The Secret Beauty, Terror, and Power of Japanese Gardens

Garden designer Sophie Walker delves into the multifaceted nature of Japanese Gardens in her new book from Phaidon.
Sophie Walker Japanese Garden

Shisen-dō, Sōtō Zen Buddhism, Kyoto, 1641, Edo Period, Ishikawa Jōzan. Picture credit: Photograph © Sophie Walker (page 178)

Riddled with opposites and paradoxes, Japan’s natural landscape oscillates between extremes. While Mount Fuji rises tall, deep in the ocean between the islands of Shikoku and Awaji the currents of the Inland Sea and the Kii Channel descend at the turn of the tide into a swirling maelstrom that creates numerous tidal vortices. Immensely frightening, these vortices have also inspired culture-makers, as in a famous woodblock print by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858), Naruto Whirlpool, Awa Province from the series ‘Views of Famous Places in the Sixty-Odd Provinces’ (c.1853). The artist Vincent Van Gogh (1853–90), who was deeply influenced by Japanese prints, immortalized his own dark struggle as a kind of night vortex in his painting Starry Night (1889), while more recently the artist Anish Kapoor created a black vortex aptly titled Descension (2014), that seems to reach deep to the centre of the Earth.

Sophie Walker Japanese Garden

Chishaku-in, Kyoto, c.1593, Azuchi-Momoyama Period; restored by Unshō in 1764, Edo Period. Picture credit: © John Lander (pages 114-115)

The terror evoked by Japan’s natural landscape is harnessed by the Japanese garden, which coaxes the visitor willingly to enter spaces that reflect the fearfulness of the remote landscape, framed and shaped in a garden. In the rock garden, ragged mountain tops await our discovery in the guise of human-scaled stones; in the karesansui dry garden, a lone rock rising from a sea of gravel represents the lonely islands of Japan, surrounded by the vast ocean; the teahouse at the heart of the tea garden is a reminder of the poverty of the hermit’s home; while the moss garden echoes the disorientation and awe engendered by the deep forest. The landscapes echoed in the Japanese garden are not romantic places, but raw, beautiful places of otherwise unimaginable austerity, where inconsolable loneliness and desolation play out scenes of fear, grief and abandonment. Such are the spaces of Japanese design.

Sophie Walker Japanese Garden

Taizō-in, Myōshin-ji Complex, Rinzai Zen Buddhism, Kyoto, 1404, Muromachi Period; with later additions, Shōwa Period, Kanō Motonobu (attributed) and pond garden by Kinsaku Nakane. Picture credit: © Akira Nakata (page 255)

The garden, like a poem, is a tool for the exploration and discovery of psychic landscape. Often the garden affronts us and discovery is met with fear. The twentieth-century Japanese writer Jun’ichirō Tanizaki asks in his essay In Praise of Shadows (1933), ‘Have you ever felt a sort of fear in the face of the ageless, a fear that in that [traditional] room you might lose all consciousness of the passage of time, that untold years might pass and upon emerging you should find you had grown old and grey?’ The garden invites us to leave ourselves at the entrance gate and to be directed by the garden, as the wild landscape dictates its terms. By achieving our trust, the garden coaxes us to discover confrontational places.


This text was excerpted from the chapter “Beauty, Terror and Power” of the new book The Japanese Garden (Phaidon, 2017) by Sophie Walker .

From Metropolis, you may also enjoy “The Japanese Gardener Who Hunts Exotic Plants the World-Over.”

Categories: Arts + Culture, Landscape

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