[From January Issue 2013]


Approximately 80% of Japan is mountainous. Because of its high rainfall, it has abundant moisture and greenery. For this reason, in many places in Japan you can see vegetation growing by the edge of waterways or covering the sides of mountains. And this scenery changes according to the season. This is because there is a clear distinction between the four seasons in Japan. Preferring untouched nature (undeveloped natural beauty), Japanese feel a strong attachment to the bounty of nature and the changes in season.

This preference is reflected in Japanese gardens too. In traditional Japanese gardens, objects, such as winding brooks or stones, are used without altering their natural form. Trees are also pruned in a way that makes use of their natural shape. The unique characteristics of the Japanese garden become clear when compared to the ruler straight flower beds and streams you find in Europe and the Middle East and the manufactured stones favored in China.

“In the Japanese gardens that were created by daimyou (feudal lords) in the Edo period (17~19th centuries), we see a characteristic similar to landscape paintings,” says EBINA Makoto of the Cultural Assets Garden Section, Tokyo Metropolitan Park Association. “For example, a small mound is made to resemble the shape of Mount Fuji, or the garden is a miniaturized reproduction of a sorely missed native landscape.”

“Japanese gardens are designed so that the scenery changes when you look at it from a different perspective,” says Ebina. In this way a slope resembles a mountain path when you ascend it, or standing close to a pond gives you the feeling that you’re standing on the sea shore. “Flowers and trees are planted with the characteristics of the changes in season in mind, so that in spring there are fresh green leaves, and in autumn the leaves show up in beautiful reds and yellows. These gardens are a condensed version of nature,” says Ebina.

“Another characteristic trait of the Japanese garden is incorporating the topography and trees that were originally there in the garden design. For example, a waterfall is created where the land suddenly drops in height, or if the sea is nearby, seawater is pumped into the garden to create a pond, allowing visitors to enjoy the changes in water levels. When the tide goes out, a sandy beach that had been hidden is revealed,” Ebina says, explaining the special features of a Japanese garden.

Japanese gardens may resemble untouched nature, but they are very difficult to maintain. “Trees in gardens designed to display beautiful scenery through the foliage, must be constantly pruned to prevent the foliage from getting too thick. In recent years, global warming has had an effect on certain trees, which now grow too vigorously, and flowers which bloomed in the old days, no longer bloom in season,” says Ebina. “Japanese gardens have to be maintained by highly skilled craftsmen. I think we must pass on these skills to future generations.”

A traditional art form called “bonseki” is a way of creating miniaturized depictions of landscapes with sand and stone on a tray. This is a tradition that goes back several hundred years and there are a variety of different schools, but the basics of the Hosokawa style, which was founded by the 16th Century daimyou HOSOKAWA Tadaoki, uses natural stones and white sand on a black tray to suggest scenery.

The Hosokawa style uses a stone to represent mountains and white sand to represent a sandy beach, the flow of water, or trees. The sand is placed on the tray with a small spoon and then patterns are created using bird feathers. Once complete they may be kept for a while, but generally they are tidied away by removing the stones and pouring the sand back into a box.

“Originally bonseki was an art form connected with tea ceremony. It was prepared to decorate the tokonoma (alcove in a Japanese room) in honor of one of the guests at the ceremony, bearing in mind that person’s taste and the current season. So once the ceremony was over, the bonseki was cleared away,” says KOMEJI Setsuko, chairman of the Tokyo Kuyoukai, Hosokawa School of Bonseki. “When I am creating the tray, I can forget other things and concentrate on the art. All idle thoughts fade away and I can free myself from all thoughts and desires.”

“Originally I liked suibokuga (India ink painting) and the rock gardens of Kyoto,” says Komeji. “I feel that bonseki, which represents miniaturized landscapes with sand, has an affinity with suibokuga. Using sand to represent water and stones for mountains is also similar to karesansui (traditional Japanese rock gardens). Because these representations strip away unnecessary elements, it conversely allows the viewer to give free reign to their imaginations. It gives you the feeling that you are actually there in the landscape.”

“The appreciation of rocks is a cultural tradition that originally came from China, but the Japanese have adapted this to suit their own tastes,” relates Komeji. “Bonseki is associated with various forms of Japanese culture. We still recreate the same picture that is said to have been created by SEN no Rikyu and when we look at the textbooks from the past several hundred years, we can sense the influence of art and kimono that were popular in the day. These days artists of the Hosokawa School increasingly produce realistic landscapes.”

Another hobby is suiseki, which is a way of appreciating nature in a stone. For example, spotting a similarity to Mount Fuji in a stone and displaying it for the appreciation of others. “Suiseki is a hobby in which the viewer can give free range to his imagination. One can imagine oneself climbing a mountain, recall a kanshi (Chinese poem) or waka (Japanese poem) about a mountain, and imagine the scene,” says WATANABE Hiroki, the chairman of Nikkei Suisekikai.

Records of the hobby of suiseki date as far back as the 14th century. The Chinese cultural tradition of appreciating beautifully colored stones was adapted to Japanese tastes so that stones with a subdued wabi-sabi beauty, and stones closer to their natural state were preferred. Currently, there are more than 400 suiseki enthusiast associations in various parts of Japan, and a specialist monthly magazine, titled “Aiseki” (Love Stones), about stones. “There are people who pay money for several-hundred-year-old stones, but I like to go to rivers and beaches to gather stones that appeal to me,” says Watanabe.

“When I look at a stone, I see a natural landscape in it: mountains in the higher parts and plains in the flat parts. When I place an ornament of a person riding a horse near it, it creates the image of a traveler going through an old mountain side. On the other hand, when I place a boat beside it, the image the stone conjures up changes into a sea shore. Because there are so many perspectives, I never tire of it,” says Watanabe, explaining the charms of suiseki.

“The hobby we call suiseki has a deep connection with the sensibility of the Japanese which is well attuned to the topography of Japan with its numerous mountains and forests and the changes in season,” says Watanabe. Urbanization is advancing in modern day Japan, but the Japanese feeling of love toward nature does not seem to change.

Tokyo Metropolitan park Association
Tokyo Kuyoukai, Hosokawa School of Bonseki

Text: SAZAKI Ryo


















盆石 細川流九曜会


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