The Japanese garden, the universe in miniature

Marie Ebersolt

30th May, 2023

Pleasure gardens seem to be a cultural representation of the notion of space and an aesthetic of nature. Botanical knowledge and landscaping techniques allow the staging of an artificial plant world. The laws of composition differ from one country to another. 

The Japanese garden is loved and respected for its spiritual symbols and aesthetic calm. The inhabitants of the archipelago rest there during a visit to the temple, stroll there after a traditional meal or admire it during a meditation. Present in various places, both private and public, it can be visited in temples, castles, public parks and can be viewed from traditional inns or private homes. This attachment can perhaps be explained by the long history of this man-made plant world.

The first outlines of gardens appear in antiquity, during the Jomon period around 300 BC. Gravel and sand were used to delimit sacred spaces from agricultural land. Natural elements such as trees, pebbles or waterfalls were borrowed for religious ceremonies, while rocks sheltered the kami, the deities of nature. It was between the 6th and 8th centuries that the first real gardens appeared. The oldest attested garden, which no longer exists today, dates back to 612. An artificial lake was built around an island on which stands a representation of Mount Meru, a mythical mountain considered as the axis of the world in various oriental mythologies, including Buddhism. A bridge provides access to the lake.

The first Japanese style accompanied the architecture of the imperial residences of the Heian era between 794 and 1185. Strongly influenced by Chinese geomancy (feng-shui), the cardinal points determine the location of the buildings and the spaces surrounding them. To the south of the main building is a sandy courtyard and then a pond around which the components of the garden are organised: an island symbolising the world of the immortals is set up in the centre of the water and a bridge connects it to the land. The gardens of this period are marked by asymmetry, refinement, the melancholy of impermanence, and the Japanese aesthetic and spiritual concept of Mono no Aware, which defines sensitivity to the ephemeral and empathy towards things.

The following period was marked by the development of Zen Buddhism. The first Zen gardens were designed to develop an atmosphere conducive to calm and meditation. Flowering plants were replaced by evergreen trees and the landscape ambition shifted. Symbolism replaces mimicry, the challenge being to represent the entire universe in the garden through abstraction and metaphor. At first it was the high priests who designed the gardens, but little by little the profession became more professional. With the help of the monks, who were more egalitarian than the rest of society, the gardeners gained real recognition despite their low caste status. Moreover, the progressive ascendancy of the military nobility led to a style opposite to that of the monks. The gardens were considered to be objects of contemplation and were designed for their visual appeal, like paintings. The meditative place was thus transformed into an open-air terrarium.

Subsequently, the development of the tea ceremony greatly influenced the aesthetics of gardens, which were seen as the transition from the outside world to an enclosed space dedicated to introspection. Indeed, the wabi-sabi movement, which initiated a new codification of the tea ceremony, rejected artifice and emphasised simplicity with the concept of "sober refinement" (sabi). The garden is therefore considered the ideal environment for the meditative aspect of the ceremony.

The first strolling gardens were built during the Kamakura period (1185-1333) and reached their peak during the Edo period when the feudal lords and all the merchants and craftsmen prospered. The wealthiest had them built on their estates or in their gardens and strolled through reproductions of Chinese or Japanese panoramas. Small gardens, like those for the tea ceremony, also developed in town houses. 

Finally, from the Meiji era (1868-1912) to the present day, Western motifs are integrated. Japanese and Western forms coexist; open lawns and a wide variety of plants are found in various places: hotels, spas and shopping centres. Public gardens are not left out, with the hanami held every year in the spring during picnics at the foot of the cherry trees.

In order to understand the Japanese garden, it is also necessary to know the means used to integrate a representation of nature in a limited area. 

First of all, garden architecture was adapted to the Japanese geography. The temperate and humid climate shaped the styles, which were constantly marked by the four distinct seasons, and offered a floral variety that enriched the compositions. The volcanic massifs with their narrow valleys and winding sea coasts have favoured the harmony of gardens with the contours of the land and an aesthetic of asymmetry. The natural landscapes are all motifs. 

In addition, three main principles govern the scenic composition: the miniaturisation of the universe, symbolism and the capture of landscapes. The first is used to represent nature in the dedicated space, the second recalls the religious function and the last allows the garden to be inserted into the larger setting by blurring the border. 

Finally, according to the aesthetic rules governing their arrangement, several elements stage motifs inspired by natural landscapes. They are organised around the place from which the garden is intended to be seen. Rocks, trees, water, sand and gravel reproduce mountains, rivers, forests and seas. Paths, borders and decorations such as lanterns, pagodas, statues, bridges and pavilions are also arranged to give more volume. Animals such as koi carp (which also serve to limit aquatic vegetation), waterfowl, turtles and frogs complete the world.

Marie Ebersolt