Reworking utopia: Contemporary Japanese garden design

In common with other cultural shifts, Japanese garden design has not been immune to political and social upheaval, nor has it been immune to the opportunities that turmoil provides for change and innovation.

As outside pressure mounted on Japan to open up to trade with the West, opposition to the Tokugawa shogunate reached critical mass. With the dissolution of the feudal system and the restoration of the emperor in the new Meiji Era (1868-1912), many gardens in Japan faced near extinction.

As interest among the general public in traditional gardens dwindled, the landscape masterpieces of Kyoto were allowed to decay. In some instances, garden elements such as stone lanterns and particularly finely formed and grained rocks were sold off. As author Alex Kerr has written of the period, “Once the world of old Japan had vanished, it was time to recycle the fragments.”

With economic liberalization and the founding of an ambitious industrial base, great fortunes were amassed by a new breed of entrepreneurs and wealthy industrialists eager to commission gardens for their new estates. At their least laudable, such gardens function as indicators of conspicuous wealth and consumption, a measure of financial standing and influence.

With garden landscaping no longer regarded as an art, and with Western garden and park designs to the fore, private estates turned away from Japanese formalism and toward Western naturalism.

One of Mirei Shigemori's modernist gardens at the temple of Fukuchi-in on Mount Koya | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
One of Mirei Shigemori’s modernist gardens at the temple of Fukuchi-in on Mount Koya | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

The more assertive ornamentation of the period expressed a growing confidence and a concomitant reduction of the self-restraint that defined masterpieces of a former age. Such gardens — replete with meticulous lawns, oversized stone lanterns, vertiginous water lavers and inordinately large shoe-removing stones — function not only as indicators of wealth and consumption, a measure of financial standing, but delineators of social class.

If changes in design and landscape elements were visible during this era, they were evolving alongside a lingering nostalgia for the garden principals of a former time, a reverence for garden prototypes and tradition. The revival of the dry landscape garden in the early Showa Era (1926-89) restored symbolism and abstraction, but it was only with the advent of Mirei Shigemori (1896-1975) that garden designs entered an age of visible modernity.

A highly original designer, Shigemori’s landscapes are, depending on whether you consult devotees or detractors, either iconoclastic masterpieces or affronts to tradition. A preference for sharp, upright mountain rocks over the smoother surfaces of river stones, his designs included the contentious use of materials such as cement and tile, colored sand and gravel.

Audacious clusters of vertical stones feature in his work, despite the admonition of ancient garden manuals to avoid arranging proximate rock groupings. Flaunting conventional wisdom, these highly muscular forms lend a soaring quality to his designs. The persistence of the contemporary in Shigemori’s work embodies the notion that Japanese landscape designs are not imitations of the natural world, but coexisting forms that harmonize art and nature.

Mirei Shigemori’s garden at Kishiwada Castle replicates the patterns of a mythological Chinese battlefield. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Mirei Shigemori’s garden at Kishiwada Castle replicates the patterns of a mythological Chinese battlefield. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Gunter Nitschke, a Kyoto-based architect, scholar and authority on gardens, contends that the prototype for the contemporary Japanese garden, reflecting the postwar adoption of the Western-inspired dualism of man and nature, “no longer starts from existing models in nature, but is better understood as an intellectual projection onto nature. Its gardens are thus no longer landscapes, but mindscapes.” Rather than seeking to mirror nature, such gardens function as mediums for self-expression.

Contemporary Japanese garden designers take a more liberal, or fluid, approach to space and line, one more in accord with ideas in Benoit Mandelbrot’s “The Fractal Geometry of Nature,” in which he asserts, “Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line.”

At its most radical, the modern meta-garden dispenses entirely with natural elements. The 1989 Shonandai Cultural Center is an example of a fabricated landscape, whose only natural component is water. Its creator, architect Itsuko Hasegawa, defines the composition’s mash of plaza pools, pyramidal roofs, spheres and undulating streams as “another nature.” This raises some interesting questions. If the unstated intention of the contemporary landscape artist is to create a modernist utopia, a futuristic garden prototype, is it possible to do so by means of the synthetic garden?

Built near the epicenter of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, the highlight of architect Tadao Ando’s Awaji Yumebutai hotel, conference center and park complex, is the Hyakudanen, or “One Hundred Stepped Garden,” which consists of concrete-encased flower and shrub beds stacked against a hill. Completed in 2000, the project was purportedly designed to help heal the wounds between man and nature. One would have to ask if that end has been achieved, or whether the proliferation of concrete, already discolored and suffering from surface cracking, compromises nature.

The stacked design of Tadao Ando’s Hyakudanen garden | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
The stacked design of Tadao Ando’s Hyakudanen garden | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

A more successful fusion of technological ingenuity and natural elements takes place at architect Junya Ishigami’s 2018 Water Garden at Art Biotop in Nasu, Tochigi Prefecture. Aside from being a work of outstanding originality and beauty, it is a fine example of the contemporary merging of indigenous garden thinking with natural and adjusted landforms.

Here we see a forest of transplanted maples, cherry, Korean hornbeams and Quercus serratas, standing among a series of artificial ponds, whose water is replenished from a nearby river, utilizing the floodgate technique used to adjust the aquatic levels of rice fields. Invisible pipes circulate the water back into the river, a technique intended to reflect the notion of life resembling the flow of water. Moss, transplanted into the interstices between trees and water, adds to the intense, but subdued, greenery of the site.

If Shigemori spoke of the “eternal modern,” the work of Shunmyo Masuno straddles time zones with the assurance of a master.

A good example of his originality of approach is the Canadian Embassy stone garden in Tokyo’s Aoyama-Itchome neighborhood, regarded by many as a modern masterpiece. Granite rocks have been placed on a second-floor outside terrace, where the powerful confluence of raw and cut stones have been arranged to represent the Canadian Shield, with a row of contrasting, polished pyramidal forms replicating the Rocky Mountains.

Precision geometry and natural fracturing blend seamlessly at a garden inside the compound of the Canadian Embassy. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Precision geometry and natural fracturing blend seamlessly at a garden inside the compound of the Canadian Embassy. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

The roughly cut edges and wedge holes of the stones have been left intact, revealing process and human intercession, while the larger rocks have been hollowed out to lessen their weight, a method unheard of in traditional gardens. But then, you would be hard-pressed to find an ancient landscape garden cantilevered over the upper story of a building.

If the traditional interest in the interplay between right angles and natural forms is replaced in many contemporary gardens by an almost entirely sculptured landscape, it may be that today’s designers include, not only seasoned practitioners, but sculptors, architects and former students with degrees in landscape design.

Less engaged with temple, teahouse or imperial grounds, these designers are more likely to be working on layouts for the courtyards of government offices, public plazas, hotels, museums and corporate spaces. Less subservient to the demands of landscape contouring, their work represents a desire to be independent of nature. Such creations come in all shapes, sizes and concepts. In the latest James Bond film, “No Time to Die,” 007’s nemesis, Specter, has built a neo-Japanese garden in a bio-chemical plant located on a disputed island between Russia and Japan. Its rocks are made of silicone and junipers from fabric fastener.

It’s a contrivance of sorts, but even if such gardens depend on the synthetic, or are set at the heart of Japan’s perpetually mutating cities, an accomplished modern garden may still connect us to the greater natural world.

Shunmyo Masuno (right) works on a garden project. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Shunmyo Masuno (right) works on a garden project. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Zen’s place in modernity

Widely regarded as the foremost living designer of the contemporary Japanese garden, Shunmyo Masuno also happens to be the practicing head priest of a Zen temple in Yokohama. Masuno took time off from his busy schedule to answer a few questions about his Zen-infused approach to design.

Some of your landscapes look quite traditional in form, while others are clearly experimental. What are the criteria for deciding layout?

In garden design and all other kinds of spatial design, it is very important to consider who will be using the space, in what state of mind and at what time. In places closely related to architecture, there is a deep relationship with the external design and building materials, as well as with interior design. Once these conditions have been carefully sorted out, the direction of the garden design will naturally emerge from the site, the landscape and the mental state of the people who will use it.

How important are developments in contemporary architecture for your designs?

The basic idea behind Japanese garden design and other kinds of spatial design is “teioku ichinyo” (“the garden and house are like one space”). In my case, no matter what kind of space the client wants, I will design it based on traditional Japanese values and aesthetics, and in accordance with Zen philosophy.

Synthetic materials replicate the flow of water at the Shonandai Culture Center. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Synthetic materials replicate the flow of water at the Shonandai Culture Center. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

You have created a lot of original sculptures for your gardens. Is this a deliberate effort to align gardens with art?

Japanese gardens are works of art. They do not consist only of the garden, but also the building, the interior and elements. When it comes to modern architecture, stone sculptures play an important role when considering compatible volume and sense of design. Stone sculptures are the inheritors of the role that stone lanterns and water basins have played in gardens up to now.

I have visited many Mirei Shigemori gardens in Japan, and some are quite poorly maintained. Are you concerned about the future state of your creations?

Since ancient times, it has been said that maintaining a Japanese garden is the same as raising a child. It is a process of educating and nurturing to develop personality. In order to do this, we have to spend a reasonable amount of money on education. In the same way, we need to take care of our gardens at the right time every year, according to the conditions in which each garden is located. In Kyoto, this kind of garden maintenance is still called “niwamori” (“to take care of a garden”), which has the same meaning as the word komori (to take care of a child). As a garden designer, there is nothing sadder than to see a garden fall into disrepair.

As more people from different backgrounds become involved in garden creation, how do you see the future for Japanese landscape design?

Japanese gardens are not solely based on design. If anything, they are as close as possible to fine art. Therefore, it is impossible to design a garden with a high level of artistry without being able to work directly in the field, to master the work and take the lead in guiding the construction. University instructors cannot do this. I believe that the traditional Japanese relationship of “master and apprentice” is indispensable.

The arresting modern design of Keikan Tsubo's Zuiganzen Enkou-ji temple | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
The arresting modern design of Keikan Tsubo’s Zuiganzen Enkou-ji temple | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

How do you feel about the use of materials such as carbon fiber, concrete, translucent polycarbonate and so on in some modern Japanese gardens?

The first thing to consider when creating a modern Japanese garden is whether the material will retain its presence for hundreds of years. Of course, change over time is a very good and important factor. However, aging is not the same as deterioration. I prefer not to use the materials that cannot guarantee this.

How is it possible, as you have done, to superimpose Buddhist ideas and traditional Japanese aesthetics and principals onto gardens that look so contemporary?

The essence of Zen thought, traditional values and aesthetic sense hasn’t really changed over time. Something that can be called truth, will not change 500 years ago, today, or 500 years from now. What is changing is our lifestyle, our culture and the environment in which we live. Nothing has changed at the root.

Garden principals such as the
Garden principals such as the “borrowed view” and “winding stream” are elements of this installation at the Murou Art Forest in Nara. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

As a modern garden designer, what do you hope will be your legacy?

I believe that my work, based on Zen thought, values and aesthetic sense will be a work of art that should be preserved for the future. I will continue to work hard to create works that will become part of a cultural heritage that can be passed onto the future.

Stephen Mansfield is the author of three books on the Japanese garden, including “Japan’s Master Gardens: Lessons in Space & Environment.”

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