The Japanese Garden

Japanese GardenSummer is finally upon us! Flowers are blooming, plants are flourishing, and many of us are spending more and more time outdoors and in our yards. We at Jcollector feel there’s no better time for a blog addressing the fascinating history and essential elements of the Japanese garden.

Traditional Japanese gardens include a variety of features with particular forms and functions. They typically surround a home, shrine or central structure and often feature elements such as water, real or symbolic, rock or stone arrangements, and stone or metal lanterns like the one shown to the right.

Japanese Stone Lantern, Antique Garden Ishidoro

Often, Japanese gardens showcase teahouses or pavilions, and perimeters such as hedges or fences. They frequently include bridges to islands or ornamental mounds and stepping stones for viewing the surroundings from various vantage points.

Three of the most established styles of Japanese gardens are Karesansui, Tsukiyama and Chaniwa gardens. The Karesansui or “dry landscape” garden was primarily influenced by Zen Buddhism and can be found at most Zen temples throughout Japan. Unlike other traditional gardens, in Karesansui gardens no water is present. However, raked gravel or sand evokes the feeling of water. The stones and gravel are chosen for their shape, and mosses, small shrubs and other plants are utilized for further embellishment. Great attention is given to the placement of these objects as they represent ponds, islands, boats, seas, rivers, and mountains.

Zen GardenTsukiyama Gardens imitate famous landscapes. They are often used strategically to make smaller gardens appear larger. Shrubs deliberately block views of surrounding buildings, and the garden’s layout customarily draws the viewer’s focus to distant mountains or vistas. Ponds, streams, hills, stones, trees, flowers, bridges, and paths occupy this style of garden.

Japanese Stone Tsukubai, Antique Garden Basin

Japanese Stone Tsukubai, Antique Garden Basin

Chaniwa Gardens are designed for the Japanese Tea Ceremony. These feature tea houses, stepping stones, stone lanterns and basins (tsukubai), like this one offered at Jcollector.  These are normally situated at the structure’s entrance so that visitors may purify themselves in the traditional manner before the ceremony.

Gardens designed in Japanese style were first documented in the Asuka period (538-710). The Japanese would utilize their gardens to express reflections on Buddhism and Taoism, often stylistically replicating mountainous regions in China. Today, these gardens, though in ruins, can still be visited in Japan’s castle towns, Fujiwara and Heijyo.

During the Heian period (794-1185), Japanese gardens became increasing popular as places of ceremony and contemplation. Those who could afford to build gardens showed a renewed interest in traditional Japanese style and culture that resulted in an elegant synthesis of Chinese custom and Japanese style. This combination was known as Shinden. Their gardens reflected elements of myth and legend. For example, streams always ran from east to west because in ancient Chinese lore, the East was the source of purity and the West the outlet of impurities.

During the Kamakura era (1185-1392), gardens burgeoned due to improved garden techniques. Zen beliefs were also flourishing at the time and greatly influenced garden theory, practice and purpose. Zen Buddhist priests began creating gardens for meditation instead of entertainment. Meditative qualities were valued over decorativeness. Gardens in this age tended to include stones, water and evergreens, remaining constant throughout the year.

Hira-niwa garden

Hira-niwa Garden

In the Muromachi (1392-1573) and Higashiyama (1392-1573) periods, minimalism intensified and many gardens contained only stones. Created in the style of the monochrome landscape paintings popular during the time, these gardens used specially selected stones as symbols. The flat garden, or Hira-niwa, also became fashionable.

Gardens constructed in the Edo period (1603-1868) reflected the tastes and style of individual shogun rulers who were the military dictators governing at various times throughout Japan’s history. Their gardens, instead of functioning as religious symbols, highlighted prestige and power. Considered royal gardens, they were vibrant and lush, full of hills, waterfalls, and a vast variety of plants. Also, walking gardens were conceived, constructed and designed to be aesthetically pleasing from any angle. Paths were woven into garden layouts.

Japanese Blue-and-White Porcelain Hibachi or Jardiniere

Japanese Blue-and-White Porcelain Hibachi or Jardiniere

JCollector offers a wide variety of Japanese garden elements. During this time of backyard barbeques and outdoor activity, these serve both as aesthetic enhancements and evocations of Japanese culture in any garden. Japanese hibachi make excellent jardinière for the patio or deck.

 Japanese Stone Garden Jizo

Japanese Stone Garden Jizo

Garden Jizo or guardian spirits  stand vigil over garden parties or quiet contemplation. Japanese rain chains  not only catch the eye, but are music to the ear as water courses through them during rain storms. We at Jcollector are pleased to be able to carry on the tradition of the Japanese garden by making a great selection of its charming essentials available for yours!

Japanese Copper Rain Chain, Blossoms

Japanese Copper Rain Chain, Blossoms

Japanese Iron Lantern, Tea Garden Andon Lamp

Japanese Iron Lantern, Tea Garden Andon Lamp


Buddhist Nio Protectors or Temple Guardians

Jcollector has recently listed a remarkable pair of bronze temple guardians or Nio protectors (literally benevolent kings).   These dynamic figures are traditionally found at the entrance of most Japanese temples.  They are said to represent motion and emotion and serve as fierce protectors wherever they stand.

The Nio, which appear in some form in most Buddhist temples, are powerful bare-chested gods, wielding heavy cudgels to ward off evil spirits. They were conceived to lurk in the shadows, striking fear into those who would challenge their might.  The Nio’s fierce and threatening countenance is said to ward off evil spirits and keep the temple grounds free of demons and thieves.  By some accounts, the Nio are even thought to have followed and safeguarded the historical Buddha when he traveled throughout India.

Enormously muscled, half-nude figures, their features are skillfully exaggerated by artists well versed in the human form. Bulging muscles in their huge chests and arms communicate power even at a great distance. This embellished realism continues in the Nio’s popping veins, extended jaws, and even in their delicate fingernails and toenails.  A guardian’s hair, pulled tightly into a topknot, adds to its imposing height.

The most famous Nio in Japan are at the entrance gate of Todaiji Temple in Nara. These 26-feet-tall statues were crafted in 1203 AD. Todaiji was built in the 8th century by imperial order in this ancient capital city, near Kyoto, as a symbol of Japan’s emergence as an important center for Buddhist culture. The complex also includes a huge bronze image of a seated Buddha, housed in the world’s largest wooden building. The Great South Gate and the Nio were erected after parts of the temple were destroyed by warring clans in the late 12th century.

Many art historians regard these two sculptures, which weigh close to seven tons each, as the greatest works of two of Japan’s most renowned sculptors, Unkei and Kaikei. They are impressive for their size and the technological hurdles that their 13th-century creators had to overcome, but, beyond that, experts say, is the emotional intensity projected by the statues, each caught in a fearsome dance, their garments and ribbons flowing in a divine breeze, as they guard the sacred temple from demons. One Nio, called Ungyo, has a closed mouth, and represents the beginning of the universe.  The other, Agyo, has an open mouth, and symbolizes the end of the universe. Other explanations for the open/closed mouth include:  Mouth open to scare off demons; closed to shelter/keep in the good spirits.  “Ah” is the first sound in the Japanese alphabet, while “N” (pronounced “un” ) is the last, so the combination symbolically represents all possible outcomes (from alpha to omega) in the cosmos.

Interestingly, the Nio may be a case of the possible transmission of the image of the Greek hero Heracles to East Asia along the Silk Road. Heracles was used in Greco-Buddhist art to represent Vajrapani, the protector of the Buddha, and his representation was then used in China and Japan to depict the protector gods of Buddhist temples. This transmission is part of the wider Greco-Buddhist phenomenon, where Buddhism interacted with the Hellenistic culture of Central Asia from the 4th century BC to the 4th century AD.

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