Chapter 1: Setting Aside A Space

by Nov 26, 2015Handbook, Part 1: Design & Craft0 comments

In this Chapter…

  • Surrounded by Nature
  • Taming Nature
  • On Speaking Terms
  • Upstaged!

‘We cannot say that people are really living if they are not also living with nature, that is, living within the garden. Gardens play an important role in our health, just as in olden times there was the saying ‘In houses where gardeners come and go, there is no need for the doctor.’ The garden is essential to our life and not something we can do without.’   – Shigemori Mirei (1896-1975)

‘They need more gardens,’ said Legolas. ‘The houses are dead, and there is too little here that grows and is glad. If Aragorn comes into his own, the people of the Wood shall bring him birds that sing and trees that do not die.’   –  J. R. R. Tolkein (1892-1973)


Surrounded by Nature

One of the earliest terms used to identify a garden in the Japanese language is niwa. The term is Jōmon (c.10,000-300BCE) in origin, and referred to the vast and varied territory that the hunter-gatherers roamed in search of food. Although the people were nomadic in theory, there is archaeological evidence that they erected semi-permanent thatched dwellings, and these may well have acted as central depots from which foraging parties disseminated.

The term may have carried the implication of “safe zone” or “protected range”, an area with which the people were thoroughly familiar and which excluded the wilder, less-frequented primordial forests. I have a compelling image of a semi-savage people clustering in unkempt niwa while all around them lay pitch-black nights, ferocious typhoons, and a dense jungle full of evil spirits and malicious deities.

Mount Fuji, from Jimba-kogen Mountain

Mount Fuji, from Jimba-kogen Mountain


The suggestion that niwa designated an open space, such as a clearing that might surround a primitive dwelling, deserves consideration also. Although the planting of trees and the placement of stones within these open spaces had practical reasons – fencing, wind-breaking, and delineating, for example – it is not a giant leap from pragmatism to aestheticism or religion. The chapter on Shinto carries a full discussion on the early animistic beliefs of the Japanese people.

Volcanic action near Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture Volcanic action near Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture

Volcanic action near Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture


Because there are no extant writings from the Jōmon period, the etymology of the word niwa rests solely on successive usage. The earliest written use occurs in an eighth-century anthology of poetry called the Man’yōshū (万葉集 Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), where it refers to the coastal seas and their attendant fishing grounds:

Cape Iro, Izu Peninsular

Cape Iro, Izu Peninsular


kehi no umi no
niwa yoku arashi
karikoma no
midarete itzumiyu
ama no tsuribune

The fishing grounds at Kehi
must be yielding their riches today;
scattering about on the waves
like freshly cut reeds, I can see
the boats of fishermen.


Similar origins may be deduced for kariniwa (狩庭 “hunting ranges”), and for saniwa (清庭 “clean or pure areas”) and yuniwa (斎庭 “purification areas”), which are both sacred and therefore purified arenas for prayers and other religious rituals. In a sense, then, niwa was used to denote a special place that was set aside for a specific purpose. Such areas have their counterpart in the West in the Greek temenos and the Roman templum, both areas that were off limits to ordinary mortals, and were kept clean and tidy by priests or augers. The idea is that the areas thus demarcated must be kept pure and unpolluted by common human trafficking. Those who cared for them were chosen because they had received special training or because they were thought to be closer to the gods. Their secular equivalent are gardeners.

Senjogahara, near Nikko.

Senjogahara, near Nikko.


Niwa appears frequently in the eleventh-century gardening text Sakuteiki (作庭記 A Record of Garden Making), although here it denotes the flat, sand-strewn courtyard directly adjacent to the main hall of an aristocratic residence of the Heian period (794-1185). Around the middle ages, niwa was used by traveling minstrels to denote their stage area, and until fairly recently, one could still find in certain major department stores an uriniwa (裏庭), a place for sales items. An exact English translation does not exist, although “Bargain Basement” may have come closest.

Associated with the word niwa is a sense of communal access, rather like the English term “common”, a space without proprietorship and thus one of general exploitation. With the advent of agriculture and settlement, however, division of land and a crude form of ownership through precedent arise. Regardless of its origin, there remains little doubt that niwa came to represent a unique space, a pure place in which humans can re-establish contact with the spiritual realm of nature.


Taming Nature

For this reason, the Japanese mind has always reminded me of the Japanese garden, which is a place that nature plainly made but which man has just as plainly ordered. The insipidity of nature tamed, as seen in the Western garden, is missing, but so is the awesomeness of the jungle. It is a wilderness but not a chaos. There are many paths, and if they turn and double in a curious manner quite different from the grand promenades of the Western park, it is because the Japanese observes and preserves the natural lay of the land. – Donald Richie (1924-2013)

As far back as the Yayoi period (c.300BCE-300), the term sono (園) was used for gardens created primarily for agricultural purposes. The introduction of wet-rice farming required the dramatic restructuring of existing farmlands to accommodate the retention of water in terraced basins. Sono referred to any and all of the bordered, walled, or fenced agricultural gardens that contained such diverse crops as medicinal herbs, grains, fruits, and rice. The term carries pastoral overtones and infers man’s control over nature. In this sense, it is the antithesis of the term niwa (庭) as it was originally used. Marc Keane cites an early use of the word in a poem contained in the Man’yōshū (万葉集 Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves):
ume no hana
ima sakeru goto
chiri sugizu
waga e no sono ni
arikosenu kamo
I would have the plum flowers
always in my garden
never falling
like the ones
that bloom before me now

The “on”, or Chinese readings, for niwa and sono are tei and en, which together form one of the most frequently encountered terms for a garden, teien (庭園). The guiding aesthetic principle behind a teien is a harmonious balance between rugged, natural beauty and human artifice, between wildness and control, as Marc Keane puts it. “Sitting quietly on the veranda of a temple,” Keane adds, “and looking out into the light of the garden, one can still feel the sensory world of the Jōmon period although it has been transformed through the controlled art of the gardener into a spiritual, aesthetic, or even intellectual expression.” It should be noted that teien is not used to designate private or residential gardens.

Senshukaku-teien, Tokushima, Shikoku

Senshukaku-teien, Tokushima, Shikoku

On Speaking Terms

The garden’s most important function is providing atmosphere and surroundings which make day-to-day life happier. – Kashikie Isamu

A number of other terms for gardens are used in Japan, most of which fall into the category of general rather than specific nomenclature:

en (園; a.p. sono): A prefix that generally designates a garden or park of some size, as in the stroll garden Shukkei-en, or dōbutsuen (動物園), meaning a zoo. The kanji is comprised of the elements of the kanji for “enclosure” and “spaciousness”, implying a spacious fenced enclosure. Related to this prefix is kōen (公園), the term for a public park. The initial kanji (公) carries the notion of dissolution of private property, hence a kōen is literally a large garden that has been made public, although it also covers large expanses of lawn and western-style pleasure gardens. Sometimes kōen are the remains of large daimyo estate gardens or imperial gardens, many of which reverted to the government during the Meiji period (1868-1912) or later.

gaien (外苑 “outer garden”): A term that usually refers to an outer garden attached to, or beside, a Shinto shrine, mausoleum, or temple. As with the outer garden in a tea garden (sotoroji 外露地), the gaien serves as a transitional space between the secular and the sacred realms. For this reason, it is often more of a grove of trees or a coppice than a consciously-planted garden. A classic example is Meiji-jingū-gaien in Tokyo, now physically separated from Meiji-jingū Shrine by urban development. The term is sometimes encountered in secular gardens where it simply indicates an area, usually wooded, surrounding the principle garden areas. Its opposite is naien (内苑 “inner garden”). Sankei-en has both a gaien and a naien, the former representing the portion of the garden opened to the public in 1906.

The gaien, Sankei-en, Yokohama

The gaien, Sankei-en, Yokohama


gyoen (御苑): Gyo (御) is an honorable prefix, and en (苑), like its homonym en (園), designates a garden. The term usually refers to an imperial garden, or a garden attached to an imperial residence. One of the most beautiful examples open to the public is Shinjuku-gyoen in Tokyo, although the present parklands are much reduced in size and now include a French formalist garden and a tropical conservatory. A more traditional example, once part of a daimyo estate, is Meiji-jingū-gyoen, attached to the imperial shrine of Meiji-jingū in Tokyo.

Shinjuku-gyoen, Tokyo

Shinjuku-gyoen, Tokyo


rinsen (林泉 “forest and spring”): A rarely encountered term for a naturalistic forest or predominantly treed garden. Rinsen is also used to describe the style of pond-garden favored by Heian-period (794-1185) aristocrats.

senseki (泉石 “spring and rocks”): A generic term for a garden loosely configured around the elements of water and rocks. The poetic term sensui (泉水 “spring water”) is sometimes encountered when a garden contains a pond or fountain.

shōen (荘園 “manor [house] and garden”): A term used to denote a large manor or an estate owned by an aristocrat or a Buddhist temple. Coined during the Heien period (794-1185), the term can also refer to the manorial system itself. The style of architecture is known as shōen-zukuri (荘園造り).

zentei (前庭 “in-front-of garden”; alt. zen’en 前苑 “in-front-of garden”; nan’en 南苑 “south garden”): A garden situated at the front of a building. Commonly pragmatic rather than aesthetic, the front garden does not compete for attention with the main garden, which is usually at the back of the building where it is overlooked by the guest rooms. Often, the zentei is no more sophisticated than a few plantings aside a small expanse of gravel and a stone path leading to the entrance foyer (genkan 玄関). Specific uses of the term zentei refer to the area between the middle gate (chūmon 中門) and the main hall in shinden-zukuri (寝殿造り), or the garden directly in front of a shoin (書院, study) or hōjō (方丈, abbot’s quarters). In this regard, zentei is used interchangeably with nantei (南庭).



Another indication might be the way in which domestic nature is presented. The Japanese garden is well known, indeed nearly notorious, for being a contrived spectacle. This stone is moved over a metre, and that bamboo is moved back two. The pebbles or sand are brought in a great expense, and the view of the distant mountain ids purloined and called borrowed scenery. This is the ’natural garden’. – Donald Richie (1924-2013)

Ichikawa Danjūrō II (市川 團十郎 1688-1758) in a mie pose, from a woodcock by Torii Kiyomasu (鳥居 清倍, c.1690s-1720s)

Ichikawa Danjūrō II (市川 團十郎 1688-1758) in a mie pose, from a woodcock by Torii Kiyomasu (鳥居 清倍, c.1690s-1720s)

Donald Richie believes that the Japanese are a naturally theatrical race, and that much of the culture and art is infused with a proclivity to present, or to stage. Examples include the traditional structure of buildings which raise the usable space on a platform, and the tokonoma 床の間, or display alcove, in traditional architecture (see “Transitional Zones” in Placing Man: The Architectural Inferface). The mie (見え), or strong emotional pose, is a key feature of kabuki theatre, and the dais was part of the formal furnishings of the audience hall of emperors, shōguns 将軍 and daimyo 大 名. But is it fair to suggest that Japanese gardens too are merely staged nature? Richie admits that Western and Middle Eastern gardens are constructed consciously to display nature, and their propensity for balance and symmetry make them in some ways even more recherché.

He points out that in the Japanese garden there is the attempt to maintain the appearance of nature, but that things have been tidied up, stylized, moved about, manipulated. The Japanese gardener attempts, “as the old garden manuals have it – to express nature better than nature does itself… As in any dramatic presentation, the only integrity is that of performance.” In short, nature has become spectacle, as in the dry landscape viewed from the wooden boards of the veranda or the various scenes hidden and revealed as the visitor strolls through a daimyo garden.



Bibliographical Notes

We cannot say that people are really living… From Niwa-to Watashi (Gardens and Me). In Tschumi, C. (2005). Mirei Shigemori: Modernizing the Japanese garden. Photographs by M. W. Saito. Berkeley, California: Stone Bridge Press; p. 9.

‘They need more gardens,’ said Legolas…’ Tolkien, J. R. R. (1994). The return of the king; being the third part of the Lord of the Rings. Houghton Mifflin authorial text edition; p. 874.

The term may have carried the implication… Itoh, T. (1991). Japanese gardens: An accretionary approach. Trans. L. E. Riggs. In P. Hobhouse & E. McDonald (Eds.), Gardens of the world: The art and practice of gardening. New York: Macmillan; p. [95].

The fishing grounds at Kehi… Poem # 256 (Trans. M. P. Keane). In Keane, M. P. (1996). Japanese garden design. Photographs by H. Ōhashi. Drawings by the author. Rutland & Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle.

Regardless of its origin, there remains little doubt that niwa… Keane, M. P. (1996); pp. [10-11].

For this reason, the Japanese mind has always reminded me of the Japanese garden… Richie, D. (1971; 2002). The Inland Sea. Introduction by P. Iyer. Berkely: Stone Bridge Press; p. 39.

I would have the plum flowers… Poem # 816 (Trans. I. H. Levy). In Keane, M. P. (1996).

“Sitting quietly on the veranda of a temple…” Marc Keane, M. P. (1996); p. 14.

The garden’s most important function is providing atmosphere and surroundings which make day-to-day life happier... Kashikie, I. (1968). The ABC of Japanese gardening. Translated by J. Nathan. Tokyo: Japan Publications Trading Co.; p. 5.

Another indication might be the way in which domestic nature is presented… Richie, D. (1999). Tokyo: A view of the city. With photographs by J. Sackett. London: Reaktion Books; p. 109.

Ichikawa Danjūrō II (市川 團十郎 1688-1758) in a mie pose… Retrieved 25 Jun 2014 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mie_(pose).

The Japanese gardener attempts, “as the old garden manuals have it…” Richie, D. (1999); ibid.