Pictorial Nature of Japanese Gardens

In autumn, 2008, I was in Japan for more than a month looking at gardens. Most of the gardens were in Kyoto, but I traveled to Tokyo, Nikko, Kanazawa, Nagoya, and Okayama. Viewing the gardens, was, for me, similar to walking through a museum and stopping to examine and appreciate each picture. David Slawson, in his Secret Teachings in the Art of Japanese Gardens, writes in detail about how he feels a garden is viewed making comparisons between viewing a garden and viewing a painting or photograph. This paper will examine the elements of Japanese gardens, using my own photographs to demonstrate David Slawson’s ideas about the pictorial nature of gardens, and looking, in particular, at the use of space, captured scenery, and the concept of re-creating famous places. In addition to a general discussion on gardens, I propose to examine in detail  Shirotori in Nagoya, Kenroku-en in Kanazawa, Koraku-en in Okayama, Rikugien in Tokyo, and Taizo-in, and Tenryu-ji in Kyoto.

Japanese gardens were the subject of poetry; poems were created and read in gardens. Gardens appear as backgrounds in scroll paintings and emaki painters designed many of the earliest gardens. Japanese gardens grew out of reverence for nature, but trees and plantings are shaped to conform to a Japanese ideal of nature, rocks and water become something else, making gardens an art form. In some, the viewer can appreciate the scene from a special place, a frame. In others the viewer can be more interactive; he or she can enter and stroll along, each few steps presenting a different view.

Creating Pictures

Slawson equates the landscape designer and the painter in many ways. He says that a landscape painter or photographer would notice the similarity of framing techniques:

A classical Japanese garden—at least until the advent of the tea garden and its offspring, the stroll garden, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—was primarily viewed like a painting, from the shelter of the residential quarters…. that provided the key vantage points for viewing these gardens: first and foremost, from the center of the veranda in front of the main hall; then from peripheral positions along the adjoining living quarters, corridors, and pavilions overlooking the pond.
Such gardens may be compared to a landscape scroll being unrolled horizontally before the eyes of a seated observer…

Slawson continues to explain that when viewers entered the garden space, “it was as if they were entering the magical realm of a scroll painting to get a closer look….” (Slawson p. 80)

The “scroll” garden, revealed all at once, is viewed from a fixed point like a long take from a camera mounted at the eye level of a person seated on a tatami mat. The stroll garden is comparable to a film technique in which a succession of images is presented to the viewer. (Slawson, p. 81)

Slawson further equates the landscape designer and the painter by saying: “a landscape designer seeking to give a limited garden space a sense of depth far beyond its actual size—to create for example the illusion of a vast natural panorama—can do so by selecting and manipulating garden elements with the same techniques used by painters.” (Slawson, p. 108)

Teiji Itoh, in Space and Illusion in the Japanese Garden, considers the relationship between garden design and ‘Oriental’ painting to be fundamental, saying “…the techniques of composition, the view of nature, and the manner of achieving harmony often contributed, if only in part, to fundamental concepts of garden design.” (Itoh, Space and Illusion in the Japanese Garden, p. 49)

Two concepts, illusion/shakkei or captured scenery and replication of famous places, have often been used to organize the garden space. Early gardens included representations of famous landscapes, not specific places, but rather a shoreline, an island, hills and valleys. These re-creations were supposed to capture the spirit of a place rather than actual details. The Sakuteiki, which dates back to the eleventh century, and is the first extant Japanese garden manual and probably the first garden manual ever published, warns against copying exactly, exhorting the reader/gardener to capture the spirit of the place the garden will re-create. “Visualize the famous landscapes of our country and come to understand their most interesting points. Re-create the essence of those scenes in the garden, but do so interpretively, not strictly.” (Shakuteiki, Takei, p. 153)

You should design each part of the garden tastefully, recalling your memories of how nature presented itself for each feature… Think over the famous places of scenic beauty throughout the land, and…design your garden with the mood of harmony, modeling after the general air of such places.

and when viewers entered the garden space, “it was as if they were entering the magical realm of a scroll painting to get a closer look…” (Slawson, p. 57, Sakuteiki, in NST 23:224, sec. 1. Shimoyama, p. 1)

Elements of a garden

Rocks or stones, water, plants, stone lanterns and decorative bridges, and sometimes a teahouse, are the primary elements of a Japanese garden. All of these elements are placed and shaped to create an ideal nature. Each garden represents a design solution to a distinct set of constraints: the owner-client and his reasons for having the garden, the site including surrounding environment, and the materials available. (Slawson, p. 41)

Stones are the first elements mentioned in the Sakuteiki. The text goes into great detail about placing stones in the garden and how the stones can emulate aspects of the landscape, such as the shoreline, islands, and waterfalls. Water, creating a pond or a waterfall, how the water flows through the site, detailed instructions for the depth of a pond, and its placement next to the veranda from which it will be viewed all receive much attention.

But the placement of rocks and water should invoke the desired spirit or experience, not be slavishly copied from the natural landscape. We are urged to, “Select several places within the property according to the shape of the land and the ponds, and create a subtle atmosphere, reflecting again and again on one’s memories of wild nature.” (Shakuteiki, Takei, p. 153)  Sakuteiki stresses again and again the need to convey the spirit of the place being replicated, not just to copy it.

When you place stones… it is first and foremost necessary to grasp the overall sense. — Following the topography of the site and seeing how the pond lies one must think over the particular aesthetic sense of all parts of the place. Then recall landscape scenery as it is found in nature, and seeing how different all the parts of the site are you must place the stones by combining these impressions. (Kuitert, p. 33, Sakuteiki Mori, p. 43)

Teiji Itoh, in The Gardens of Japan, further explains the aesthetic element of the replicated scenery by saying the garden designers are creating a microcosm, a small world within the garden. “Japanese garden designers… have selected from among naturally and fortuitously formed materials and have exerted their own ingenuity only in devising placements that produce the desired microcosmic effect.” (Itoh, The Gardens of Japan, p. 35)

Borrowed scenery, shakkei, or more accurately, captured scenery, is a feature of many gardens. In Kyoto, Mt. Hiei or other surrounding mountains were easily seen in the distance. Capturing the scenery, as opposed to borrowing it, meant the designer not only situated the garden to take advantage of the distant view, but used a more active device to show it, such as trimming bushes to allow the view to appear in a v-shaped or notched space or planting trees to frame the view. Criticized today are gardens within cities whose distant views are now tall buildings thought to detract from the enjoyment of the garden. Hama Rikyu (detached palace) Garden, one of the oldest and most beautiful gardens in Tokyo, is now surrounded by the tall buildings of the Shiodome area, in a sense becoming anti-shakkei. (Fig. 1a).

Fig. 1a Hama Rikyu garden with Tokyo buildings providing distant view

Contrast the photo of the garden surrounded by the city with an earlier photo taken in 1863 by an Englishman, Felice Beato, which shows nothing in the background. (Figure 1b). (Posted on the Web by MIT at http://ocw.mit.edu/ans7870/21f/21f.027/home/index.html and found on Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons) Because this coastal area of Tokyo is flat there is no obvious distant scenery to bring into focus.

Fig. 1b photo, Felice Beato

The site of this garden was originally a tidal duck hunting ground. In the Seventeenth Century, Matsudaira Tsunashige, a feudal lord, reclaimed part of the tidal ponds to build a family villa, now a sanctuary within Tokyo for a number of wild species of birds and fish. Tsunashige’s son, Ienobu, later became the sixth shogun of Japan, and the renovated property became that of the ruling Tokugawa family. Successive Shoguns made a number of innovations, and the gardens reached their final form under the eleventh Shogun, Ienari. It was finally taken over by the city and opened to the public in 1946, after extensive renovations. (http://www.japanvisitor.com/index.php?cID=421&pID=1528)

Although wild landscapes provided the only plants in the earliest gardens, which primarily used rocks and water, plants have assumed a more important role over the centuries, embodying the spirit of an idealized nature. Trees and shrubs are carefully tended and pruned to achieve this idealized nature, even to the extent of cleaning the bark of a tree, as shown in Figure 2 by a gardener working at the Rinnoji Treasure House garden in Nikko.

Fig. 2 Gardener at Rinnoji Treasure House, Nikko

How you envision a tree or plant is the guiding principle for growing things in Japanese gardens. The process of growing a garden tree is like drawing or building a tree, for instance, for a stage set or miniature railroad. It will have exaggerated features, but will be a representation of a tree. According to Jake Hobson in Niwaki, “Observations, memories, emotions and thousands of years of cultural and practical tradition inform Japanese gardeners and nursery workers as they cultivate their garden trees, coaxing out those features believed to signify ‘the essence of tree’: gnarled trunks, outstretched branches and rounded canopies.” (Hobson, p. 9) A live tree, growing naturally, might take many years to reach that same essence of treeness.

Itoh also touches on this idea of naturalness through artifice: “Though they tamper with materials, the Japanese strive to idealize nature in gardens that give the impression of naturalness; the workings of the human hand are found in all Japanese gardens, but the goals of artifice vary.” (Itoh, The Gardens of Japan, p. 34-35) For example, Hama Rikyu is the site of a three-hundred-year-old black pine, (Fig. 3), an amazing example of the Japanese “idea of nature” through care and pruning. The tree has been trained to grow sideways, possibly to highlight a long gone bit of captured scenery, and is supported by an extensive architectural structure. (Fig. 4).

Fig. 3 Composite photo, 300 year old black pine

Fig. 4 Structural support of 300 year old black pine

Space and Captured Scenery

The design of space in the garden seems to have begun with the idea of captured scenery forming the background, for instance, a distant landscape seen through a screen or frame (trees, bushes or fencing) that forms the middleground and the actual garden forming the foreground. (Kuitert, p. 205)  Japanese gardens, particularly the ‘scroll’ gardens viewed from a single point of view, make much use of the painterly concepts of foreground, middle ground and background. Viewing these scenes from an interior puts a frame around the scene and tends to flatten it, or give it a two-dimensional appearance, like a painting. Note this view of the Abbot’s garden at Nanzen-ji. (Fig. 5)

Fig. 5 Abbot’s Garden at Nanzen-ji

The landscape designer must be expert in manipulating our perceptions, creating depth where there is little or none, creating a flattened appearance where three dimensions could not be easily comprehended. Much of this is done “by selecting and manipulating garden elements with the same techniques used by painters.” (Slawson, p. 108)  These techniques are: scale, which can create effects such as immensity and intimacy; spacing and shape, which create rhythm and movement; texture and color intensity, producing a sense of color and luminescence—all these and more have a part in the design of the Japanese garden. (Slawson, p. 77)


Shirotori in Nagoya, created in 1991, is based on the landscape of Chubu district of Japan. The mound at the southwest corner of the garden represents Mt. Ontake and the stream that originates there represents the Kiso River. The whole landscape depicts the flow of the Kiso River from the east side of Mt. Ontake to the Nezame-no-toko ravine in Nagano Prefecture. (www.apec.aichi-c.ed.jp/shoko/kyouka/things-eng/…/8-shirotori.doc) Looking at a map of the garden compared to an aerial view (Mt. Ontake: Google earth) of the mountain and river, makes it obvious that the former only loosely approximates the latter. (See Fig. 6, and Plate 1, Shirotori Images.)

Kenrokuen, in Kanazawa, is classified as one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan, along with Kairakuen, in Mito and Korakuen, in Okayama (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenroku-en) and includes the six attributes said to be derived from the Song Chinese classic Rakuyō Meienki,  of an ideal garden. Grouped in complementary pairs they are: spaciousness and seclusion, antiquity and artifice, flowing water and scenic views. Kenrokuen, combines spaciousness and seclusion, naturally. Laid out on a wide scale, its many open areas offer tranquil, unbroken vistas of bright light and deep space, and seem to deny the possibility of shadows and privacy. Yet, there are still many nooks and crannies scattered around the garden. Kenrokuen is a formally sculpted garden, artificial in the extreme, yet the carefully placed weathered rocks and artfully trained aged trees have grown together naturally, ingeniously embodying the ideas of antiquity and artifice. Ponds and fountains, generally found in low lands, abound in the park. Broad views require height. In Kenrokuen, you can view the Ushinada sand dune, the Noto peninsula in the distance, the Utatsu-yama hill, and Mt. Hakusan and Io-zan hill opening out before you. (http://www.pref.ishikawa.jp/siro-niwa/kenrokuen/e/6place.html) Kenrokuen was established in the 1670s and completed in the 1830s by the Maeda clan, the daimyo who ruled the former Kaga Domain. The garden was opened to the public in 1874.

The 28-acre garden presents the visitor with new views, both colorful and varied in composition, at every turn. Some of the views strolling through Kenrokuen appear in Plate 2. (Kenrokuen Images) All of the images have views with clear fore-, middle- and backgrounds. The picture in the upper left corner illustrates shakkei: distant hills form the background, taller trees the middle ground and lower, shaped bushes in the foreground. Two images in the center, left and middle, show changing views of the same object, the two-legged lantern and beautiful tree that helps support it, which change as the viewer changes position. In the foreground of the lower right image is an example of yukitsuri — ropes attached to a bamboo pole to support tree branches in the desired arrangements and to protect the trees from damage caused by heavy snows. (The Kanji for this term literally means “snow hangar”). In addition to the six attributes of the ideal garden, Kenrokuen must be spectacular in the winter snows because of the addition of these yukitsuri.

Korakuen Garden, in Okayama, another of the “three great gardens,” uses space in a much different way than Kenrokuen. Although similar in size, 32 acres, compared to Kenrokuen’s 28 acres, a comparison of maps of the two gardens points up the difference in the use of space in the two parks. (Fig. 7) Much of Korakuen is flat with broad lawns and ponds, unbroken by trees or other elements of interest. Sawa-no-ike pond, which occupies a large space in the center of the garden is said to represent Lake Biwa. Behind the pond an artificial hill provides a panoramic view of the entire garden with Mt. Misao in the distance. An area to the east of the pond has rice paddies arranged in squares, a tea plantation and an orchard of flowering fruit trees. (Young, p. 154-155)  These central, relatively flat features are bordered with trees and pathways, but none of these present the complex and interesting views found in Kenrokuen. Looking away from the central lawns and ponds you see many trees but none of the pictorial views of fore-, middle- and background. Plate 3, Korakuen Images, shows some of the more interesting views in the garden. In the center right image, the patterns in the rice fields, although having some interest, become interminable walking around acres of them. In the center left image reflections in the pond make an interesting foreground, as do the sculptural rocks under a well tended tree on the shore in the lower image. The upper right image shows the captured scenery of Mt. Misao as background for the pond and trees on the far shore, but taking the picture from a different angle would have presented only a broad lawn as foreground.
Korakuen was established by the daimyo Ikeda of the Bizen region, in 1687 and completed in 1700. The garden has been open to the public since 1884.

The name of  Rikugien Garden refers to the six principles of waka (classical short poems) identified in an ancient Chinese anthology. Famous waka poems were the source of much of the design of the garden’s landscapes and features. The garden is organized around an island, representing a horai island where the immortals live, within a large pond is in the center of the garden and has and a striking rock composition. (Young, p. 156) Originally the area around the pond had eighty-eight landscape scenes described in Chinese and Japanese literature. Today, because of rebuilt bridges and changes in vegetation, there are only thirty-three named areas. Some distinct views are separated by only a few meters but show another aspect of the scenery. Rikugien map, Fig. 8, shows how inner and outer paths circle the pond. The inner paths are more open and bright with varied views of the island and pond, or looking away from the center, the woodland terrain which the outer paths go through becomes the background for the garden views.

This park includes many of the elements of a great garden as defined in the description of Kenrokuen: spaciousness, tranquillity, artifice, antiquity, aquatic elements and panoramic views. A wonderful montage of scenes is displayed with each few steps taken by the viewer. On Plate 4, Rikugien Images, the upper and center rows show how images are framed as the viewer strolls from one to another. Center left and middle illustrate the shaping and support of older trees, even placing support structures in the pond. Bottom left and right illustrate the placement of rocks that enhance views and probably correspond to waka poems, as they are named “Stone of the Lying Dragon” and “Meditation Stone.” (Goto, p. 176)

The garden was constructed between 1695 and 1702, but was left to deteriorate after the death of its founder in 1714. In 1877 it was purchased by Iwasaki Yataro, founder of the Mitsubishi Corporation, who made extensive renovations and donated the garden to the city of Tokyo in 1938.Tenryū-ji, kept the basic form of the garden of the Kameyama palace, previously on the site, but was redesigned by Muso Soseki, the first chief priest, as the garden of a Zen temple. Tenryū-ji is located in the Sagano district of Kyoto, and is the head temple of the Tenryu-ji branch of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. Tenryū-ji, loosely translated as Temple of the Heavenly Dragon, was named for a dream of the younger brother of the shogun that a golden dragon flew over the Oi river, which runs nearby. The temple was completed in 1345 as a mortuary temple for the Emperor Godaigo, who died in 1339.

From inside the building, the garden can be observed as a panoramic picture with a dry waterfall, called “Dragon Gate Falls,” behind the pond. A stone bridge in front of the waterfall indicates the garden was designed for strolling, and so the design emphasizes not only the view from the veranda, but invites the viewer to enter the garden and see the detail one can observe by walking through, such as vegetation and rock compositions representing the deep mountains. (Goto, p. 97)

In the center of the garden is a lotus pond that lies at the base of hills rising to Mount Arashi, one of the earliest known examples of borrowed scenery (shakkei). As an example of Slawson’s idea about using paintings to design gardens, two rock groups at the far end of the pond reflect Musō’s interest in the use of Chinese Song Dynasty gardening techniques to translate two-dimensional painting themes into three-dimensional forms. (Young, p. 100)

Plate 5, Tenryu-ji Images, center left image, shows the lotus pond in the foreground with a view of Mount Arashi as borrowed scenery in the background. Center and upper right images, show the bamboo forest on the edge of the garden. The lower right image, which looks down on the temple from a path up the hill shown in the upper left image, reminds me of many aerial views in scroll painting and on byobu.  Center and upper right images, Plate 5, show the bamboo forest on the edge of the garden.

Taizo-in, founded in 1404, contains several gardens, the most famous being a dry landscape attributed by some authorities to the painter Kano Motonobu (1475-1559), who lived for a number of years at Myoshin-ji, of which Taizo-in is the oldest sub-temple. This dry landscape garden  is visible from the southern and western interiors of the abbot’s residence. Its dry streambed and associated rocks and plantings are thoroughly in the spirit if not the actual composition of Muromachi landscape painting, a tradition closely associated with this and other Rinzai Zen monasteries in Kyoto. The background scenery of the garden consists mainly of camellia, pine, Japanese umbrella pine, and other evergreens, presumably planted to present an “eternal beauty” that remains the same throughout the changing seasons.

Walking past the dry garden you come to a stream-and-pond garden of the twentieth century, its basic element a larger, “wet” version, of the dry garden attributed to Kano Motonobu.  “The garden is a three-dimensional re-imagining of one of his paintings, and is said to be his last work. The fact that a garden was the final work of a painter makes it all the more unique.” (http://www.taizoin.com/en/taizoin.php?itemid=5)

In Plate 6, Taizo-in Images, the upper row shows details of the dry garden as seen from the walkway. Center and bottom are pictures of the wet garden with the waterfall bottom right.


The Japanese garden is a magical place where I found the experience I look for in great works of art. Space in most of the gardens is designed to create pictures just as an artist would design a canvas with each few steps presenting a new view and creating a picture. While the photographs I am using as evidence have also been framed to create a well composed picture, it would not be possible if those designs were not already present. The garden I found least interesting, Korakuen, has broad expanses of lawn and rice fields that do not present the same opportunities for creating composed images.

Whether a garden is viewed from within the frame of a veranda, or walking on a pathway that brings one closer to each of its elements, I have come to the conclusion  that, for me, the most interesting gardens create pictures I can view as if I was walking through a museum. Just as a two-dimensional landscape picture will have an interesting foreground, middle- and background, the three-dimensional landscape/garden must also have sufficient interest to arrest the viewer and move his eyes over the scene, then carry the viewer from one scene to the next. Often these views, particularly from within a frame, flatten the space and create an apparent two-dimensional representation within three-dimensions, further approximating a painting or photograph.

Over the centuries gardens have changed, but the elements and ideas remain essentially the same. The earliest gardens were often created with the intent of replicating famous places in nature, but this was usually done in an almost abstract fashion: a waterfall was not a specific waterfall, but expresses the essence of waterfalls; a shoreline the essence of shorelines. Shirotori, a modern garden, with its simulation of a famous nearby river and ravine is unusual in being so specific.

Those centuries of garden design practice have produced amazing sanctuaries within our modern world. As David Slawson writes: the viewer’s senses and imagination can enjoy subtleties of form, texture, and tonality, and experience the sensory qualities of the garden composition being viewed. (Slawson, p. 115) Slawson’s correlation between views of the garden and photographs or film montage seems to accurately portray the garden experience.  “Japanese gardens, like other “works of visual art… are made exclusively for being perceived, and therefore the artist endeavors to create the strongest, purest, most precise embodiment of the meaning that…he intends to convey.”” (Slawson, p. 122, Arnheim, Visual Thinking, p. 270-71)


Carlson, Allen. “On the aesthetic appreciation of Japanese gardens.” The British Journal of Aesthetics 37.1 (1997): 47+. Expanded Academic ASAP. Web. 18 Oct. 2010
Goto, Seiko, The Japanese Garden: Gateway to the Human Spirit, 2003, Peter Lang Publishing, Inc. New York
Hayakawa, Masao, The Garden Art of Japan, 1973, Weatherhill/Heibonsha Tokyo
Hobson, Jake, Niwaki, Pruning, Training and Shaping Trees the Japanese Way, 2007, Timber Press
Itoh, Teiji, Space & Illusion in the Japanese Garden, 1985, John Weatherhill, Inc.
Kuitert, Wybe, Themes, Scenes, and Taste in the History of Japanese Garden Art, 1988, J. C. Gieben, Amsterdam
Mori, Osamu,  Sakuteiki no sekai: Heiancho no teienbi, 1986, Nihon Hōsō Shuppan Kyōkai, Tokyo
Slawson, David A., Secret Teachings in the Art of Japanese Gardens, Design Principles and Aesthetic Values, 1987, Kodansha America, Inc.
Takei, Jiro and Marc P. Keene, Sakuteiki: Visions of the Japanese Garden, 2001, Tuttle,
Young, David and Michiko, The Art of the Japanese Garden, 2005, Tuttle

Copyright 2011, Ruthe Karlin. All rights reserved. All photos Ruthe Karlin except where noted.

4 thoughts on “Pictorial Nature of Japanese Gardens

  1. Very well done Ruth
    I Have been affiliated with Japanese Gardens for some 40 years travelling all over the world
    in search and the study of Japanese Gardens.
    looking at their history, Styles
    including all elements as to which they have been designed.

    • Thank you, Alan. I have visited a number of Japanese Gardens in the U.S. Most have all of the defined elements but few have satisfied me. I’m not sure what’s missing; something about the use of space, I think.

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