A JAPANESE GARDEN HANDBOOK
PART ONE: DESIGN & CRAFT
Chapter 10: The Hermitage Garden
In this Chapter…
- Retiring from the World’s Stage
- Illusions of Seclusion
- Bibliographical Notes
Retiring from the World’s Stage
Although emperors and empresses have been retiring to detached palaces (rikyū 離宮 “separate palaces”) and mountain monasteries since Heian times (794-1185), the English term “hermitage garden” is usually only applied to the private rustic retreats created by samurai and other high-ranking officials who chose to forego worldly affairs during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868). Such retreats were constructed to provide a secluded or isolated venue for the pursuit of scholarship, literature and tea culture. However, the genesis of the hermitage garden can be found in earlier literature such as the Heike-monogatari (平家物語 Tales of the Heike) and the Tsurezuregusa (徒然草 Essays in Idleness), which, of course, drew on Chinese allusions. Here, for example, is the description of the garden of Jakkō-in (寂光院), a temple to which the former Empress Kenrei-mon-in (建礼門院 1155-1213) retired following the demise of the Heike clan in the Gempei Wars (1180-5):
“[T]he pond and trees of its ancient garden were dignified; the young grass had grown thick, and the slender shoots of the willow were all hanging in confusion, while the floating water-plants on the pond might be mistaken for spread out brocade. On the island the purple hue of the flowering wisteria mingled with the green of the pine-tree, while the late-blossoming cherry among the green leaves was more rare than the early blossoms. From the eight-fold clouds of the kerria that was flowering in profusion on the bank came the call of the cuckoo… Pleasant was the sound of water as it fell from the clefts of the time-worn rocks, and the ivied walls and beetling crags would have defied the brush of the painter… Here was the grass that grew thick in the path of Yen Yuan, and the white goose-foot that keeps men at a distance, and here too was the rain that moistened the door of Yuan Hsien.”
Tokugawa-era hermitage gardens typically combine elements of the stroll garden, the dry landscape garden, and tea garden within a much-restricted domestic scale. Borrowed scenery can also play a dominant role in the design. Peculiar to the hermitage garden, however, is the unusually convoluted approach, which can take up most of the available land in the form of sophisticated, narrow paths with several corners and bends. The purpose of such an approach is to assure that the visitor is in a suitably calm and meditative mood when he finally arrives at the garden. Much as the tea garden does for the guests at a tea ceremony, the approach to the hermitage garden serves to create an illusion of space through the recreation of a journey, and to induce within the visitor a stillness in preparation for meditation.
Illusions of Seclusion
Two famous examples of the hermitage garden are Shisendō (The House of Poet-Hermits) in Kyoto, built in 1641 by Ishikawa Jōzan (石川丈山 1583-1672), and Jikō-in (The Temple of Tender Light) near Nara, constructed in 1663 by a former feudal lord, Katagiri Sekishū (片桐石州 1605-73). With metaphoric panache, Günter Nitschke elaborates on twelve ways in which the visual illusion of greater space and seclusion are generated. These are illustrated using photographs of Shisendō:
9. The “floating experience” when the visitor steps up toward the study (shoin 書院).
10. The “direct-touch experience” when the visitor removes his shoes.
Two sources worth reading:
• Keene, D. (Trans) (1981). Essays in idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing.
• Sadler, A. L. (1963). The retired life. In Cha-no-yu: The Japanese tea ceremony. Rutland & Tokyo: Charles E Tuttle.
About the tenth month I had occasion to visit a village… Keene, D. (1981); p. 11.
The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due… 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. 881.
[T]he pond and trees of its ancient garden were dignified… Sadler, A. L. (Trans)(1972). The ten foot square hut and Tales of the Heike: Being two thirteenth-century Japanese classics, the “Hojoki” and selections from the “Heike Monogatari”. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle; pp. 246-7.
Günter Nitschke elaborates on twelve ways… Nitschke, G. (1993). Japanese gardens: Right angle and natural form. Köln: Benedikt Taschen; pp. 199-201.
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