A JAPANESE GARDEN HANDBOOK
PART ONE: DESIGN & CRAFT
Chapter 3: The Heian Estate Garden
In this Chapter…
- An Austere Grandeur
- The Southern Courtyard
- The Boating Pond
- Dragon Boats and Rooster Tales
- Pavilions and Platforms
An Austere Grandeur
During the Heian period (794-1185), nobles perfected a style of estate architecture known as shinden-zukuri (寝殿造り “sleeping-hall architecture”), which consisted of lavish halls and annexes, fronted by large courtyard gardens, and overlooking grand ponds designed to be viewed from shore-side platforms and pavilions. This style of palatial estate developed from Chinese models of the Zhou dynasty during the late Nara period (710-794), but it became much more refined and reserved – in other words, less ornate – during the Heian period.
Since architecture was central to the Heian estate garden, a passing familiarity with the buildings is helpful. The typical estate of a Heian noble was usually constructed on a standard plot known as a chō (町; 120 x 120 m), and the fundamental configuration of the estate was also standardized, with architectural elements to the north, and the courtyard and gardens to the south. The estate centered on the south-facing Main Hall, or shinden (寝殿 “sleeping-hall”), which was designed around a series of box-like rooms at the core known as the moya (母屋 “mother house”). This, in turn, was surrounded by peripheral corridor-like rooms called hisashi (廂 “hallway or eaves”), and these were separated from the exterior by panels and shutters of varying weight and materials (shitomi 蔀 “latticed shutters”; shitomido 蔀戸 “latticed shutter doors”; and misu 御簾 “honorable bamboo blinds”). The master and his family slept in the shinden, which also doubled as the audience chamber for public functions. Around the front of the Main Hall ran a narrow veranda of spaced wooden slats known as the sunoko (簀子 ”rough-woven slats”), which was protected from the elements by the overhanging eaves. The line of sight drawn from it was used as a guide for the height of features in the surrounding gardens, such as the water level of the central pond. A flight of stairs (kizahashi 階 “stairs”) at the mid-point of the sunoko led from the audience chamber to the gravel courtyard below.
On either side and to the north of the shinden were tainoya (対屋, 對屋 “counter houses” or “paired houses”), or minor halls. These were the higashitainoya (東対屋, 東對屋; higashi-no-tai 東対, 東對, Eastern Annex), and the nishitainoya (西対屋, 西對屋; nishi-no-tai 西對, 西対, Western Annex). Sometimes there was also a kitanotai (北の対, 北の對, Northern Annex). The various halls and annexes were linked to each other by roofed breezeways called suiwatadono (透渡殿, watadono 渡殿), and long open-sided corridors called rō (廊, chūmonrō 中門廊, sukirō 透廊). The Western Corridor (nishichūmonrō 西中門廊), punctuated by the Western Middle Gate (nishichūmon 西中門), and the Eastern Corridor (higashichūmonrō 東中門廊), punctuated by the Eastern Middle Gate (higashichūmon 東中門), flanked the Southern Courtyard (nantei 南庭), and ran southward to the garden pavilions, arbors and boating pond. These corridors could be enclosed with wooden shutters when weather was inclement, and their gates provided access to the courtyard. Various out buildings and food gardens filled the area to the north of the shinden and its annexes, and the entire complex was surrounded by solid rammed-earth wall (tsuijibei 築地塀). Two main gates were set into the perimeter wall: The higashimon (東門 “east gate”), and the nishimon (西門 ”west gate).
Rectangular enclosures and small courtyards created by the proximity the various buildings were known poetically as tsubo (壺 “jars or pots”), and these often contained miniature gardens of raked gravel featuring single species of flora. For example, the Fujitsubo (藤壺, Wisteria Court) featured wisteria, and the Kiritsubo (桐壺, Paulownia Court) sported paulownia. Refer to the chapter on courtyard gardens for more information.
The total effect of this sprawling architecture was at once elegant and palatial, yet restrained and refined: An austere grandeur. Jirō Takei and Marc Keane explain the paradox: “Owing to limited resources, the volume of lavish materials – gold, silver, ivory, gemstones, and so on – which were available to the larger imperial societies of China and Rome, were unavailable to the Japanese court.” There is evidence that this restraint had as much to do with taste, however, as the large ornately decorated wooden doors and bright colors of the Chinese originals were replaced with light screens and plain wood. With the exception of the veranda rails (kōran 高欄) and the ornate curved bridges (soribashi そりはし), which were painted vermilion, and the floors and interior screens, which were painted a lapis-lazuli color, most of the buildings were left either untreated in their natural state or painted with subtle, natural colors.
As the Heian period came to a close towards the end of the twelfth century, the power of the samurai class grew, and with it the influence of Zen culture on Japan. Architecture became more restrained, and the fervor for the grandness and expansiveness of the Heian estate declined. In Some of the elaborate pond gardens were converted into jōdo-teien (浄土庭園, “Paradise garden”), as in the case of Byōdō-in, and gradually, the lighter, more versatile, and less ostentatious architecture that characterized shinden-zukuri fused with Buddhist temple architecture and evolved into the shoin-zukuri (書院造り “shoin architecture”), a Spartan style favored by Zen monasteries and the samurai during the Kamakura & Muromachi periods (1185-1333; 1338-1573).
Fires also took their toll on shinden-zukuri, and constant rebuilding meant that many aristocrats adapted the ideal forms of shinden architecture to suit their needs and budgets. However, three constants framed the essence of this style. First, at the center of the estate was the shinden, or main hall, with annexes and outlying buildings connected to it via roofed corridors. Secondly, the rectangle was the fundamental geometric form around which all buildings took their shape. And finally, the main edifices were oriented towards the garden.
The Southern Courtyard
To the south of the Main Hall (shinden 寝殿) lay an open flat area spread with fine gravel or sand called the nantei (南庭 “southern garden”, a.p. dantei; alt. zentei 前庭 “in-front-of garden”), and south of this lay the ornamental pond garden. Jirō Takei and Marc Keane point to the Chinese origin of the kanji, which are pronounced nan-ting in Chinese: Since the Chinese character ting (庭) is pronounced niwa in Japanese, these southern courtyards are also sometimes referred to simply as niwa 庭. Günter Nitschke suggests that the dual function of early emperors as both political and religious leaders was the influence behind the vast expanse of raked gravel in the nantei: “South gardens were originally reserved for religious and state purposes; empty, they provided a suitable stage for the colorful court rituals borrowed from T’ang China; white, they offered a pure setting for sacred dances performed to invoke the gods.”
The courtyard was typically eighteen to twenty-seven meters in depth from the shinden to the edge of the central pond, so the area would have measured approximately one to two thousand square meters in size. It was reached by descending a canopied Central Stairway (kizahashi 階), which led from the veranda of the Main Hall itself, and the eleventh-century Sakuteiki (作庭記 A Record of Garden Making) suggested “using the posts that hold up the roof as benchmarks when measuring the depth of the garden… [and] as reference points when positioning elements in the garden such as the curved bridge and islands in the pond.” The area at the base of the central staircase was known as the kaige-no-za (階下の座 “base-of-the-stairs seats”), and it was here that the lord’s retainers of lower rank would have been stationed during ceremonies and functions.
The courtyard itself was the venue for all manner of formal events such as poetry contests and festival gatherings, so there were few if any plantings in this area. The exceptions were two ceremonial trees planted either side of Central Stairway. To the left, or east, of the stairway was the sakon-no-sakura (左近の桜 “left close cherry tree”). Originally, this ceremonial tree had been a plum, although the cherry was adopted in 834, during the reign of Emperor Ninmei (Ninmyō-tennō 仁明天皇 810-850), as somehow more symbolic of Heian aristocratic aspirations. The deciduous cherry has a very short blossoming period, which was thought to represent in (陰), or the feminine element. To the right and west, a ceremonial citrus tree known as the ukon-no-tachibana (右近の橘 “right close citrus tree”) was planted. Since the tree was generally an evergreen, it represented the yō (陽), or masculine, element.
According to depictions in the twelfth-century Nenjū-gyōji-emaki (年中行事絵巻), archery (kyūdō 弓道), dances, children’s dances (warawamai 童舞), processions, cherry blossom viewing (hanami 花見) and cockfighting (tori-awase 鶏合) were common pastimes held in the nantei. Brightly colored festival tents (akunoya 幄屋) would be set up as staging areas for festivals, performances or competitions. Sumai-no-sechi (相撲の節), the equivalent of today’s sumo wrestling matches, were also sometimes held in the courtyard. Kemari, (蹴鞠), a kind of court kickball, was also a popular festival game, and a vivid description of this sport can be found in the eleventh–century novel Genji-monogatari (源氏物語 The Tale of Genji). The game was usually played on a pitch known as a mari-kagari (鞠懸), which had “specific trees associated with it (NE cherry, SE willow, SW maple, and NW pine), together called shihon-gakari [四木懸り].”
The asymmetrical borders of the Southern Courtyard were sometimes punctuated by ornamental trees, grasses or flowers, and a winding stream (yarimizu 遣水) usually flowed through the eastern side, feeding the pond to the south. The garden was formally entered on the eastern side by the nikkamon (日花門 “sunflower gate”), and on the western side via the gekkamon (月花門 “moon flower gate”), both of which recalled the temples of the sun and moon found outside the gates of Chinese cities. In that sense, both gates formed an integral part of the overall cosmological design of the estate.
The Boating Pond
The garden, which was the primary focus of the halls and pavilions, might have occupied as little as a third of the entire area, or approximately 1.2 acres (.5 hectare). The designer was forced to compress his ideas within a limited space, and Marc Keane suggests that herein lay the nucleus of the influence on Japanese gardens for centuries to come. Heian designers “attempted to compress the sensory qualities of the natural world in the relatively small space of a shinden property. In order to do so the garden designers devised a more rigorous theory of gardening, which they termed fuzei.”
The concept of the shinden-zukuri-teien (寝殿造り庭園 “shinden architecture garden”) owed its origin to Chinese models of the Tang dynasty (618-907), and the scenery was often designed to echo famous places in mainland China. At the center of the garden was a large pond referred to poetically as umi 梅 (海 “sea”; alt. enchi 園池 “garden pond”) fed by a winding stream (yarimizu 遣水) that ran from the north or rear of the property. Typically, the stream flowed beneath a curved bridge in the roofed breezeway connecting the Main Hall and the East Annex, and down to the pond. The pond contained a central island (nakajima 中島 “middle island”) reached by arched, lacquered bridges (soribashi そりはし), and may also have contained representations of the Isles of the Blessed. It was also common to find a fishing pavilion and a wellspring arbor built out over the water.
The relatively recent term chisen-shūyū-shiki-teien (池泉周遊式庭園 “pond-spring excursion-form garden”; chisen-shūyū-teien 池泉周遊庭園) is used to differentiate the Heian pond garden from the stroll garden with central pond of the Tokugawa period (1603-1868). These pond gardens were seen as the perfect backdrop to such refined and aristocratic pastimes as boating excursions, poetic rambles, and musical extravaganzas, all of which are described lavishly in the eleventh-century texts Genji-monogatari (源氏物語 The Tale of Genji) and Sakuteiki (作庭記 A Record of Garden Making). Chapter twenty-one of Genji-monogatari, for example, contains an account of a mansion Prince Genji has just completed, together with a detailed description of its garden.
There is some debate whether aristocrats actually toured their gardens by boat, or simply viewed the pageantry of lavish floating stages with musicians and entertainers from the comfort and safety of the Southern Courtyard or the various pavilions overlooking the pond. The descriptions in Genji-monogatari imply that the preferred manner for viewing many of the shoreline rocks was from the deck of a boat leisurely maneuvered about the surface of the pond, and Lorraine Kuck notes of the garden at Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto that “some of the finest rock arrangements [are located] at places where they can only be seen from a boat – that is, on the far side of a large island.” Perhaps only occasionally would the more adventurous and athletic aristocrats, such as Prince Genji, venture out in the boats themselves.
No Heian estates exist in their original condition, although the remains of two pond gardens can be visited in Kyoto: Shinsen-en and Osawa-no-ike (now part of Daikaku-ji). A later example dating from the seventeenth century is Katsura Rikyū Imperial Villa. In 1895, Heian-jingū was built to commemorate the 1100th anniversary of Heiankyō. The attached, spacious pond-garden designed by Ogawa Jihei (小川治兵衞 1860-1933) is supposed to be a close reproduction of a Heian-period chisen-shūyū-shiki-teien.
Dragon Boats and Rooster Tails
Watching boats idle about estate ponds was a popular pastime for the aristocracy. Often, musicians were punted around in broad flat-bottomed boats called ryūtōbune (竜頭船 “dragon-head boats”) and gekisubune (鷁首船 “water fowl boats”), which bore magnificently carved prows in the shapes of dragons and waterfowl. Although Japanese dictionaries often describe geki (鷁) as heron-like birds, Jirō Takei and Marc Keane suggest that they look more like roosters in contemporary paintings. They add that roosters were admired for being strong against the wind, while dragons were well known for their strength in water. Both boats appear in the Sakuteiki, although chapter twenty-four of Genji-monogatari (“Kochō” 胡蝶 “Butterflies”) contains the best description of these colorful boats and their use: “The dragon and phoenix boats were brilliantly decorated in the Chinese fashion. The little pages and helmsmen, their hair still bound up in the page-boy manner, wore lively Chinese dress, and everything about the arrangements was deliciously exotic, to add to the novelty, for the empress’s women, of this southeast quarter. The boats pulled up below a cliff at an island cove, where the smallest of the hanging rocks was like a detail of a painting… Yellow yamabuki [Kerria japonica] reflected on the lake as if about to join its own image. Waterfowl swam past in amiable pairs, and flew in and out with twigs in their bills, and one longed to paint the mandarin ducks as they coursed about on the water.”
Pavilions and Platforms
The Fishing Pavilion (tsuridono 釣り殿, 釣殿) was built on piles over a portion of the pond, and was usually connected to an annex via an open-sided corridor. One possible reading of tsuru (釣る) is “to hang or suspend”, and Jirō Take and Marc Keane hypothesize that such a reading might refer “to the lightness of the pavilion,” which hangs over the water. Besides, these pavilions were not built for fishing, but rather for viewing the garden, or for hosting moon-viewing parties (tsukimi 月見), poetry recitals, and musical ensembles during a garden party. The eleventh-century Sakuteiki (作庭記 A Record of Garden Making) states that the pond’s surface “should be twelve to fifteen centimeters beneath the bottom edge of the veranda of the Fishing Pavilion.” The posts of this pavilion, the text adds, should rest on large stones.
During the Heian period, the term izumidono (泉殿) indicated a small garden pavilion connected to an annex via an open-sided corridor that was used for such pastimes as moon-viewing or poetry readings. The Sakuteiki contains a section devoted to their construction and maintenance: “If there is a wellspring that gives forth cool water on the site, it is common to build a roof over it, set a large pipe into it to encourage the flow of water, and to also build a small, slatted deck in front of it where the water will spill… Above all, heed the conditions of the site and the taste of the owner.” Later, the term was used more generally to refer to any small arbor that contained a spring or a well. Often, these springs or wells were thought to house spirits or kami (神 “gods”), and in some cases, Shinto priests have been called in before reconstruction or restoration work is permitted so that their immortal inhabitants are not inconvenienced or enraged. The destruction of such an arbor would invariably require a formal ritual of eviction and relocation.
The most accessible contemporary sources on shinden-zukuri and Heian estate gardens are translations of the eleventh-century gardening manual Sakuteiki (作庭記 A Record of Garden Making) and the eleventh-century novel Genji-monogatari (源氏物語 The Tale of Genji). The best translation of the Sakuteiki is Takei, J. & Keane, M. P. (2001). Sakuteiki: Visions of the Japanese garden. A modern translation of Japan’s gardening classic. Boston, Rutland & Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing. For a renowned translation of Murasaki Shikibu’s novel, try Seidensticker, E. G. (Trans.) (1976). The tale of Genji. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co. A respected historical account of the Heian period is Morris, I. (1994). The world of the Shining Prince: Court life in ancient Japan. With a New Introduction by B. Ruch. New York: Kodansha International. Another excellent source on Heian estates is Keane, M. P. (1996). Japanese garden design. Photographs by Ōhashi, H. Drawings by the author. Rutland & Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle.
The ground plan for a typical shinden-zukuri estate… Illustration adapted from Takei, J. & Keane, M. P. (2001). Sakuteiki: Visions of the Japanese garden. A modern translation of Japan’s gardening classic. Boston, Rutland & Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing; p. 33.
…annexes were linked to each other by roofed breezeways… The eleventh-century Sakuteiki (作庭記 A Record of Garden Making) advises that the “Breezeway posts should not be buried in the ground but rather should be cut short and set on large, rugged mountain stones.” Takei, J. & Keane, M. P. (2001); p. 157.
Jirō Takei and Marc Keane explain the paradox… Takei, J. & Keane, M. P. (2001); p. 14.
Jirō Takei and Marc Keane point to the Chinese origin… Takei, J. & Keane, M. P. (2001); p. 14, n. 18.
Günter Nitschke suggests that the dual function… Nitschke, G. (1993). Japanese gardens: Right angle and natural form. Köln: Benedikt Taschen; p. 38.
The courtyard was typically eighteen… Takei, J. & Keane, M. P. (2001); p. 17; 154.
…the eleventh-century Sakuteiki (作庭記 A Record of Garden Making) suggested… Takei, J. & Keane, M. P. (2001); p. 135; 156.
The deciduous cherry has a very short blossoming period… Takei, J. & Keane, M. P. (2001); p. 21, n. 24.
…and a vivid description of this sport can be found… Chapter 34 of Genji-monogatari is “Wakana 1” (若菜上 “New Herbs 1”).
…“specific trees associated with it (NE cherry, SE willow, SW maple, and NW pine)…” Takei, J. & Keane, M. P. (2001); p. 134.
Heian designers “attempted to compress…” Takei, J. & Keane, M. P. (2001); p. 32. For a discussion on fuzei, refer to “Heian Sensibilities” in Aesthetics.
The relatively recent term chisen-shūyū-shiki-teien… The term shūyū (周遊) means “tour, circuit or excursion”, thus the abbreviated term funa-asobi (舟逰び “pleasure boats”) is also sometimes encountered.
Chapter twenty-one of Genji-monogatari… The chapter is titled “Otome” (乙女 “The Maiden”).
…and Lorraine Kuck notes of the garden at Kinkaku-ji… Cited in Slawson, D. A. (1991). Secret teachings in the art of Japanese gardens: Design principles, aesthetic values. Tokyo & New York: Kodansha International Ltd.; p. 60. It should be noted that the garden at Kinkaku-ji dates from 1397, the early Muromachi period (1338-1568), not the Heian period (794-1185).
…Jirō Takei and Marc Keane suggest that… Takei, J. & Keane, M. P. (2001); p. 18, n. 22.
The dragon and phoenix boats were brilliantly decorated… Seidensticker, E. G. (Trans.) (1976). The Tale of Genji. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co.; pp. -419.
Scene from Chapter 24 of Genji-monogatari showing a dragon boat and a waterfowl boat by Ebina Masao (1913-1980)… Retrieved 16 Jul 2012 from http://www.artelino.com/articles/genji-monogatari-chapter-24.asp
The eleventh-century Sakuteiki (作庭記 A Record of Garden Making) states… Takei, J. & Keane, M. P. (2001); pp. 157-8, n. 20.
The Sakuteiki contains a section devoted to their construction… Takei, J. & Keane, M. P. (2001); pp. 201-2; 203.
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