During the Edo period, daimyo lords, who were required to split their time between their own domains and the capital city of Edo (Tokyo), competed to construct large gardens at their residences.
There were once a thousand such gardens, and though they disappeared in quick succession following the Meiji Restoration, even now a handful remain to evoke the atmosphere of the Edo period. Professor Isoya Shinji , a leading expert in landscape architecture, explains the origins and significance of daimyo teien, and the best ways to enjoy these priceless gardens.

A Perfect Balance of Scenery and Practicality Gives Daimyo Teien Their Incredible Allure

Daimyo teien are, as the name suggests, the teien (gardens) of the samurai class. These are totally different to the garden of the priest, or that of the noble, and most definitely more than just superficially charming. Hamarikyu Gardens, for example, were originally the “seaside gardens” (hama no gyoen) of the shogun's coastal residence. Hamarikyu has two duck ponds, known as Shinzeniza and Koshindo, which were used for duck-hunting. There were also areas for horse-riding and archery. A warrior had to be battle-ready at all times, so honing one's martial skills was a routine part of daily life. Therefore the gardens were equipped with facilities of this sort.
Because the owner of Hamarikyu constructed the garden with potential combat in mind, its design and location also serve a strategic purpose. Enclosed by a solid stone wall, with a masugata double gate at the entrance, Hamarikyu has the trappings of a castle. Traveling from Edo Castle along the Yamashita moat and down the Tsukiji River to the boat landing, in an emergency one would have been able to access the open sea. In other words, the garden is designed to facilitate flight if the shogun was trapped.
That said, samurai were not constantly spoiling for a fight. They prepared themselves for both war and peace, with the skills to achieve their aims through diplomatic hospitality as well as battle. Gardens were highly prized as settings for such diplomacy.
Hamarikyu Gardens include the Nakajima-no-Ochaya (Island Teahouse) and Matsu-no-Ochaya (Pine Teahouse) plus the recently restored Tsubame-no-Ochaya (Swallow Teahouse), which were used for socializing and entertaining. Tea, alcohol and food were served, and of course women gathered there as well. The garden was more than just a refined place to appreciate the scenery. It was the setting for political intrigue, and a place to enjoy diverse pleasures, encapsulating the entirety of Edo-period culture.

In Professor Shinji's opinion, viewing Japanese gardens through the lens of Zen or wider Buddhist thought has the opposite effect of making them hard to understand. Any discussion of gardens, he says, must start by acknowledging that first and foremost, they are places to be enjoyed.

Beauty in a Garden Arises from Practicality and Purpose

Crucial to the culture of landscape architecture is the harmony of utility and scenery. By utility we mean practicality, and by scenery, the garden's visual qualities, such as the attractive nature of its vistas. Aiming for a balance between and consideration for these things is fundamental to garden design, and this holds true for all gardens. Beauty can only emerge from the unity of utility and scenery.
When it comes to daimyo teien, utility was not only military. Hamarikyu encompassed medicine, food and agriculture as well, with a medicinal herb garden, vegetable garden, plum trees, tea field, and rice paddies on the grounds. And in the spirit of the later drive toward shokusan kogyo (increasing production, encouraging industry) Hamarikyu became the site for historic sweet potato cultivation trials by scholar and scientist Aoki Konyo. Today we might call it industrial promotion. In those days a statesman's interest in the world had to encompass industry, culture, the arts, education and more. Thus the daimyo teien was a place for putting into practice all the things that underpinned samurai society, an open space with a wide range of roles.

Essentially an Enclosure for a Scaled-Down Ideal

Creating a garden starts with enclosing a space, and in fact the English word garden originally refers to such an enclosure. The space is enclosed using any one of a number of methods, such as a stone wall, fence, or moat. On the largest scale, this could mean having your garden surrounded by mountains. A microcosm in a basin, so to speak. Enclosure is a fundamental requirement for any space in which human beings are going to feel secure. This is why Japan's ancient capitals were all situated in basins.
So we take a space, enclose and secure it, and build our ideal world, our Eden, inside.
What constitutes that ideal has varied over the centuries. In ancient times people kept things simple with the worship of gods and buddhas. In the early modern period, having begun to acquire economic clout and technical ability, people started to build the worlds and landscapes to which they aspired. For example, Koishikawa Korakuen includes famous sightseeing destinations from Japan and China. Daisensui Pond, containing the islands Horaijima and Chikubujima, was both the ocean and Lake Biwa. Recreations of renowned beauty spots instantly recognizable to educated people, such as the Shiraito Falls at Mt. Fuji and Hangzhou's West Lake, were positioned cleverly around the garden, though naturally scaled-down due to space restrictions. These shrunken landscapes are known as shukkei. Enclosed, scaled-down visions of Eden are the basis of Japan's particular approach to garden design.
Rikugien, created almost 70 years after Koishikawa Korakuen, contains scaled-down landscapes such as Deshio-no-minato and Fujishiro-toge from the “Eighty-eight famous scenic spots” celebrated in the Manyoshu and Kokin Wakashu poetry anthologies. Rikugien is a waka poem theme park, its methodology identical to that of Disneyland or Universal Studios: only the theme is different. In the embrace of his garden, its creator, cultured in things Japanese and Chinese, recreated his ideal realm.

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The Stone Wall and Moat Enclosing the Garden

The seaside residence served a similar purpose to the outer bastions of Edo castle, so the main gate was a box-shaped masugata gate built from large komatsuishi (andesite) rocks. This was indeed a battle-ready garden.
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Gazing up at “Star” Trees

Garden vistas are often centered on distinctive old or famous trees, such as the 300-year-old pine of Hamarikyu, the “lone pine” of Koishikawa Korakuen (see photo), and the weeping cherry of Rikugien. Each tree is a dominant player in its garden, with a story to tell.
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Studying, Crossing, and Savoring Stepping Stones

Garden paths take many different forms. Stepping stones crossed cautiously step by step offer visual enjoyment in their arrangement, as do variations in walking speed and length of stride.

Creating Grand Vistas Connected to the Outside world

Utilizing mountains, towers, etc. located outside the garden as the main vistas of the garden, rather than simply part of the general view, is a device known as shakkei. Whenever human beings find themselves enclosed, a desire to connect to the outside arises. People living in Japan’s Edo-period isolation dreamed of foreign lands. During the feudal period, the day-to-day lives and social behavior of the daimyo were also in a sense psychologically enclosed. This applied even to the shogun, and Tokugawa Ienari (1773-1841) visited his “seaside garden” frequently for rest and recreation, as a respite from the stifling nature of his duties. Freed from other cares Ienari found the energy to father 53 offspring. This must be the greatest testament to the restorative powers of gardens (laughs). You may think I jest, but no, not entirely. Many view gardens as cultural assets that should simply be preserved, but this makes no sense. Gardens have life histories of their own. Study that history and you will come to understand the workings of society and state, moving between cultures, eras, and societies in order to comprehend the big picture.
Back to the topic at hand. The siting of a garden is hugely influential. The garden here was once even more impressive than it appears today, because the high-rises erected around it have seriously devalued the landscape.
For instance, looking over Shioiri Pond from the Pine Teahouse, one sees an artificial Mt. Fuji made from a pile of earth. Compared to the buildings behind it does not seem especially Fuji-like, but in the Edo period, it did look like Mt. Fuji. If the area in front of the pond was the foreground, the Mt. Fuji in the garden was in the middle distance, and in the far distance, fleets of sailing boats would have bobbed in the waters off Shinagawa. Towering beyond that would have been the real Mt. Fuji.
The foreground, middle distance, background, and far distance would have been carefully incorporated into the composition of the landscape.
The wonder of daimyo teien is the way their beauty is rendered complete by the inclusion of the outside landscape as shakkei.
Just imagine that scene. Grand, breathtaking, like a scroll unfurled. This highly artistic landscape, in harmony with nature, has been destroyed by today's careless rush to erect high-rise buildings. These tall structures in the background reduce the value of the shogun's seaside retreat to less than a thousandth what it was in the Edo period. Japan's proud, priceless early modern culture is being lost.

Verdant Trees Dominate, While Flowering Trees and Autumn Tints Showcase the Seasons

The stars of any garden are inevitably the trees. There is a certain beauty unique to a decades- or centuries-old stand of trees.
Dominating the garden are the most picturesque standalone trees such as lone pines or 300-year pines, with a distinctive, perfect “tree-like” shape. Then there are the groves of trees that collectively form a single landscape. For example, Koishikawa Korakuen's Daisensui Pond was made to look like the sea, so the stands of pine around the pond are black pine.
The plantings on the higher ground at Koishikawa are red pine, but arranged to resemble a coastal scene with black pines. Lastly there is the dense cluster of trees that surrounds the garden, enclosing it. A wall of green isolates the garden from the outside world, rendering it a separate, microcosmic space.
While trees such as these dominate the bones of the garden, flowering trees and those with striking autumn colors offer seasonal highlights. These are trees such as ume plum, cherry, rhododendrons, wisteria, hydrangeas and trees with vibrant autumn foliage.
Japanese gardens are based on natural landscapes. The laurel forests nurtured by Asian monsoons provide lush backdrops. Thanks to high humidity and temperatures, plants grow quickly. Maintaining the vistas of a garden is important, so weeding is carried out, and the growth of trees restricted. This has led to the development of techniques for pruning and training, and topiary. The beauty of the Japanese garden is also a beauty maintained by human hands. Finally we come to ground cover, or in other words, lawn. Lawns have been used since the Heian era, but became a common feature of daimyo teien during the Edo period. They were not used much in the old gardens of Kyoto, where moss was preferred. Daimyo teien have large expanses of sunny open space, allowing garden designers to include lawns as they please.

Surprising Contrasts and Effects

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The inner garden in front of the Mito clan nakayashiki before entering Koishikawa Korakuen.
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Beyond the two bridges once stood a large Chinese-style gate. Through the gate was Korakuen, and an area inspired by the old Kisoji trade route through Nagano and Gifu Prefectures. Walking through a dense grove of trees.
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One eventually arrives at Daisensui Pond. Visitors are surprised to suddenly emerge from a dark mountain path and be greeted by a vast expanse of water, and a meticulously rendered, vibrantly-hued garden.

Devices to Help Visitors Experience Time in the Gardens in Different Ways

Daimyo teien incorporate various devices – both short and long in duration – to cleverly manipulate time so that visitors get maximum enjoyment out of the landscape.
One example of a short-time device is the garden path. Walking through Koishikawa Korakuen, one encounters great complexity: stepping stones, forks in the path, climbs uphill, and descents to the pond. The path is carefully designed so that the scenery changes in step with the progress made in the direction of travel, like a film unfolding. If a large stepping stone has been set in place, one naturally comes to a stop and takes in the texture of the ground cover, and from there savors the picturesque nature of the pond, islands, waterfall and so on. To help the visitor savor the psychological shift between motion and stillness, the curvature of the path, that is, the pitch and minimum radius of how it bends, is designed in response to the topography, so for instance a walker will struggle up steep slopes and then regain their breath by progressing sedately round the water's edge, Similarly, the surface underfoot changes from paving to stepping stone, then to the wider nobedan path, tiles, gravel and bare earth. An examination of the stepping stones furthermore reveals that they stop or take a sharp turn after nine or twelve steps. One never follows the same direction for any distance. It may be possible to walk briskly along a gravel path, but stepping stones require cautious, single steps. If a person walking along a city street covers 1.3 meters of ground per second, on a garden path they would slow down to about 0.7 meters. Varying the path offers walkers different ways to enjoy walking and take in the sights.
The sound we make when walking also changes according to the surface. In the past people wore wooden geta (clogs) or straw sandals. Footsteps produce a tune of their own, with different beats for different individuals, providing rhythmic accompaniment for our circuit of the garden. The tempo and movements of the body play out, supplemented by changes in sound and scenery. The path possesses a rhythm conducive to enjoying the landscape, consisting of subtle changes in time.
Following these subtle alterations in time are morning and night. Lanterns and torches are employed in ingenious ways to show off beautiful sunrises and sunsets, as well as nightfall. On top of a hill, or by the pond? The angle and state of the sunrise and sunset are also important.
Then there are the four seasons. Japanese hanafuda playing cards depict flora and fauna from January to December. Plants and flowers, e.g., wisteria and hototogisu (lesser cuckoo) for April, bush clover and wild boar for July, are combined with events to convey a sense of the seasons. Plantings in Japanese gardens make use not of green to red or white, but subtle seasonal changes reflected in shades of green. Plants sprout, develop new shoots, change from bright new growth to a deeper green, then yellow or red, and lose their leaves. Conifers are positioned behind to highlight the period from autumn color change to leaves falling.
And while showcasing the accumulation of these increments of time, at the same time the designers of Japanese gardens have endeavored to capitalize on the changes that take place slowly over long periods: ten, a hundred, or a thousand years, in the same manner that the Chinese speak of “ten years for a vista, a century for scenery, a millennium for a landscape”.

Praising Shadows and the Aesthetics of Aging

Teahouse architecture is an essential component of the daimyo teien. For example, when eaves are wide, deep shadows form, while light reflected in the pond flickers delightfully on the ceiling of the eaves. Wide eaves make for light outside and darkness within. There is a middle ground with five or six gradations of shade, as described by Tanizaki Junichiro in his essay In Praise of Shadows. The same goes for the view from a teahouse, or under eaves in the garden. Whether the sun is beating down, or rain soaks the ground, wide eaves make for a beautiful sight. The soul-piercing nature of a garden shrouded in misty rain may be attributed to Japanese architecture.
Then there is the term wabi-sabi, which for ease of understanding I describe to people overseas as “the aesthetics of aging”, or beauty fostered by the passing of time. The character for sabi is also found in words for nature and natural, and means what is right or proper: becoming completely and utterly like nature with the passing of time. A garden is an artificial creation, so at first it is new, and hard to relax in. How does it turn into something identical to nature? Time.
In Japan one can't get away with just slapping on a coat of paint. The English speak of weathered beauty, meaning the look acquired by something that fades and discolors through sun or rain, helping it blend into the surroundings. Pale wood exposed to rain and dew gradually becomes drained of color and takes on a grayish hue. This is what the Japanese aim for. The pale wood of the newly-renovated Swallow Teahouse is lovely, but that beauty is not yet integrated in the landscape. Once time and exposure to rain and wind have turned the pale wood gray and brown and covered the roof in lichen, that is when we will feel admiration. In my view, the distinctive feature of the Japanese garden, its ultimate value, lies in the aesthetics of time and history, in the beauty of aging.
The aesthetic of time is akin to the accumulation of tree rings. The spread and lift of tree roots, mossy rocks, stone lanterns with curly appendages missing. Falling-down teahouses and dining rooms. The extraordinary, ever-changing, enchanting scenes manifested when the light and breeze of each season are added to this mix. It is within all of this that we live our lives. Please make the time to visit an Edo garden, and enjoy for yourself this wonderful atmosphere, these captivating scenes.
In Professor Shinji's opinion, viewing Japanese gardens through the lens of Zen or wider Buddhist thought has the opposite effect of making them hard to understand. Any discussion of gardens, he says, must start by acknowledging that first and foremost, they are places to be enjoyed.

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Shinji Isoya
Doctor of Agriculture. Scholar of landscape architecture. President of the Tokyo University of Agriculture from 1999-2005. Has at various times chaired the Japanese Institute of Landscape Architecture, City Planning Institute of Japan, and International Society for Southeast Asian Agricultural Sciences. Professor Emeritus at the Tokyo University of Agriculture. Awarded the Medal with Purple Ribbon in 2007, and the MIDORI Academic Prize in 2015. Books include “No” no Jidai (“The Age of Agriculture”) (Gakugei Shuppansha), Nihon Teien no Tokushitsu - Yoshiki, Kuukan, Keikan (“Characteristics of Japanese Gardens: Styles, Spaces, Vistas”) (Tokyo Nodai Shuppankai), Nihon no Teien – Zokei no Waza to Kokoro (“Gardens of Japan – the Technique and Soul of Scenery Building”) (Chuo Koron Shinsha). Nihon no Teien (“Gardens of Japan”) (Chuko Shinsho)

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