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Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2001

Japan in miniature: Edo Period stroll gardens were the original amusement parks


By STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Special to The Japan Times

The Japanese tourist, unlike the overseas visitor, may be only mildly astonished to find himself transported to the upper part of a castle donjon by means of a newly installed elevator. Convenience, the Western visitor notes with some bemusement, does not seem to detract from the enjoyment, let alone the "authenticity," of the experience.

The baby Fuji at Suizenji Koen in Kumamoto is one of many miniature representations.

Building on this ability to suspend disbelief, to uncritically embrace the replica, Japanese towns boast among other things a Spain Town, a Dutch trading port and a Shakespeare Village -- the last located in Chiba Prefecture, of all places. Even little Hiraizumi in the north country has its very own New Zealand Village.

Commenting on why Disneyland has so been so easily transplanted to Japan, writer Donald Richie observes in his "Japan Journals" that "it was invented here -- in the 18th century, (it was) the Japanese landscape garden."

The contemporary Japanese term for this style of landscaping, "kaiyushiki teien" (excursion-style garden), highlights the function of such gardens as highbrow, Edo Period amusement parks. The Japanese stroll garden, as it is often called in English, was the product of a combination of factors that included the leisured lifestyle of the daimyo and other high-ranking nobles of the day, the spaciousness of their estates and the relative political stability of the age. Many of these gardens evolved from a single teahouse that grew, according to the dictates of wealth and fashion, into amply appointed tea gardens. The term pleasure garden refers to the fact that they were intended for leisurely walking rather than to be viewed from a pleasure boat or, like the dry landscape gardens of Zen, from a contemplation terrace.

Designers of these stroll gardens assembled a number of popular cultural images (the hills of Arashiyama near Kyoto and an image from the classic "Tales of Ise," the "yatsuhashi," or Eight Bridges, were especially popular), and blended them into a garden vision that resembled a miniaturized Japan. Scaled-down Chinese scenery was also popular. In this way, guests could view a number of famous scenes without having to visit the original sites themselves.

The spacious grounds of the Korakuen Garden in Okayama also include sets of yin and yang stones, a rebuilt noh stage and an aviary for cranes, which have been kept at the garden since it was first made. Other created effects are an artificial thicket whose miniature valleys, mountains and waterfalls are said to be modeled after scenery along central Japan's Kiso Road; a lotus-viewing garden; and a number of man-made hills. The garden also incorporates a real rice paddy and a small tea plantation.

Where there are intrusive surroundings, Japanese landscape gardens create cunning optical illusions that flatten and distance the cramped mass of encircling buildings to the one-dimensional perspective of a Japanese painted screen.

An Ornamental moon-viewing bridge at Tokyo's Koishikawa Korakuen garden

In the case of Tokyo's Koishikawa Korakuen Garden, improbably situated cheek-by-jowl with Tokyo Dome, there are parts of the garden that, despite a ring of encroaching roads, office blocks and occasional announcements over the Big Egg's public-address system, seem almost soundproofed, immune to Tokyo's rule of perpetual, audible growth.

An image at the Korakuen, taken from Arashiyama on the outskirts of Kyoto, recreates Tsuten-bashi, a bridge that crosses a maple-lined gorge at Tofukuji Temple. The bridge spans the Oikawa River, the garden's modest stream, and another reference to a river of the same name in Arashiyama. The stream runs beside an embankment which is a recreation of the one found at Lake Sekko in China. The hand of the Ming Period Confucian scholar Shu Shunsui surfaces in the Chinese features of the garden. Two small hills, grassy knolls covered in dwarf bamboo that resemble Shilla tombs, are said to represent Mount Lu, a Buddhist pilgrimage site in China.

If the best-known allusions used by the designers of stroll gardens were to scenic spots in Japan and China, there were also literary ones, generally taken from Heian Period classics. The scenes were organized to be viewed as a layered or folding screen, which would unfold as the visitor progressed through the garden. As guests followed paths that wound further into the garden, the scenes, viewed from different vantage points, would stimulate renewed appreciation.

The perfect example of this art of making do with substitutes -- even turning them into a merit -- are the Edo Period's miniature Mount Fujis. Surrogates of the mountain, using lava rock from the actual site, were created in many spots in old Edo to cater for those unable for reasons of health, time or lack of financial means to undertake a real pilgrimage. The remains of these mini Fujis, now suffering from subsidence and overgrown with lichen, can still be glimpsed at the Tepposu Inari, Fukagawa Hachimangu, Hakusan and several other shrines in Tokyo.

Stephen Mansfield is a Japan-based freelance photojournalist and the author, most recently, of "Lao Hill Tribes" (Oxford University Press). He last wrote for the Focus page on the complex relations between Laos and Thailand.


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