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The Japanese Stroll Garden: A Journey of Time and Space

The Japanese stroll garden places great importance on the path. Stroll gardens usually are quite large and have a pond in the central area encircled by a path (or several paths), which allows visitors to stroll about. These gardens developed after the medieval period, from the 17th to 19th centuries, when travel throughout the country was severely limited by the central government. Because the lords couldn't travel freely, they created private gardens where such "excursions" could be undertaken. In their gardens they built a number of scenes that reminded visitors of famous places from around the country, familiar from well-known tales and woodblock prints, as well as from stories told by those returning from religious pilgrimages (one of the few kinds of travel for which it was possible to obtain a permit). By traveling about the garden path, visitors could take "excursions" designed for them by their host.

Among the famous scenes depicted in stroll gardens were natural landscapes such as Mount Fuji, Amanohashidate (a famous spot along the Japan Sea coast), and the Oi River near Kyoto. The scenes also included built objects such as Togetsukyo and Tsutenkyo, both famous bridges near Kyoto. One garden owner even went so far as to have an entire postal town reconstructed for the pleasure of his guests, who may not have had a chance to see such an "exotic" out-of-the-way place. Some scenes were reminiscent not of Japan but of China, like the Su dike in the West Lake near Hangzhou; and other gardens contained scenes that were drawn from poetry rather than actual localities, often poetry of the earlier, Heian period. The path that meandered about the garden passed these various scenes, hiding and revealing them in turns (a technique called mie-gakure), allowing the visitor to take a broad excursion within the confines of the garden.

The scenes were not recreated in miniature, as in a model, but rather were expressed symbolically. The essence of a natural scene was extracted and re-created in the garden. For instance, to evoke the feeling of Amanohashidate, which is a narrow, pine-covered spit of land arcing across a wide bay, all that was needed was one pine tree planted on a short peninsula in a pond, edged with some well-placed boulders.

The paths of the stroll gardens, like those of the tea gardens, elicit the sense of embarking on a journey. Unlike the tea garden, however, the journey is not an inward one, but rather one that transcends time and space to allow those who circumambulate the garden to venture to faraway places in times past or present.

If you own a large property and are interested in creating a stroll garden, the key aspect of the design is to develop a series of scenes along a bamboo path that meanders around a central element, usually a pond or lake. The scenes may depict whatever you wish. For instance, they could be reflections of the natural world in your area. Such a garden would include a series of "mini-ecosystems," each of which mirrors the geology and flora of the natural environment surrounding your home. This is similar to the aspect of Japanese stroll gardens, which have "mountain, meadow, and ocean" districts within them. The key to designing this way is to not be too literal but rather, as stated in the 11th-century gardening manual, Sakuteiki, to "visualize the famous landscapes of our country and come to understand their most interesting points. Re-create the essence of those scenes in the garden but do so interpretatively not strictly."

Another, perhaps more poetic, option for designing a stroll garden is to create scenes that are interpretations not of the physical world, but rather of cultural themes. This is accomplished by creating physical scenes that are in fact contemplative musings on cultural subjects: science, literature, history, and so on. Rikugien, for example, a large stroll garden in Tokyo, employs the six classic themes of poetry as its motif, laying out a series of 88 scenes derived from poetic epithets and themes that were favored by the owner.

Designing Paths

The speed and cadence of movement through a garden, whether a Japanese tea garden or a large stroll garden (or any other garden, for that matter) is determined by the design of the path. Of course, the placement of the path within the garden is important in determining how a garden will be revealed, but it is not the only factor; the design of the path surface itself also influences the experience.

Imagine yourself on a path made of a material that is easily walked upon, such as smooth gravel or neatly arranged cut granite pavers or even bamboo pole pavement You can walk freely, at whatever speed you desire, head held up, and look around as you move through the garden. If, however, the path is made of small stepping stones that provide uncertain footing, the speed at which you can walk will drop dramatically, and your movements will become staccato as you navigate from stone to stone. In order to watch your footing, your head will drop, and you will not look around while walking. The way in which your head is held—and thus the way in which the garden is revealed as you pass through—is determined not only by where the path is placed but also by the materials from which it is made.

The designers of tea gardens made maximum use of this technique, creating paths that carefully guide guests through the garden in stages. Modern garden makers can learn much from these master designers of the past: a path made of small stepping stones, for instance, could lead into the garden from the outer gate, then turn into a nobedan, a section of path made of small stones fitted together into a neat rectangular form, somewhat like a rectangular tatami mat (in fact it is also called an ishidatami or stone tatami). Whereas stepping stones are difficult to walk on (forcing the cadence to slow and the head to drop), a nobedan is easier to navigate, enabling you to raise your head and look forward. Consequently, it is appropriate to place a nobedan at a point where the sudden lifting of the head will reveal some aspect of the garden—a distant teahouse, a lantern, or some other view. In another design, a stepping stone path could be punctuated by a larger stone, like a garanseki, a round foundation stone that was used as a pedestal for the massive wooden columns in old temples. Whereas you will look down while crossing the stepping stones, once you step up onto the larger stone, you can pause and look about the garden freely. These "punctuation" stones are often placed at a juncture where several paths meet, acting as nodes in the flow of movement through the garden.

The material of which a path is made controls movements and vision, but it also adds the dimension of sound to the garden. Soil paths dampen the sounds of footsteps, gravel adds a crunching sound (with rounded pebbles being more pleasant than crushed gravel) and stepping stones provide a percussive tapping sound. These sounds are heightened when visitors wear wooden sandals; the rubber-soled shoes popular today lessen the intensity of footfall sounds.

Visual balance is another important aspect of path design. Balance in Japanese gardens (as in all of the arts of Japan) can be described as asymmetric and dynamic. Whereas objects of importance in European gardens, such as fountains and sculptures, are typically placed on center with a path, thereby developing the axial site-line of an allée, Japanese gardens favor asymmetry. When paths are designed asymmetrically, the line they form in the garden tends to meander or, alternatively, develops in a complex series of straight sections that meet each other obliquely. The paths never (or rarely) align "on-center" with an object of importance, a teahouse, lantern, or prominent planting, as in formal European gardens, but rather approach them from an angle, offering oblique views that are less formal.

Those designing Japanese gardens outside of Japan often are tempted to resort to stereotypical elements—raked white sand, red bridges, and so on. But there are other, more subtle ways of designing gardens that may not necessarily contain obvious Japanesque elements, yet still provide the essence of the original. Consider, for instance, the way paths have been used in Japanese gardens—to lead those who walk them on spiritual and spatial journeys—and thoughtfully employ this design principle in your own garden. Having done so, the feeling of a Japanese garden will be transmitted without resorting to stereotypes. After all, we turn to the garden for refreshment, for repose, and for discovery. When a garden path takes us on one of those journeys, it has offered us all it can.


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Last modified: August 28, 2014