Chapter 16: Preserving the Craft

by Dec 20, 2012Handbook, Part 1: Design & Craft0 comments

In this Chapter…

  • Passage and Preservation
  • Follow the Tune
  • The Classic
  • Medieval Manuscripts
  • Tokugawa Tomes
  • Modern Manuals


Passage and Preservation


Nowadays the training seldom lasts that long [fifteen years], but the student gardener is still expected to examine nature, to analyze older gardens, and to become the arms and legs of his teacher. The master makes designs in his head; the apprentices move rocks and trees into place, setting and resetting them until they are just right.   – Bruce A. Coats
These young [apprentices] learn from experience and those around them – the older gardeners have a wealth of information to pass on, and there is a strong hierarchy within the group. Until quite recently the new apprentices were not allowed to work on trees in the garden; instead their work was restricted to menial chores such as raking and cleaning up, until they were ready for the next step. – Jake Hobson


Traditionally, the art and craft of gardening, and all its attendant knowledge, was handed down through the ages in three essential forms:

1) direct oral transmission from master to apprentice;
2) written texts and illustrated scrolls; and
3) secret written texts which required orally transmitted keys.

The generic term for illustrated or painted scrolls of texts is emakimono (絵巻物; ekotoba 絵詞), and these are are further categorized into monogatari (物語 “tales”), setsuwa (說話 “biographies”), denki (伝記 “chronicles”), and engi (縁起 “auguries”, which often depict early Japanese culture). A number of these texts provide primary sources for the study of early Japanese gardens and gardening techniques. Dedicated garden manuals are surprisingly few in number, although this is undoubtedly due to the manner in which such precious knowledge was passed down. The process was as follows.

David Slawson notes that traditional arts are taught through a three-step approach which largely favors the direct kinesthetic involvement of learning the kata (方), or “way of doing things”, followed by oral transmissions when – and only when – the student has “made the art his own” through experiential learning. Education runs as follows:

A) Apprenticeship (Experiential or “body/kinesthetic” learning)

i. Viewing works of past masters
ii. Learning from nature
iii. Apprenticeship

B) Oral Transmission (Verbal or “esoteric” learning)

C) Secret Texts (Verbal or “esoteric” learning)

“In fact,” reflects Slawson, “the process of first sensing our environment, then standing back from our sensory experience to reflect on it, and then returning once again to the world of experience is one of the basic rhythms of human life.”

In their broadest sense, kuden (囗伝; denshō 伝承) refer to any teachings, techniques, or traditions relating to Japanese cultural arts that were passed orally between a sensei (先生 “master, teacher”; meishō 名匠) and a deshi (弟孑 “apprentice”), often with great secrecy. Specifically, the term kuden refers to the cipher to any secret written text, without which the import cannot be fully understood. In order to safeguard important knowledge, then, such keys were passed down orally, a process initiated by the sensei if, and only if, the student were deemed ready or worthy to receive the knowledge. When the transmission was received in the form of epiphany, or sudden understanding, it was referred to as sōden (相伝 “mutual transmission”), a term that appears in the Sakuteiki (作庭記 A Record of Garden Making), where it implies “a communication of knowledge where there is a bond of respect and affinity between the parties involved…”

The terms kudensho (囗伝書 “oral transmission writings”) and hidensho (秘伝書 “secret writings”) refer to the texts that contain such teachings. These often held the condensed, cumulative knowledge and experience of a specific master, and were carefully passed in trust to a worthy successor in order to assure the continuation of the living art. Thus, they often formed the core teachings of a particular school. Enigmatic, incomplete, or even encoded, these writings were not “how-to” manuals, but merely mnemonics for the already-initiated. Knowledge of the traditional Japanese arts became increasingly more valuable as the aristocracy lost political and economic power to the military class during the thirteenth- and fourteenth-centuries, so the need to protect such knowledge manifested in more secure systems of transmission.

Several texts dealing with garden design and construction were zealously guarded through such means, first by medieval Buddhist priests and later, during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), by the professional garden designers and builders, the niwashi (庭師 “garden teachers”; see The Men Who Moil). At any one moment, then, such texts represented the cumulative knowledge and experience of a group of semi-professional or professional gardeners.


Follow the Tune


I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one’s being, a satisfaction of spirit… Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired. – Martha Graham


Sensei (先生 “master, teacher”; meishō 名匠) is the honorific title given to a teacher or master. Speaking of traditional Japanese music, William Malm reminds us that “Education at any level is an extension (or contraction, if you will) of the obligations between the lord and the vassal. Even in the cynical present day, a music teacher has a right to expect loyalty from his pupils, and the student instinctively feels a certain veneration toward the master.” The role of sensei in Japan also implies mentorship and guidance in etiquette, aesthetics, philosophy, and, in some cases, even morality. Inherited from Korean and Chinese artists and craftsmen who came to Japan during the fifth and seventh centuries, the tradition of oral transmission of artistic and cultural knowledge from master to apprentice (deshi 弟孑) remains extraordinarily strong in the Japanese arts. The fifteen-hundred-year-old-tradition of landscape design in Japan has been largely preserved through such experiential learning and oral tradition, now and again bolstered by secret teachings (kuden 囗伝).


The Classic


Toshitsuna’s book remains a valuable reference for master gardeners. It is also a delightful compendium of well-tested design technique, personal opinion, and age-old superstition. It tells how to dig waterways, set stones, choose plants, site pavilions – even how to make pond bottoms watertight and how to keep shoreline rocks from toppling. – Bruce A. Coats


The Sakuteiki (作庭記), or A Record of Garden Making, is the oldest known Japanese text on gardening practices in the shinden-zukuri (寝殿造り) estates, and dates from the late Heian period (794-1185). It may well be the oldest known text on gardening in the world, since earlier accounts such as Pliny the Elder’s treatise on estate management concern themselves primarily with agricultural rather than aesthetic matters. Regardless of its precedence, the original text was probably written as a supplement to secret and therefore orally transmitted material that had been passed from master to apprentice, and the contents are concise, technical and essentially pragmatic.

The earliest version of the Sakuteiki is written on two scrolls and contains no illustrations, and it is possible that these scrolls passed through the hands of the Maeda clan of Ishikawa Prefecture as several copies were disseminated by the Maeda. The Tanimura clan of Kanazawa city received a set, and some time between 1779 and 1819 these Tanimura scrolls were copied when a massive collection of literary classics was anthologized under the title Gunsho-ruijū (群書類從). The Tanimura scrolls were untitled, although during the Kamakura period (1185-1333), the text had been referred to as the Senzai-hisshō (前栽秘抄 Secret Discourses on Gardens). It acquired its present title, the Sakuteiki, sometime during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868).

The authorship of the Sakuteiki, once attributed to Fujiwara no Yoshitsune (藤原良経 1169-1206), is now generally ascribed to Tachibana no Toshitsuna (橘俊綱 1028-1094; see Designing Men), the son of a Fujiwara noble. The earliest extant copies are without illustrations, and date from the twelfth century. Toshitsuna’s father, Fujiwara no Yorimichi (藤原頼通 992-1074), was responsible for building at least two Heian-period gardens at Kaya-no-in and Byōdō-in, in Kyoto. It is hardly surprising, then, that the Sakuteiki is a pragmatic work, full of advice concerning design, layout, and construction. Its contents break down as follows: a general introduction to garden principles; a description of five basic garden types; the eight basic island forms; the nine waterfalls; garden streams; rock formations; and a list of does and don’ts. Among the many topics covered is the Chinese system of feng-shui (風水; Jp. fūsui). In fact, the author devotes the better part of the second chapter to the basic philosophy and ideology of geomancy, dwelling on the placement of buildings, streams and gates for optimal health, happiness and harmony.

Although the Sakuteiki contains the “clearest description of the first great prototype of the Japanese garden”, Tachibana no Toshitsuna is a revisionist, and is quick to offer alternative suggestions for fortuitous ground plans should a nobleman wish to impart a stronger Japanese flavor to his estate, or if the topography of the estate itself prove unsuitable. While he gives much time to the formal presentation of feng-shui, he makes a number of significant changes to geomancy according to his own tastes and inclinations. It is this assimilation and innovation that make the Sakuteiki a valuable work for ascertaining eleventh-century tastes in art as well as gardening, and what emerges is a vigorous and invigorating approach to gardening that was to influence designers for many years to come. “Whether these rules were already common knowledge and found in other books now lost to us,” speculates Günter Nitschke, “whether they were passed from teacher to pupil as part of an oral tradition, or whether they were strictly secret, remains a speculation.”

An abridged edition of the Sakuteiki edited by Keisan Hōin (慶算法印) was published sometime in the early thirteenth century (Kamakura period 1185-1333). This abridged work, the Sansuishō (山水抄), contains more or less the same material as the Sakuteiki distributed between three scrolls: Tateishi-shisai-nijuhachi-kajō (“Twenty-eight Items Concerning the Setting of Stones”); Tatetaki-ryusui-shidai-niūshichi-kajō (“Twenty-seven Items Concerning the Construction of Waterfalls and Streams”); and Tateishi-kuden-sanjūichi-kajō-narabini-senzai-no-koto (“Thirty-one Secret Teachings Concerning the Setting of Stones and Plants”). Two additional scrolls contain new material: Zōsaku-no-koto (“Construction Items”) and Senzai-no-koto (“Planting Items”).


Medieval Manuscripts

The Senzui-narabi-ni-yagyō-no-zu (山水並びに野行の図; Sansui-narabi-ni-yakei-zu 山水並びに野形図; Sansui-narabi-ni-nogata-no-zu 山水並びに野形の図) has been variously translated as An Illustrated Manual of Forms of Mountain, Water and Field Landscapes (Günter Nitschke), Illustrations for Designing Mountain, Water, and Hillside Field Landscapes (David Slawson), and Illustrations of Landscape Scenes and Ground Forms (Graham Parkes). Originally attributed to the priest Zōen (?, tenth-century?), and later edited and passed down by the gardener-priest Hōin Shingen in 1466, the Muromachi-period Senzui-narabi-ni-yagyō-no-zu is an illustrated scroll containing the accumulated knowledge and secret teachings of the ishitatesō (石立て僧 “stone-standing priests”). Intended to be a secret text (kuden 囗伝), it is the principal manual of the fifteenth-century, and is considered one of the most important texts on gardening, even today.

The scrolls of the Maeda manuscript bear the seal of Shinren-in, a sub-temple of the Shingon (真言) temple complex of Ninna-ji, Kyoto, where it was passed down from master to disciple, and the colophon includes a list of some forty-seven priests and aristocrats, and some scholars point to this imprint as proof that it was originally compiled by ishitatesō. Interestingly, Tachibana no Toshitsuna (橘俊綱 1028-1094), the author of the Sakuteiki (作庭記 A Record of Garden Making), appears on the list. Other important figures on list are En’en-Ajari (延円阿闍梨; see Designing Men) and Ryūmon Oshō (Musō Sōseki 夢窓疎石 1275-1351; see Designing Men), priests who were responsible for designing and constructing many of the Kamakura-period (1185-1333) gardens.

The Senzui-narabi-ni-yagyō-no-zu includes carefully prepared illustrations and covers two themes in particular: “the cosmic laws governing rocks,… [and] the names given to rocks. Both indicate that the symbolism attached to man-made rock formations in the Muromachi era [1338-1568] was becoming more complex.” The text expressly states that rock formations must follow the dictates of standard Sino-Japanese geomancy (fūsui 風水), and catalogues specific does and don’ts. In addition, there is an exclusive catalogue of named stones and rocks, and chapters concerning pruning and transplanting trees. It is, then, a practical as well as an aesthetic manual. During the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), additional secret material known as the Dōji-kudensho (同時囗伝書) was appended to manuscripts of the Senzui-narabi-ni-yagyō-no-zu.

The Shokoku-chaniwa-meiseki-zue (諸国茶庭名跡図会), or Illustrated Manual of Famous Remnants of Tea Gardens of Various Countries, is an illustrated scroll in two volumes depicting famous tea gardens (chaniwa 茶庭) designed by the likes of Sen no Rikkyū (千利休 1521/2-1591; see Designing Men), Oribe Furuta (古田織部 1544-1615; see Designing Men), and Kobori Enshū (小堀遠州 1579-1647; see Designing Men). Originally, this scroll formed the fifth volume of a larger compendium known as Kokin-chadō-zenshu (?), which was published in 1694, but the fifth volume proved so popular that it was later published separately in a two-volume set under the above title. A novel technique for illustrating the gardens was employed: The superimposition of both horizontal and vertical planes allows certain features to be shown in two-dimensional plan form, and others to be rendered in three dimensional elevation.


Tokugawa Texts

The Yokei-tsukuri-niwa-no-zu (余景作り庭の図), or Garden Drawings for the Creation of Specific Views, was compiled in 1680 by the print-maker Hishikawa Moronobu (菱川師宣1630-1694). This single volume illustrates secret gardening techniques through double-page illustrations, and demonstrates eighteen methods for creating a painterly quality in gardens. “At the top of each illustration,” remarks Günter Nitschke, “[Hishikawa] describes the scenic ingredients necessary to create the garden in question – whether famous sights in China or Japan, seasonal scenery or poetic lore – , and thereby falls fully in line with the secret oral traditions of Japanese garden art.”

The three-volume Tsukiyama-teizōden (築山庭造伝 Transmission of Making Mountains and Creating Gardens), published in 1735, contains a thorough catalogue of famous Kyoto gardens from the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) and earlier. The first two volumes were compiled by the garden designer Kitamura Enkin (北村援琴 fl.1735), and contain much practical advice on design and construction, including many of the tools of the trade. Also included is a synthesis of four earlier works (Tsukiyama-sansuiden 築山山水伝; Sansui-narabi-ni-nogata-no-zu 山水并野形図 (Senzui-narabi-ni-yagyō-no-zu); Sagaryū-niwa-kohō-hiden-no-sho 嵯峨流庭古法秘伝之書; and Niwa-tsubo-chikei-tori-zu 庭坪地形取図), although Kitamura Enkin adds commentary on tea gardens in response to the growing popularity of the tea ceremony (chanoyu 茶の湯). The third volume contains ink illustrations of famous gardens by Fujii Shigeyoshi (藤井重好 ??).

A supplemental volume was compiled and appended to the previous three by Akisato Ritō (秋里籬島 fl.1780- 1814) in 1828, and all four volumes were released under the title Tsukiyama-teizōden-kōhen (築山庭造伝 後編). Akisato Ritō adds a comprehensive classification of nine standard types of gardens and categorizes them according to the shin-gyō-sō (真行草) system, and the work indicates that the design, structure, and terminology of gardens were all but fully standardized by the late Tokugawa period. Interestingly, Josiah Condor borrowed extensively from the illustrations by Akisato Ritō for the lithographs in his book Landscape Gardening in Japan, published in 1893. In 1894 a new version of this manual was published under the title Tsukiyama-sansui-ishigumi-sonō-no-yaegaki (築山山水石組園生八重垣).

Akisato Ritō also completed the Miyako-rinsen-meisho-zue (都林泉名所図会 Illustrated Manual of Celebrated Gardens in the Capital) in 1799 and the Ishigumi-sonō-yaegakiden (石組園生八重垣伝) in 1837. The 1799 scroll contains important woodblock illustrations of Kyoto’s most famous secular and religious gardens together with information of festivals associated with them, while the later work discusses various stone compositions and provides a list of the five types of aesthetic and pragmatic stones.

A twenty-volume work published between 1834 and 1836 contains over one thousand woodcuts of famous sights (meisho 名所) in and around the city of Edo (Tokyo). Loosely translated as An Illustrated Guide to the Famous Sights of Edo, the Edo-meisho-zue (江戸名所図会) is, then, a sort of illustrated tourist’s guide-book of the capital, and features at least some of the stroll gardens created by the daimyo.


Modern Volumes

Two classic works on Japanese gardens dating from the twentieth century are the vast twenty-four volume Nihon-teien-shizukan (日本庭園史図鑑 Illustrated History of the Japanese Garden) and the prodigious thirty-six volume Nihon-teien-shitaikei (日本庭園史大系 Great Compendium of Japanese Garden History), both compiled by the indefatigable Shigemori Mirei (重森三玲 1896-1975; see Designing men). In the compilation of the second work, Shigemori was assisted by his son, Shigemori Kanto (?). The first work, published between 1936 and 1939, and is often referred to as the Zukan (図鑑), and the latter, referred to as simply the Taikei (大系), was published between 1971 and 1976. Both are considered to be undisputed masterpieces on the subject in the Japanese language.

Parts Two – Five are available to supporters of Japanese Gardening Organization.  For more information and access to these four books, see JGO membership.

Bibliographical Notes

Some useful sources:

  • De Mente, B. L. (2006). Meisho/deshi: The master/apprentice approach. In Elements of Japanese design: Key terms for understanding & using Japan’s classic wabi-sabi-shibui concepts. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing.
  • Slawson, D. A. (1991) Secret teachings in the art of Japanese gardens: Design principles, aesthetic values. Tokyo & New York: Kodansha International Ltd.
  • 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.

Nowadays the training seldom lasts that long, but the student gardener is still expected to examine nature… Coats, B. A. (1989, November). In a Japanese garden. Photographs by M. S. Yamashita. National Geographic. 176, No.5, p. 644.

These young [apprentices] learn from experience and those around them… Hobson, J. (2007). Niwaki: Pruning, training and shaping trees the Japanese way. Portland & London: Timber Press; p.133.

where it implies “a communication of knowledge…” Slawson, D. A. (1991); p. 50.

“In fact,” reflects Slawson, “the process of first sensing our environment…” Slawson, D. A. (1991); p. 55.

I believe that we learn by practice… Graham, M. (2007). An athlete of God. In This I believe: The personal philosophies of remarkable men and women. Eds. J. Allison and D. Gediman. NY: Holt; p. 84.

Speaking of traditional Japanese music… Malm, W. P. (2000). Traditional Japanese music & musical instruments. New ed. Tokyo: Kodansha International; p. 44.

Toshitsuna’s book remains a valuable reference for master gardeners… Coats, B. A. (1989); p. 647.

Although the Sakuteiki contains the “clearest description of the first great prototype of the Japanese garden…” Nitschke, G. (1993). Japanese gardens: Right angle and natural form. Köln: Benedikt Taschen; p. 39.

“Whether these rules were already common knowledge and found in other books now lost to us,…” Nitschke, G. (1993); p. 56.

Originally attributed to the priest Zōen… “It would appear that the priest Zōen – credited as its original compiler – lived before the eleventh century and thus predates [Tachibana no] Toshitsuna, the author of the Sakuteiki, but exactly who he was is by no means clear” (Slawson, D. (1991); p. 51).

“the cosmic laws governing rocks,… [and] the names given to rocks…” Nitschke, G. (1993); p. 109.

“At the top of each illustration,” remarks Günter Nitschke… Nitschke, G. (1993); p. 204.