The Seattle Japanese Garden: Designed in the Stroll Garden Style

The Seattle Japanese Garden, with a meandering path around its central pond. (photo: 2011, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

The Seattle Japanese Garden, with a meandering path around its central pond. (photo: 2011, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

Our Seattle Japanese Garden was designed as a stroll garden, a style that dates from Japan’s late Momoyama period (late 16th and early 17th centuries). Large in scale and created for enjoyment, the stroll garden features a central pond surrounded by a meandering path.  The modern Japanese term for this style is kaiyushiki teien, translated as “excursion-style garden.”

Various garden styles predated it.  Large pond gardens, viewed from pleasure boats, were built by the aristocracy from the 8th to the 11th centuries.  The 13th century saw the development of austere hardscape gardens consisting of stones, gravel and moss.  Sometimes called “Zen Gardens,” they were designed to be viewed from an adjoining veranda.  In the late 16th century, the tea ceremony (cha-no-yu) was perfected as an aesthetic ritual of rustic simplicity. The tea garden (roji) provided a setting for the ceremony – and, as participants moved through outer and inner gardens to the teahouse, a transition from the everyday world to the ceremony’s spiritual essence:  harmony, respect, order and serenity.

The stroll garden style that followed was meant to be experienced from within – while strolling past a succession of views and landscape elements.  It featured many traditional elements characteristic of earlier styles – including ponds, streams, waterfalls, islands, lanterns, steppingstones, bridges, teahouses and other structures.  It has been described as “a sequential garden whose almost limitless succession of views was revealed through movement… like a great drama whose scenes unfolded only through time.”[1]  Another authority describes it as a kind of “mute music, with its own special rhythms and variations.”[2]

Stroll gardens were built beginning in the early 1600s, during a period of peace and prosperity.   Although travel was severely restricted, nobles and provincial lords (daimyo) owned large properties and were given a great deal of freedom in the design of their gardens.  In general, their designs reflected an interest in aesthetics rather than religion.  Magnificent, created for enjoyment and more colorful than earlier styles, these stroll gardens also served as a kind of pilgrimage or journey past scenes from nature, literature & art.  Most, however, contained or evolved from the much smaller tea garden – and thus embodied an inner tension between simplicity and ostentation.

[1] Marc Treib and Ron Herman, A Guide to the Gardens of Kyoto, 1980.

[2] Teiji Itoh, The Gardens of Japan, 1984.

The garden at Katsura Imperial Villa, Kyoto, with  Shokin-tei  teahouse in the background. (photo: Raphael Azevedoo Franca, public domain image, WikiMedia Commons)

The garden at Katsura Imperial Villa, Kyoto, with Shokin-tei teahouse in the background. (photo: Raphael Azevedoo Franca, public domain image, WikiMedia Commons)

Our garden’s design was a gift from the Tokyo Metropolitan Park Department, which chose renowned landscape architect Juki Iida to supervise its construction.  In all, seven Japanese designers, including Iida, collaborated to develop the plan.  They described it as having been influenced by several notable Japanese stroll gardens, including the earliest one known, Katsura Rikyu (Katsura Imperial Villa).  Iida described the plan as “a stroll garden in ‘somewhat Momoyama style.’”[1]  Perhaps he was emphasizing that our garden’s original design included a main view, in Momoyama style, from a pavilion above the harbor – or alternatively, that it was carefully designed to avoid the extravagances of later Edo-period stroll gardens.  Unfortunately, the harbor pavilion was never built.

[1] Juki Iida, “About the Japanese Garden at the University of Washington,” 1974.

The Seattle Japanese Garden teahouse,  Shoseian  (translated as “Arbor of the Murmuring Pines”) and its inner garden. With the green simplicity of its moss and other plantings, the garden exemplifies Juki Iida’s naturalistic designs. (photo: Aurora Santiago)

The Seattle Japanese Garden teahouse, Shoseian (translated as “Arbor of the Murmuring Pines”) and its inner garden. With the green simplicity of its moss and other plantings, the garden exemplifies Juki Iida’s naturalistic designs. (photo: Aurora Santiago)

Iida’s contribution to the design was the naturalistic and informal southern area of our garden – “the zokibayashi or woodland plantings of mixed deciduous and evergreen trees around the waterfall and cascade of the mountain region of the garden.”[1]  On the other hand, the garden’s more formal northern area, including the fishing village and wisteria arbor, was probably designed by Kiyoshi Inoshita.

[1] Julie Coryell, “Historic Aspects of the Japanese Garden,” rev. 2019.

The more formal northern area of our garden, with the pond & wisteria arbor. A fishing village with harbor lantern is on the right, and an  azumaya  shelter is in the distance. (photo: Aurora Santiago)

The more formal northern area of our garden, with the pond & wisteria arbor. A fishing village with harbor lantern is on the right, and an azumaya shelter is in the distance. (photo: Aurora Santiago)

The following, from a talk given by Terry Weston, Asian history instructor at Bellevue Community College, illuminates Iida’s intention:

 

In gardens, there are two characteristics called forth by the term “Momoyama.” One is the creation of a compressed world, with a variety of landscapes, so that as one strolls about, varied views open to the beholder.  The other is the inclusion of a tea garden, chaniwa or roji (dewy path) within the garden… a refuge, simple, small, and intentional.  The stroll garden, kaiyushiki may also include a karesansui or dry landscape garden.  The stroll garden is of sufficient size to encompass gardens within the garden, perhaps even to embrace the tension of the Momoyama period between the garden as artful, simple refuge and as an opulent, impressive showpiece.[1]

[1] Terry Weston, “The Momoyama Period,” 2000.

The most powerful design device used in stroll gardens is arguably the garden path, which winds past various landscape elements and vistas.  In the Seattle Japanese Garden, we journey through the varied

landscapes of Japan – mountains, forests, waterfalls, rivers, lakes, islands and the sea.  Along the way, we experience the water, stones, plants, animals, and structures common to many Japanese garden styles.  These elements and viewpoints are hidden and then revealed.  That is, our experience is shaped by the aesthetic principle of miegakure (usually translated as “hide and reveal”), which ensures that we experience the garden sequentially rather than all at once.

The view just inside the entrance to the SJG, with most of the garden hidden from view. (photo: Aleks Monk)

The view just inside the entrance to the SJG, with most of the garden hidden from view. (photo: Aleks Monk)

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The photo above reveals what visitors see upon entering the Seattle Japanese Garden.  Here, at its beginning, most of our garden is hidden from view – including its central pond.  This technique focuses our attention on what is immediately before us, inviting us to view the garden slowly and mindfully.  When we do so, our experience is longer a simple narrative but rather a dialogue between us and the unfolding, ever-changing garden.

 

Corinne Kennedy is a Garden Guide, frequent contributor to the Seattle Japanese Garden blog, and retired garden designer.

 

Corinne Kennedy