thing about gardens here in Japan is that they are more akin to fine art than simply places of peace and beauty. They seem to be simple, and can often seem simliar to one another. Yet, with a practiced eye, and even a brief knowledge of the complex philosphies behind their design, these gardens come to bare a great deal of beauty.

This intricate gravel garden at Kodaiji Temple has become one of my favorites, and is complimented by a strolling garden amidst the temple buildings.

This intricate gravel garden at Kodaiji Temple has become one of my favorites, and is complimented by a strolling garden amidst the temple buildings.

One of the temples within Kodaiji engulfed in the strolling garden of ponds, woodland, bamboo grove, tea house, and land forms.

One of the temples within Kodaiji engulfed in the strolling garden of ponds, woodland, bamboo grove, tea house, and land forms.

Japanese gardens can be divided into two categories, the viewing garden to be admired from within a dwelling, or the strolling garden to be immersed in. Both garden styles are unique, but provide an equally intriguing experience. They possess a wealth of symbolism, sometimes quite literal in its interpretation, but often times quite subtle. At this time, the viewing garden is the one that has peaked my interest in particular. I have not before come across a garden created solely to be viewed. In the States and in England, you can find a myriad of gardens in which views are aligned to a home or structure, but not so often, if ever, just to be looked upon.

The strolling garden at Ginkakuji, or The Silver Pavillion, complete with connecting ponds, cloud form pines and more miss than you've ever seen.

The strolling garden at Ginkakuji, or The Silver Pavillion, complete with connecting ponds, cloud form pines and more miss than you’ve ever seen.

The viewing garden at Ginkakuji, a fusion of sorts as in this instance, it sits amidst the strolling garden without obstruction.

The viewing garden at Ginkakuji, a fusion of sorts as in this instance, it sits amidst the strolling garden without obstruction.

Ninnaji Temple is home to this viewing garden that uses the extended landscape to create enclosure.

Ninnaji Temple is home to this viewing garden that uses the extended landscape to create enclosure.

This vast gravel garden, within the Daitokuji Temple complex, is met by a grove of sculpted Cryptomeria, made to look like an ancient forest.

This vast gravel garden, within the Daitokuji Temple complex, is met by a grove of sculpted Cryptomeria, made to look like an ancient forest.

The viewing garden is one of minimal color, carefully maintained trees and shrubs, and great swaths of gravel and stones. Their main goal is to encourage the guest to contemplate, to consider and to provide them with a substrate for meditation. As these gardens have most often been created by monks in Zen Buddhist temples, this purpose makes a great deal of sense. While these spaces are certainly a far cry from a meadow garden or a long border, they provide no less powerful an atmosphere. To be forced to experience a garden from a platform, from a limited point of view, is a strange feeling. My first thoughts were along the lines of, ‘Why is this a please-do-not-touch-the-art garden?’  I have been notoriously bad at respecting this rule admittedly, and have recieved many stern glances from museum guards. So this concept was a bit hard for me to grasp at first, but I have come around. I began looking at the nature of these garden visits differently than those in the past, as an opportunity to slow down, sometimes all the way to stop. This can be hard to do in a large garden with many paths and nooks and crannies, because you just want make sure you see it all!  But you also sacrifice the chance to look at your place in the garden, exist in the moment, and appreciate that moment. A viewing garden provides you with no other option, you must stop to see everything, rather than chasing the next thing around the corner.

The viewing garden at Nanzenji Temple, an early 17th century garden designed by Kobori Enshu, perfectly illustrates the mountainous coastline and vast ocean landscape

The viewing garden at Nanzenji Temple, an early 17th century garden designed by Kobori Enshu, perfectly illustrates the mountainous coastline and vast ocean landscape

An enclosed space, the observer of this garden can sit and meditate without distraction, save the numerous passers by.

An enclosed space, the observer of this garden can sit and meditate without distraction, save the numerous passers by.

The viewing garden at Manshuin Temple was designed to represent a narrow mountain passage, with a strongly directional gravel pattern to mimic a steam. The large pine positioned on an island has been trained to look like a crane, with its long neck stretched out over the water. (Something I would not have seen without a bit of reading)

The viewing garden at Manshuin Temple was designed to represent a narrow mountain passage, with a strongly directional gravel pattern to mimic a steam. The large pine positioned on an island has been trained to look like a crane, with its long neck stretched out over the water. (Something I would not have seen without a bit of reading)

A much more verdant viewing garden, at Ryoanji Temple, provides a serene and distinctly different atmosphere to observe.

A much more verdant viewing garden, at Ryoanji Temple, provides a serene and distinctly different atmosphere to observe.

I like to think of the differences between the viewing garden and the strolling garden like forms of fine art. A strolling garden, like a sculpture, can be interacted with, touched or viewed from many angles, and can be very enjoyable. While a viewing garden, like a painting, can also be very enjoyable, but can not be touched our interacted with. In lieu of this, paintings are more capable of allusion, in my opinion of course, and can bring you to a different place, a different time, or evoke strong emotions. It is art, no more or less than a sculpture, simply with different strengths. A garden to be viewed is no less of a garden because you can not interact with it. The breadth of space and time represented in a viewed garden is nearly infinite, as it is meant to distill oceans and islands, mountains and myths, into their simplest forms, using stones, moss, gravel, and simple plantings. In this way, in quite a small space, you can fit all four corners of the Earth into a single vision. The beauty one finds in a Japanese garden is in its symbolism, its grand undertones, and less in the elements I have previously associated with a garden, like framed views, unique plant selections or clever color and texture combinations.

Perhaps the most famous viewing garden is at Ryoanji Temple. This simple garden of rocks gravel, and moss is a register UNESCO World Heritage Site and for a good reason. To sit and look upon this small walled landscape, and come to see how vast it really was, was quite a moving experience indeed.

Perhaps the most famous viewing garden is at Ryoanji Temple. This simple garden of rocks gravel, and moss is a register UNESCO World Heritage Site and for a good reason. To sit and look upon this small walled landscape, and come to see how vast it really was, was quite a moving experience indeed.

I find this to be an interesting perspective of the garden, not simply a place of meditation but of the world condensed. I feel the English have condensed the world into their gardens through plant collecting, almost literally bringing the world home with them, by looking outward. While, in contrast, the Japanese have condensed the world by taking all but the essential away, using but a few native plants and materials from the land around them, by looking inward. And then of course we have America, a melting-pot of garden philosophies, looking both inward and outward. Rather than condensing the world, the American garden reflects on the land that is present, the wealth of nature that America already possesses, and amplifies it. I believe the American garden is more of a sculpture, to be interacted with, but what would come of a painting created in America? How could you instill the power of symbolism, and condense the world into an American garden? What would that look like?

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