Chapter 11: Nature: Essence and Quintessence

by Dec 14, 2010Handbook, Part 1: Design & Craft0 comments

In this Chapter…

  • Nature, Naturally
  • Recreating Nature
  • Heian Naturalness
  • Garden Styles
  • Habitat Motifs
  • Bibliographical Notes
Nothing gives so much pleasure as to wander to some spot far from the world, where the water and vegetation are unsullied. – Kenkō (兼好 1283-1350/52) Louis Aragon, the surrealist poet and French resistance fighter, noted that “nature is our subconscious”. I interpret this to mean that deep down within all of us is an inherent capacity to appreciate nature; rational explanation, in my view, is less important than this most basic sense. – Jake Hobson


Nature, Naturally

The Japanese… consider themselves to be blessed by nature. Their islands are richly endowed with trees, water, beautiful mountains. Nature is a mother’s bosom to her children, the people, and nature is kind, with only the seasonal typhoon or fearful earth tremor to threaten disruption… So close, in fact, were the Japanese of old to nature and so indistinguishable was nature from man that when Japan began to import foreign concepts during the Meiji era [1868-1912], after the beginning of the modernization drive in 1868, a word had to be invented to express the idea contained in the English word “nature”: shizen. – Stuart D. B. Picken

The modern Japanese term for nature is shizen (自然), although it expresses nurtured or refined naturalness rather than nature in its unrefined or raw state – that is, the actions of organic and non-organic elements without the intervention of humans. As Alex Kerr points out, the nature we observe in gardens, no matter how wild it may appear, is removed from the primordial reality, which “used to be far more mysterious and fantastic, a sacred area that seemed surely inhabited by gods.” Kerr reinforces this connection between raw nature and ancient Shinto beliefs: “In Shinto, there is a tradition of Kami no Yo, the ‘Age of the Gods’, when man was pure and the gods dwelled in hills and trees. Today, that tradition is the sort of thing you read about as historical commentary when you study ancient Japanese poetry, or in the brochure when you visit a Shinto shrine.”

A stream runs through it. The Nikkō Senjōgahara Marshland, Tochigi Prefecture.

A stream runs through it. The Nikkō Senjōgahara Marshland, Tochigi Prefecture.


In the Japanese garden, shizen manifests itself as an apparent naturalness or a serendipitous response to the quirks and vicissitudes of nature. Exploiting the lay of the land, pruning to capture the natural bend of a tree, or following the flow of a stream to a hollow are some examples. Separately, the two kanji for shizen – 自 (ji) and 然 (zen) – mean something like “self” and “duly, thus, or so”, denoting something that is “self as it should be”. Together, they form the noun for “nature”, and when this noun is made into an adjective (shizen-na 自然な), it bears the meaning of “natural” or “spontaneous”. John David Morley traces the term in Nihongo-no-Nenrin (日本語の年輪 The Year-rings of the Japanese Language) by Ōno Susumu (大野晋著 1919-), commenting that two thousand years ago, when Japan was known simply as Yamato (大和), there had not been any word in the language for nature. Shizen came from China at a much later date, and Ōno argues that this would infer that the Japanese did not have a very clear concept of nature until this point in their history. “In the Japanese understanding,” Morley interpolates, “nature had never constituted a discrete entity ‘out there’, something to which man stood in opposition, but the world in its entirety, embracing all things, organic and inorganic alike, a great symbiosis of which man was an inseparable part.” Leonard Koren adds that nature bears a more comprehensive connotation in the East than it does in the West: “[Nature] refers to the dimension of physical reality untouched by humans: things in their pure, original state. In this sense, nature means things of the earth like plants, animals, mountains, rivers, and the forces – sometimes benign, sometimes violent – of wind, rain, fire, and so on. But nature… also encompasses the human mind and all of its artificial or “unnatural” thoughts and creations. In this sense, nature implies “all that exists,” including the underlying principles of existence. In this meaning nature corresponds closely to the Western, monotheistic idea of God.”

Autumnal splendor in the Nikkō Senjōgahara Marshland.

Autumnal splendor in the Nikkō Senjōgahara Marshland.


Recreating Nature


A Japanese attitude toward nature lies in the constant endeavor to extract the essence of a flower, of a stone. But in order to accomplish this, one must recognize the nature of what is being viewed. – Donald Richie (1924-2013)


Sansui 山水 (“mountains & water”; a.p. senzui; Ch. shan-shui) is the Sino-Japanese term for nature, and was current during the early Medieval Age (1185-1568). The Sakuteiki (作庭記 A Record of Garden Making) also used the term to mean both a garden and nature (see “Heian Naturalness” below). “This term,” writes François Berthier, “evokes the Islands of the Immortals [Hōrai-tō], and also refers to the bipolar concept of yang and yin. To conjoin the rough hardness of rock with the soft fluidity of water produced great aesthetic pleasure. There was also an ancient belief – founded on a cosmogonic myth – according to which rivers are the blood that irrigates the body of the earth, while mountains are the bones.”

The implication is that both rock and water are required to form a garden if it is to accurately reflect nature. In addition, feng-shui (風水; Jp. fūsui) states that rocks are yang, or masculine in nature, and water is yin, or feminine in nature; together they create harmony or balance. Interestingly, in a formal Chinese garden, both rocks and water must actually be physically present. It is only in Japan that dry landscapes (karesansui  枯山水 “dry mountains and water”), a development of the Medieval Age and particularly of the Muromachi period (1338-1573), dispensed with the physical presence of water in favor of its representation in the form rock striations or raked gravel. This could never happen in China where such a manifestation would be a clear violation of the rules of feng-shui.

Günter Nitschke also notes that the term sansui loses much of its visual differentiation in translation: “San-sui means the polarity of mountain and water and is one of the most important metaphysical concepts inspiring the formal language of Sino-Japanese garden architecture and its blood-brother, painting.” Jirō Takei and Marc Keane elaborate on this connection between sansui and sansuiga (山水画 “mountain & water pictures”), a term which refers to a type of ink-brush painting of a natural landscape: “…out of the vastness of nature, mountains and water have been chosen as representative elements, fusing them into a single icon that represents the whole.” It should come as little surprise, then, that the term has meant “garden” from the earliest period of gardening in Japan.

A famous example of the sansui style can be seen at Daisen-in, which depicts a mountain scene complete with a flowing river of white gravel that cascades around half-submerged rocks as it tumbles down to a still ocean of gravel. This dry landscape garden, which was designed in 1533 by Kogaku Sōkō (古岳宗亘 1464-1548), has jagged, steep mountains rising out of abundant seas – a prototypical image for the Japanese garden – and reflects the dominant topography of a country where seventy-five percent of the landmass is mountainous with slopes of fifteen percent or higher. A mindscape of mountains and rivers is deeply ingrained in the Japanese psyche.


Heian Naturalness


You must truly observe. Go to the garden and look at the rock, the tree. Ah, nature, you say and turn away – then stop. You have just discovered that rock and tree have been placed there, placed by the hand of man, the Japanese hand. A new thought occurs: nature does not happen, it is wrought. A new rule offers itself: nothing is natural until it has been so created. – Donald Richie (1924-2013)


In the eleventh-century Sakuteiki (作庭記 A Record of Garden Making), the term for nature is senzui (山水 “mountains and water”), and shōtoku-no-senzui (玍得の山水 “living nature’s mountains & water”; a.p. shōtoku-no-sansui) implies a naturalness of composition that belies the artifice of garden construction. Jirō Takei and Marc Keane translate shōtoku as “natural constitution” or “innate disposition”, so the phrase itself might almost be translated as nature per se. Certainly, one of its connotations was originally “garden”, a usage that became more prevalent during the Medieval Age (1185-1568), implying that the designer had created a design in the true likeness of nature. Of paramount importance was that the creative hand or guiding principle should not be evident, much like a skeleton that provides form and support, but is not itself the center of attention. Such artlessness is often difficult to achieve, and it cannot be faked by absence of artifice. Perhaps this is why nature has always appealed to the Japanese: It is a creative force that does not employ force directly. This is the essence of Taoism, too. When the Way is followed, there is no evidence of either deliberate manipulation or unconscious art.


Garden Styles


The Japanese garden is nature on a microcosmic scale. This is not to say that it is nature imitated; rather it is nature symbolized and represented. By laying in a “grammatical” structure, the gardener develops linked patterns with concise natural forms. These in turn suggest their own essences and fill with meaning. – Seike Kiyoshi and Kudō Masanobu


Dating from the Heian period (794-1185), yō (様 “style”) refers to the overall effect or general atmosphere sought by a garden designer in any particular area of the garden. As Kashikie Isamu puts it, these diverse areas should harmonize internally: “Relating the garden internally, connecting one part of the garden to another, is called “linking.” This may be considered the linear phase of composition. In the Japanese garden, paths, stepping stones, stone steps, and bridges, among other things, are used in linking.” The Sakuteiki (作庭記 A Record of Garden Making) lists a number of styles, which borrow in essence, rather than slavishly copy, from either nature or art:

araiso-no-oki (荒磯の沖): The Rocky Shores garden style exploits the judicious placement of several sharp, jagged rocks along the northern shoreline of a pond or lake in imitation of the rocky, windswept beaches of the northern coastlines of Japan. It is usually emotive and stylized, the rough boulders having been selected for their artistic effect, and the beach bordering the pond or stream created by carefully laying flat, fist-sized stones closely together. The most celebrated example is the promontory looking towards the Shokintei teahouse found in the stroll garden at Katsura Rikyū Imperial Villa. The Sakuteiki offers contrary advice as to whether the rocky shore in nature should be used as a model or not. Early in the text, araiso (荒磯 “rocky shorelines”) are suggested as worthy of imitation; later, in a section on miscellaneous items, the following advice is offered: “Rocky shores are interesting to look at, but, since they eventually fall into desolation, they should not be used as models for gardening.”

ashide-no-yō (蘆手の様; 葦手の様; 茟手の様 “reed-hand style”): Characterized by softly undulating, grassy shorelines, this style of garden evokes a painting style called ashide (茟手; 蘆手; 葦手 “reed-hand” or “reed technique”), which developed sometime during the ninth century, and flourished during the height of the Heian period. These highly stylized paintings contained poems and short prose passages written over or above ink-wash illustrations of gently curving shorelines and wind-swept grasses and trees. Ashide is also a form of calligraphy, a sort of conundrum or form of play in which the reader must scout out the characters half hidden within the landscape. The Sakuteiki offers the following advice about the Reed-hand Style of garden: “In the Reed Style, hill-forms should not be too high. A few stones should be set along the edge of Meadows or on the water’s edge; next to those, some grass-like plants such as grass bamboo or tall field-grasses [e.g. yamasuge やなすげ] should be planted. Plums, willows, or other such trees with soft and gentle forms can also be planted according to one’s taste.”

numaike-no-yō (沼池の樣; 沼池のやう “wetland style”): The author of the Sakuteiki explains that few stones are used to create the effect of the wetland or marsh; rather, he advises that in an inlet, reeds, irises and other water plants (i.e. ashi 蘆; 茟; 葦; ayame 菖蒲; kakitsubata 杜若 and katsumi かつみ) should be planted so that the water of the pond can only just be glimpsed beyond. He adds that “water from a small channel should gather in one place, and the point where water runs in and out of the Wetland should not be clearly revealed. Water should simply appear from some hidden, unseen origin, and the surface of the water should appear high and full.”

ōkawa-no-yō (大河の様 “great river style”): The River Style of garden design is characterized by a winding stream (yarimizu 遣水) in which rocks are placed at the bend of the waterway to create a natural deflection for the water. Such a stream resembles a rambling mountain torrent in which bends occur where the water has been unsuccessful in eroding stones in its path and is forced to change course.

taiga-no-yō (大河の様 “broad river style”): This style evokes the image of a broad, slowly-flowing river, “like a path left in grass by a snake or dragon slithering through”, as the author of the Sakuteiki notes poetically. He continues: “The first thing to do when making this Style of garden is to set a Main Stone – an august stone with clean edges – where the headwater of the river will be. The other river stones should be set in relation to the request of this one stone [ishi-no-kowan-ni-shitagau 石の乞はんに従う]… One should try to grasp the spirit of what is to follow downstream and design various scenes so that the atmosphere of the stream gradually changes along the way.”

taikai-no-yō (大海の樣; 大海のやう “ocean style”): The Sakuteiki advises: “…set stones as if they are heading out from the point of a wave-washed shore. Add many prominent stones with sharp edges at the shoreline, and a few Solitary Stones jutting out here and there. All these stones should appear dug out and exposed, as if they had been lashed by violent waves. To complete the scene, there should also be promontories of white sand [sūsaki-shirahama 洲崎白浜] and plantings of trees, especially pines.”

The rugged coastline of the Izu Peninsula

The rugged coastline of the Izu Peninsula

yamakawa-no-yō (山河の様 “mountain torrent style”): This style, known today as sawatobi (沢飛び “brook or creek jumping”), requires a large number of randomly scattered stones and boulders. The Sakuteiki advises that the stones should be set in the flowing water in such a way that they cause the stream to divide around them, and more stones should be set firmly into the banks.


Habitat Motifs

Garden designers often imitate nature by evoking specific environmental habitats. Again, these imitations are not slavish, but rather they reproduce the essence of a given habitat through the judicious use and placement of rocks and flora. Donald Richie explains: “The original view, the natural stone, however, is never natural enough for the Japanese. Rather than working against nature as does, let us say, Versailles, the Japanese gardener works along with this nature that is being revealed. He or she parallels the grain of the material. There is pruning and placing but these result in the revealing of a line that nature originally created.”

A partial list of these habitat motifs includes:

akino (秋野 “autumn meadows”): A Heian term (794-1185) describing the inclusion of artificial meadows planted with variety of grasses that would turn bronze and gold during the autumn.

aoyama (青山 “green mountains”): The imitation of the deep green seclusion of the mountains.

nomine (野峰 “meadows & peaks”): As a suffix attached to place names, no (野 “meadows”) indicates meadows, pastures, or cleared land. When applied to landscape architecture, however, the kanji carries the connotation of wildness, rusticity or parochialism somewhat akin to the western concept of the pastoral. Mine (峰 “mountain peaks”) describes the geological role certain rocks play in garden compositions. The desired affect, then, is a pastoral representation of the lower peaks and broad valleys of a mountain range.

nōson-fūkei (農村風景): This term refers to any pastoral landscape, usually of an agricultural nature, when integrated into the overall design of a large stroll garden. Such quaint inclusions were most common during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), appearing in stroll gardens as miniature rice paddies and their accompanying landscapes to remind visitors of the traditional agrarian heritage of the Japanese people.

nosuji (野筋 “meadow courses or lines”): In Heian-period gardens, low earth berms were often planted with pampas grasses, bush clover and other low plantings to imitate stretches of meadow. The Sakuteiki (作庭記 A Record of Garden Making) suggests the following: “The creation of mountain forms or Meadows should follow the lay of the land and the shape of the pond.”

noyama (野山 “meadows and mountains”): A term describing the geological function of landscape compositions designed to imitate rolling fields and hills.

saki (先 “cape or headland”): Another term describing a geological composition that juts into a pond or other water feature.

Rugged Cape Iro scenery on the Izu Peninsula.

Rugged Cape Iro scenery on the Izu Peninsula.

shinzan (深山 “deep mountains”): Best translated as “the solitude of the deep mountains,” shinzan refers to either a botanical habitat, or to the effect evoked by a garden that seeks to imitate the secluded, mysterious mountainous regions of Japan. The related term shinzan-yūkoku (深山幽谷 “deep mountains and mysterious valleys”) is most often associated with yamabushi (山伏), or reclusive Zen Buddhist priests, who make their itinerant homes far from the madding crowd. An atmospheric style of garden in which tea masters seek to reproduce the pervading tranquility of the mountains is known as shinzan-no-tei (深山の庭 “garden of the deep mountains”; var. yama-no-tei 山の庭 “mountain garden”; see also yamazato 山里 below). Flora in shinzan gardens might include a judicious mixture of evergreen trees and shrubs, with a smattering of unpretentious deciduous trees. The Senzui-narabi-ni-yagyō-no-zu (山水並びに野行の図) has the following advice: “In the deep mountains you should plant mainly such trees as podocarpus, cryptomeria, hinoki cypress, cinnamon and camphor, castonopsis, pawlownia, oak, daphniphyllum, pine, and wild cherry. As the undergrowth beneath these trees, a mix of plants like azaleas, ilex, eurya, wild sumac, and bamboo grass will look splendid when they are growing luxuriantly together with no patch of ground exposed.” The garden at the Nezu Museum in Tokyo has one of the finer examples of the shinzan-no-tei garden to be found within a major city.

tanigawa (谷川 “river valley”): A motif centering on a winding, narrow stream that runs down through artificial hills (tsukiyama 築山 “artificial mountains”). The term appears in the Sakuteiki.

ura (浦 “bay or inlet”): A term describing the geological function of landscape compilations designed to imitate such features in a garden pond.

yamazato (山里 “mountain village”): A term associated with tea gardens attached to castles or daimyo estates that attempt to capture the tenor of remote mountain villages. Flora include peach trees, mountain cherries and loquats. The designers of such gardens were invoking the tranquility of the mountains (see shinzan 深山 above): “To walk the length of a roji is the spiritual compliment of a journey from town to the deep recesses of a mountain where stands a hermit’s hut.”


Bibliographical Notes

Useful sources on the imitation of nature in Japanese gardens include:

  • J. Baird Callicott, J. B. & R. T. Ames (1989). Nature in Asian traditions of thought: Essays in environmental philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Boye Lafayette De Mente, B L. (2006). Shizen: Imitating Mother Nature & Shizenbi: Nature’s standard of beauty. In Elements of Japanese design: Key terms for understanding & using Japan’s classic wabi-sabi-shibui concepts. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing.
  • Inaji, T. (1998). The design process: Stylized forms () and modeling after (manabi). In The garden as architecture: Form and spirit in the gardens of Japan, China, and Korea. Tokyo, NY & London: Kodansha International.

Nothing gives so much pleasure… Keene, D. (Trans) (1981). Essays in idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing; p. 22.

Louis Aragon, the surrealist poet and French resistance fighter… Hobson, J. (2007). Niwaki: Pruning, training and shaping trees the Japanese way. Portland & London: Timber Press; p. 23.

The Japanese… consider themselves to be blessed by nature… Picken, S. D. B. (1980). Shinto: Japan’s spiritual roots. Introduction by E. O. Reischauer. Tokyo, NY, San Francisco: Kodansha International; p. 11.

As Alex Kerr points out, the nature we observe in gardens… Kerr, A. (1996). Lost Japan. Melbourne: Lonely Planet; p. 18.

In Shinto, there is a tradition of Kami no Yo… Kerr, A. (1996); p. 18.

“In the Japanese understanding,” Morley interpolates… Morley, J. D. (1986). Pictures from the water trade. New York: HarperCollins; p. 78.

[Nature] refers to the dimension of physical reality… Koren, L. (1994). Wabi-sabi for artists, designers, poets, and philosophers. Berkley, California: Stone Bridge Press; p. 84; n.20.

A Japanese attitude toward nature lies in the constant endeavor to extract the essence of a flower, of a stone… Cited in Mansfield, M. (2009). Japanese stone gardens: Origins, meaning, form. Foreword by D. Richie. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing; p. 9.

“This term,” writes François Berthier… Berthier, F. (2000). Reading Zen in the rocks: The Japanese landscape garden. Translated with a Philosophical Essay by Graham Parkes. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press; p. 43.

Günter Nitschke also notes that the term… Nitschke, G. (1993). Japanese gardens: Right angle and natural form. Köln: Benedikt Taschen; p. 34.

Jirō Takei and Marc Keane elaborate on this connection between sansui and sansuiga… 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. 41.

Jirō Takei and Marc Keane translate shōtoku… Takei, J. & M. P. Keane (2001); pp. 41; 153 n.3.

Certainly, one of its connotations was originally “garden”… Nitschke, G. (1993); p. 60.

You must truly observe. Go to the garden and look at the rock, the tree… Richie, D. (2011). Japan: A description. In Viewed sideways: Writings on culture and style in contemporary Japan. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press; p. 17.

The Japanese garden is nature on a microcosmic scale… Seike, K., K. Masanobu, & D. Engel (1992). A Japanese touch for your garden. Photographs by H. Ōhashi. Tokyo, New York & London: Kodansha International; p. 38.

“Relating the garden internally, connecting one part of the garden to another, is called “linking.”… Kashikie, I. (1968). The ABC of Japanese gardening. Translated by J. Nathan. Tokyo: Japan Publications Trading Co.; p. 9-10.

Indeed, jagged, steep mountains rising out of abundant seas… Keane, M. P. (1996). Japanese garden design. Photographs by H. Ōhashi. Drawings by the author. Rutland & Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle; p. 6.

“Rocky shores are interesting to look at, but… Takei, J. & M. P. Keane (2001); p. 192. In fact, Takei and Keane point to such contradictions as possible evidence of multiple authorship of the Sakuteiki.

“In the Reed Style, hill-forms should not be too high… Takei, J. & M. P. Keane (2001); p. 165.

He adds that “water from a small channel should gather in one place… Takei, J. & M. P. Keane (2001); p. 165.

He continues: “The first thing to do when making this Style of garden… Takei, J. & M. P. Keane (2001); p. 164.

The Sakuteiki advises: “…set stones as if they are heading out… Takei, J. & M. P. Keane (2001); p. 162.

The Sakuteiki advises that the stones should be set… Takei, J. & M. P. Keane (2001); p. 165.

The original view, the natural stone, however, is never natural enough for the Japanese… Cited in Mansfield, M. (2009); p. 9.

The Sakuteiki suggests the following… Takei, J. & M. P. Keane (2001); p. 157.

The Senzui-narabi-ni-yagyō-no-zu (山水並びに野行の図) has the following advice… Slawson, D. A. (1991). Secret teachings in the art of Japanese gardens: Design principles, aesthetic values. Tokyo & New York: Kodansha International Ltd.; p. [166].

The designers of such gardens were invoking the tranquility of the mountains… Keane, M. P. (1996); p. 80.