A JAPANESE GARDEN HANDBOOK
PART ONE: DESIGN & CRAFT
Chapter 8: The Courtyard Garden
In this Chapter…
- All Boxed In
- Nature in a Tray
- Natural Reduction
- Living Landscapes
All Boxed In
The traditional tsubo-niwa embodied the principle of a microcosm of nature, and while the formal rules for achieving this have been replaced by a variety of approaches, many of them personal, the core of the idea remains. The thoughtful selection of a few elements and their considered composition are common to all small gardens here, and they succeed in bringing a distillation of nature into dwellings. – Michael Freeman
Traditional Japanese architecture involves right-angles, rectangles, wide eaves, and staggered building footprints, and the spaces created in between these various wings and adjacent structures lends itself to intimate gardens ranging in size from spacious courtyards to tiny covered areas no bigger than a meter squared. Several terms are used for these courtyard gardens, including hakoniwa (箱庭 “box garden”) and tsuboniwa (壺庭, 坪庭, 経穴庭). Tsubo (壺) means “pot” or “jar”, so a tsuboniwa (壺庭) is literally a “pot-garden”, or a garden contained within a small, enclosed space. The kanji originally employed to designate tsubo (坪) refers either to a measurement of area, or to a small courtyard entirely enclosed by buildings. The traditional tsubo measured 3.3 meters squared (approximately 35 square feet), or approximately the size of two tatami (畳) mats, although a contemporary tsubo measures 1.8 meters squared. In reality, most tsuboniwa are slightly larger than three square meters. The third set of kanji (経穴; a.p. keiketsu) is associated with the flow of ki (気) energy through the human body, and is a term used for the point at which moxa (Jp. mogusa 藻草) is applied to the skin and ignited: Such points are known as tsubo in Japanese. The equivalent points in a residence are the garden, the foyer (genkan 玄関) and the alcove (tokonoma 床の間).
Although the cosmos represented in microcosm may have its roots in Buddhist meditation, there are undoubtedly pragmatic reasons for gardening in small spaces. Usually, tsuboniwa are found within areas formed by the junction of buildings, under the overhang of roofs, or between buildings, and it may be due to the reduction of natural light in such areas that they are sometimes austere dry landscapes featuring sand and small rocks. More often than not, however, they are shady, and receive a good deal of the run-off from neighboring roofs during rain and snow. This cool, damp, shadiness is reflected in the predominantly shiny, dark-green flora frequently encountered in tsuboniwa.
During the Heian period (794-1185), tsubo (壷) was the term given to the roughly rectangular space created between several buildings and corridors in a shinden-zukuri (寝殿造り) residence. Tsuboniwa (壷庭) simply referred to an “alcove, or enclosed, garden”, although the term does not appear in the eleventh-century Sakuteiki (作庭記 A Record of Garden Making). The Genji-monogatari (源氏物語 The Tale of Genji), which also dates from the Heian period, describes how tsuboniwa created within the niches of vast palace complexes would be dominated by a particular plant, and the plant would become attached to or associated with the person who overlooked that garden in the form of an epithet. There is mention, for example, of Fujitsubo (藤壷 “Wisteria Courtyard”) and Kiritsubo (桐壺 “Paulownia Courtyard”), and although Prince Genji was fond of gardens, he was even fonder of the ladies who tended them. The nature of shinden architecture and the socially-restricting conventions meant that privacy was difficult to come by in noble residences, so tsuboniwa were prized for their intimate ambiance, a characteristic that has dominated their design ever since.
Courtyard gardens are also found in Zen temples and samurai residences, again, mostly because of the architectural styles favored by priests and warriors. During the Momoyama period (1568-1603), courtyard gardens were most frequently built by the chōnin (町人 townsfolk) within the confines of their machiya (町家 “town houses”) and omoteya (表屋 “display stores”). The term nakaniwa (中庭 “middle garden”) is preferred for these urban courtyard gardens, especially when referring to the rear-most garden of a long, narrow townhouse. Gardens at the entranceway to shops are known as miseniwa (店庭 “shop gardens”). The nakaniwa differs from the tsuboniwa in that it need not be diminutive in size, but the terms are essentially synonymous today. Even so, the restrictions in size due to surrounding buildings mean that any such gardens are usually not intended to be entered physically, but contemplated from nearby rooms or verandas. There is also a subtle connection between the tsuboniwa and the tea garden, and many wealthy chōnin were well versed in the culture of the tea ceremony (chanoyu 茶の湯). Inclusion of water basins, lanterns, stepping-stones, and lush green flora, for example, point toward a roji (露) style.
Michael Freeman suggests that the tsuboniwa may have been a reworking of the traditional Chinese courtyard house, and as such, it solves two essential design considerations: a) how to open up the interior of the dwelling to the sky while preserving privacy; and b) how to provide architectural focus for the building. “The house revolves around this central point,” notes Freeman, “and rooms on all four sides face inward to nature.” Aesthetically, the tsuboniwa achieves tension between a sense of openness and one of enclosure.
Various techniques are employed in designing a successful tsuboniwa. Exploitation of horizontal lines can create the illusion of greater space, while the use of fore-, middle and backgrounds add a feeling of distance. Larger objects are placed closest to the viewing point, with the smallest ones further away, each of them placed on a roughly diagonal imaginary line from the viewpoint. The result is a sort of trompe-l’œil, which accentuates the three-dimensional quality of the garden. Potted plants were sometimes employed to provide seasonal color.
Nature in a Tray
It is a trite observation that the Japanese love to miniaturize things. Contemporary electronics aside, even a brief acquaintance with haiku poetry, ningyō (人形 Japanese dolls) and natsuke (根付) carvings in wood or ivory confirms this. Gardening is also no stranger to the art of reduction, and bonkei (盆景 “tray scenes”; alt. koniwa 小庭 “little gardens”; tokuniwa 床庭 “bed or floor gardens”), the art of creating miniature gardens in planters, ceramic vessels, or carved wooden trays is mentioned in the eleventh-century Sakuteiki (作庭記 A Record of Garden Making). Sometimes, a tray garden would be placed on a raised stand in the garden of an aristocratic shinden-zukuri (寝殿造り) residence, or in a tokonoma (床の間). However, the art came originally from China, were it was known as penjing (盆景). Philosophically, the idea for adding a tsuboniwa (壺庭) derives at least in part from penjing, which was an attempt to invoke harmony and unity within buildings. “At a fundamental level of the harmony of opposites [yin-yang],” speculates Michael Freeman, “they bring restorative powers of nature in symbolic form to the interior environment of a home.”
Although Donald Richie does not speculate on the purpose of tray landscapes, he is dismissive of them as an art form. A tray landscape is like a photograph, he claims, adding, “no imagination [is] needed, no fancy [is] necessary. You take a tray, some stones, some sand; you bring them to a height, sit down, and faithfully copy.”
Related to bonkei is bonseki (盆石 “tray rocks”), the art of “growing” rocks in shallow trays. Miniature landscapes are recreated with rocks lying in, or surrounded by, sand or gravel. Often, these intriguing rocks imitate the Mystic Isles of the Blessed, or evoke cranes and turtles, both symbols of longevity. The aesthetic principles of composition are based on asymmetry and triangular balance, and, coupled with the paucity of materials and purity of design, they have led some scholars to speculate that dry landscapes (karesansui 枯山水) may have developed out of these art forms.
Closely related to tray gardening is bonsai (盆栽 “tray planting”), the art of cultivating miniature trees and shrubs. Most practitioners of this art are adamant in their insistence that bonsai is not about stunting or physically harming the plants, but involves the judicious pruning of branches and root systems in conjunction with the application of careful training. A useful starting point in understanding bonsai is Harry Tomlinson’s definition: “[A] tree or shrub trained and pruned in such a way as to resemble a full-size tree, grown in a shallow container for artistic effect and as an impression of nature.” But, as Tomlinson points out, the term bonsai implies much more than mere potted plants; it implies an element of art. In addition, these miniature trees and shrubs often have celebrated origins and lineage and command staggering prices when sold. Although the Chinese are credited with originating bonsai, the fundamental concept of cultivating dwarfed plants may have come from India. It was introduced into Japan along with so much of China’s culture around the late Nara period (710-794). Of course, the inspiration for miniature flora comes from nature as well. You only have to look to the blasted coastlines of China, Korea, and northern Japan, or the windswept upper reaches of any mountainous region, to find plants naturally dwarfed or contorted by lack of nutrients, poor or salty soil, insufficient sunlight, and prevailing winds.
Not much documented evidence of bonsai exists in early Japanese literature, but there is an apparent reference in a scroll dating from the sixth century, and specimens of bonsai can be seen clearly in scrolls from the thirteenth century onwards. Some nobles and courtesans of the Heian (794-1185) and Kamakura (1185-1333) periods lead confined and isolated lives in closeted apartments and palace wings, so the cultivation of small potted trees that would signal in a poetic manner the passing of the seasons became fashionable. The blossoming plum, for example, heralded the coming of spring, while the turning of the leaves of a miniature maple meant that colder days were just around the corner. Such seasonal trees were often shaped to mimic the trees seen in Chinese scroll paintings, and the practice gradually evolved into the art of bonsai.
Considerable knowledge, skill, and experience are required to grow and shape trees and shrubs from seed, and many Japanese people study this art under bonsai masters. Several millennia of experience and knowledge form the cultural backdrop for bonsai, and although dwarfing plants is a matter of horticulture and the application of certain natural laws, it is also a fine art. Some specimens live for several hundred years, and become treasured heirlooms passed down through the generations.
Of the trees that are most readily dwarfed, the most common are conifers, maples, and the Prunus varieties (cherries and plums). Stunting is essentially a three-fold process. First, the roots are periodically trimmed to restrict the growth of the plant. Then the upper growth is pinched off or pruned gently. Lastly, the trunk and main branches are shaped through the application of wire braces. There are nine essential shapes a tree can take, such as “slanting”, “windswept”, “weeping”, or “upright”, and an infinite variety of glazed pots and shallow trays in which it may be grown. Branches are trained into desired configurations using various gauges of wire wrapped around them for a period of several years or more, and root systems are trimmed by as much as a third every couple of years or so.
The propagation of a bonsai specimen is at least a three-year process. In the first year, the seed is propagated or the cutting planted and left to establish itself normally. During the second year, training begins with root-pruning and upper growth pinching as part of a regular and sustained maintenance program during the formative period. And finally, in the third year, the plant is transplanted to a poorer, less nourishing soil and pruning and pinching are done only as necessary. Generally speaking, the plant is considered mature around five years of age, or when it exhibits all of the characteristics of its large-scale version. However, Harry Tomlinson would add that bonsai is an art of “infinite range”, as a particular specimen “is never ‘finished’ – it always changes with the seasons and matures and improves with the passing of the years.”
The term saikei (栽景 “planted landscape”), coined by Kawamoto Toshio, is used today to cover the hybrid art form of creating living, though not necessarily strictly natural, miniature landscapes. “A saikei planting,” comments Harry Tomlinson, “may be a reconstruction of a view familiar to the bonsai grower, using materials commonly to be seen growing together in a particular type of location, or it can be a more exotic or imaginative representation.”
Three useful sources on courtyard gardens:
- Freeman, M. (2008). Pocket gardens: Contemporary Japanese miniature designs. With N. Sakai, H. Kingstone & Y. Shibata. New York: Universe Publishing.
- Ōhashi, H. (1988). Japanese courtyard gardens. Briarcliff Manor, New York: Japan Publications (USA), Inc.
- Shigemori, K. (1981). The Japanese courtyard garden: Landscapes for small places. New York: John Weatherhill, Inc.
Useful sources on bonsai:
- Tomlinson, H. (2004). The complete book of bonsai: A practical guide to the art & cultivation of bonsai. London & New York: Dorling Kindersley Ltd..
- Yoshimura, Y. & G. M. Halford (1996). The art of bonsai: Creation, care and enjoyment. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co.
Books on bonkei & saikei:
- Gustafson, H. L. (1994). Miniature living bonsai landscapes: The art of saikei. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.
- Hirota, J. (1990). Bonkei: Tray landscapes. London: Kodansha International.
- Kawamoto, T. (1967). Saikei: Living landscapes in miniature. Tokyo: Kodansha International.
Pass now through building after building… Cited in Fell, D. (2009). The gardens of Frank Lloyd Wright. London: FrancesLincoln Ltd.; p. 47.
The traditional tsubo-niwa embodied the principle of a microcosm of nature… Freeman, M. (2008); p..
The first kanji (壺), designating a ceramic vessel… Keane, M. P. (1996). Japanese garden design. Photographs by Ōhashi, H. Drawings by the author. Rutland & Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle; p. 96. This kanji is used more frequently today for tsuboniwa (壺庭), especially among architects, although writers still prefer 坪庭.
The traditional tsubo measured 3.3 m2… This unit is still used for measuring land, although Japan has officially adopted the metric system.
Interestingly, tsuboniwa are not mentioned in the Sakuteiki… Takei, J. & M. P. Keane (2001). Sakuteiki: Visions of the Japanese garden. A modern translation of Japan’s gardening classic. Boston, Rutland & Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing; p. 11.
…which represents, in Sunniva Harte’s words… Harte, S. (1999). Zen gardening. London: Pavilion Books; p. 81.
“The house revolves around this central point,” notes Freeman… Freeman, M. (2008); p..
Therein are created miniscule hills with miniscule houses… Hearn, L. (1993). In a Japanese garden. In Glimpses of unfamiliar Japan. Rutland & Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co.; p. 346.
“At a fundamental level of the harmony of opposites [yin-yang],” speculates Michael Freeman… Freeman, M. (2008); p..
A tray landscape is like a photograph, he claims… Richie, D. (1971; 2002). The Inland Sea. Introduction by P. Iyer. Berkely: Stone Bridge Press; pp. 90-1.
In various contexts, bonsai has been represented… Tomlinson (2004); p. 16.
Zero Gravity… Dahl, R. (2013). The Japan times (12 May); p. 12.
A useful starting point is Harry Tomlinson’s definition… Tomlinson, H. (2004); p. 7.
…but there is an apparent reference in a scroll dating from the sixth century… Tomlinson, H. (2004); p. 16.
However, Harry Tomlinson would add that bonsai is an art of “infinite range”… Tomlinson, H. (2004); p. .
“A saikei planting,” comments Harry…” Tomlinson, H. (2004); p. 88.
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