Garden and landscape design is an art form that has helped define the aesthetics of Japan for centuries. By knowingly shaping their gardens, both emperors and nobles have recreated miniature landscapes with a level of precision and idealization that has made garden design a staple of Japanese culture. With its high ratio of well-preserved temples, Kyoto has always been the perfect environment for seeing a wide variety of garden styles. During our three hour walking seminar we will focus on garden design during the Muromachi period, which saw a flourishing of Japanese culture, including the creation of Zen Buddhism.
Our time begins at Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion, situated in the north-west pocket of Kyoto. This Zen Buddhist temple began its life as a private villa in the 13th century. Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu purchased the land, transforming it into his home in the 14th century. Though the pavilion was burned down in 1950, the structure was subsequently rebuilt as a close copy of the original. Fortunately, the lush gardens have remained intact, allowing us to delve into villa garden design during the Muromachi period, which ran from approximately 1337 to 1573. The Mirror Pond, which reflect the pavilion and contains numerous man-made islands, will help us understand the use of water and stone in the environment. Aside from dissecting the various natural elements used to create the gardens, we will also discuss how these spaces were used, both for contemplation and entertainment, and how these uses changed as the space transformed from private villa to Buddhist temple.
After a short trip on the local bus, we will arrive at two excellent examples of Zen rock gardens. The Karesansui Garden at Ryoan-ji is a prime example dry Zen gardens, giving great contrast to the water used at Kinkaku-ji. The stylized landscape created from gravel and rocks represents an alternate garden type from the Muromachi Period and exemplifies the type of design one finds at Zen Buddhist temples. The philosophy behind the Zen gardens and their connection to Zen Buddhist tenets provide a means for understanding how form and function are bound tightly together.
Ninna-ji, our final stop, dates from the Heian period, giving us a means to compare earlier landscape design against the later Muromachi period. The covered walkways of the Goten, former residence of the head priest, were modeled on an Imperial style and feature painted sliding doors that mirror the surrounding landscape. Ninna-ji contains both dry gardens and gardens with water features, tying together the principles we have discussed during our seminar.
At the end of our time together we will come away with a deeper understanding into how Japanese garden and landscape reflect a wider philosophy and culture. We will also gain insight into the renaissance that occurred during the Muromachi period and its role in pushed garden design to a new level.