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Japan: The Suizen-ji Jōju-en Garden in Kumamoto

Updated: Mar 25

The Suizen-ji Jōju-en Garden, located in Kumamoto within the prefecture of the same name on Kyushu Island, stands as a quintessential example of Japanese garden art. Emblematic of the Edo period, this garden is a harmonious blend of spirituality, history, and culture. Featuring "borrowed" elements from nature (Shakkei), it vividly reflects the aesthetic and architectural ideals of its era.

Japan: The Suizen-ji Jōju-en Garden in Kumamoto

Origin of the Garden

The Suizen-ji Jōju-en Garden was founded in 1636 by the feudal lord Hosokawa Tadatoshi, a daimyo of the Kumamoto domain. He constructed a tea pavilion and a temple named "Suizen-ji," which has since disappeared, near his castle. Over the next eighty years, under the stewardship of his son and then his grandson Hosokawa Tsunatoshi, the garden flourished to become the renowned site it is today.

The name "Suizen-ji" originates from the now-lost temple that was part of the original complex, while "Jōju-en" translates to "garden of pure longevity." Initially, the garden was designed as a retreat for the Hosokawa clan, as well as a space for practicing tea ceremony, a highly valued cultural activity at the time.

Historically, the Suizen-ji Joju-en Garden was seamlessly integrated with the five peaks of Mount Aso (a volcano in the region), a view now obscured by urbanization. Hosokawa Tadatoshi's choice of location was influenced by the exceptional clarity of the pond's water, which, according to legend, originated from Mount Aso itself.

Japan: The Suizen-ji Jōju-en Garden in Kumamoto

Evolution of Suizen-ji Jōju-en Garden

Throughout the centuries, the garden has undergone several phases of expansion and renovation, each reflecting the tastes and influences of the time. In the 19th century, during the Meiji Restoration, the garden was opened to the public, marking a transition from its private use to a public space. This opening contributed to the garden's preservation by recognizing its cultural and historical significance.

During World War II, the garden suffered significant damage but was subsequently restored. The Japanese government designated Suizen-ji Jōju-en as a Special Place of Scenic Beauty and a Historic Site in 1953, highlighting its national importance.

Landscape Design of Suizen-ji Jōju-en

The garden is designed in the Kaiyu-shiki teien style, or strolling garden, where visitors follow a predefined path, thereby discovering various and carefully composed views. Each view is designed to offer a unique experience, inviting contemplation and the gradual discovery of the garden's elements. Its current area is approximately 64,000 m².

Suizen-ji Jōju-en is organized around a large pond, with Mount Fuji as Shakkei. This technique of incorporating the perspective of external elements into the garden creates visual continuity between the garden and the reference element, giving the illusion of a larger space and one that is integrated into the surrounding landscape.

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Shakkei in Garden Art

The landscape design of Suizen-ji Jōju-en Garden is an outstanding example of the application of the Shakkei technique (借景), which can be translated as "borrowed scenery", a refined concept in Japanese garden art. This approach involves incorporating external elements into the garden's visual composition, thus creating continuity between the garden and the surrounding landscape.

In the case of Suizen-ji Jōju-en, Mount Fuji serves as Shakkei, harmoniously integrating into the garden's landscape scene. There are several ways to incorporate Shakkei into Japanese landscaped gardens, primarily noted as the following 4 techniques:

- Distant Shakkei (遠借り, En-shakkei): When a distant element, such as a mountain or hill, is visually integrated into the garden.

- Adjacent Shakkei (近借り, Kin-shakkei): When the landscape features immediately outside the garden are used in the composition.

- Shakkei from above (高借り, Takashakkei): When the sky or tall trees are used as a backdrop in the composition.

- Shakkei from below (低借り, Hikishakkei): When elements lower than the garden, such as rivers or lakes, are incorporated into the composition.

Japan: The Suizen-ji Jōju-en Garden in Kumamoto

© O. Robert

Suizen-ji Jōju-en primarily utilizes Distant Shakkei by relying on Mount Fuji as a spectacular backdrop, which, of course, is not actually visible from the garden. This serves as a reference that visitors are supposed to keep in mind when visiting this garden. As this garden references the stations of the Tokaido, Mount Fuji is impressively represented by an artificial hill known as "Tsukiyama."

Features of Suizen-ji Jōju-en

The garden's design also relies on several key principles of Japanese garden art, in addition to Shakkei. Notably:

Balance and Asymmetry: The garden avoids symmetry, favoring a natural balance that mimics the irregularities found in nature. This is visible in the arrangement of stones, paths, and the pond.

Miniaturization: The garden features miniature representations of famous Japanese landscapes, including the stations of the Tokaido. This technique allows capturing the essence of Japan's vast and varied landscapes within a confined space.

Hidden and Revealed: The design of the path in the garden is such that some views are hidden and only revealed gradually as one walks, thus concealing the previous view. This approach creates a dynamic and changing experience, where each step uncovers a new discovery.

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Integration of Water: Water plays a central role in the garden's design, with the main pond reflecting the sky and surrounding elements. It adds a dimension of depth and movement to the landscape.

Use of Vegetation: The selection of plants was meticulously planned to reflect the changing seasons. The plant palette features sequential blooms that mark the passage of time and offer a renewed experience throughout the year.

The design of Suizen-ji Jōju-en is a perfect example of the skill with which Japanese gardens merge art, nature, and philosophy. By utilizing Shakkei and other landscape design techniques, the garden creates a space where visitors can experience the ephemeral beauty of nature, while feeling connected to a larger, timeless landscape.

It's this harmony between man and nature that makes gardens like Suizen-ji Jōju-en living, breathing works of art in Japan.

Japan: The Suizen-ji Jōju-en Garden in Kumamoto

Elements of the Garden

Suizen-ji Jōju-en, as a masterpiece of Japanese landscape art, is rich in historical and cultural elements. Originally designed as a retreat and meditation space for the Hosokawa clan, it incorporates various traditional elements that harmonize with the natural landscape. Here are the main constituent elements of the garden:

Izumi Shrine (Izumi jinja): Relocated to the garden in the 19th century, this shrine adds a spiritual dimension to the site, in harmony with Shinto principles that value nature and its deities. The Izumi Shrine itself is dedicated to Izumi Shikibu, a poetess of the imperial court during the Heian period (794-1185), known for her work in Waka, a Japanese poetic style. The shrine was established to honor her spirit and her contribution to Japanese literature, as well as to provide a Shinto worship space in the garden.

The Tokaido Road: The garden miniaturizes the 53 stations of the Tokaido, the famous route connecting Edo (today's Tokyo) to Kyoto. This visual suggestion invites visitors on a symbolic journey through Japan, highlighting the importance of travel and contemplation in Japanese culture. To learn more about the Tokaido road, I recommend reading this reference book:

Kokindenju-no-ma: A tea pavilion originally built at Kyoto Castle by the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa in the 15th century, then moved to Suizen-ji Jōju-en by Hosokawa Tadatoshi. It serves as a venue for tea ceremonies, reflecting once again the significance of these ceremonies in Japanese culture of the time.

Noh Theater: Located south of the garden, this small theater was designed by Hosokawa Fujitaka (1534-1610), the clan's founder and grandfather of Tadatoshi. The original theater, built in 1878, burned down in 1965. The current theater is a structure from the same era that was relocated to the site in 1986. It belonged to the Matsui family, who were the lords of Yatsushiro Castle, a domain located south of Kumamoto. To learn more about Noh Theater and the artistic masks, I recommend reading this book:

Kōshun Tea House: Built in the early 20th century, it is an example of Taisho-era architecture, combining traditional Japanese and Western elements. It also serves as a venue for the tea ceremony. Open to the public, it offers an ideal place to admire the garden's miniature landscapes and the pond while enjoying matcha tea.

Japan: The Suizen-ji Jōju-en Garden in Kumamoto

Kōshun Tea House © O. Robert

Protection and Awareness

The protection of Suizen-ji Jōju-en relies on a combination of legal measures, conservation practices, educational efforts, and community collaboration. These strategies ensure that the garden not only survives as a testimony to Japanese landscape art but also continues to thrive as a living space for education and cultural contemplation.

Here are the main measures in place:

1. Historic Site and Special Place of Scenic Beauty

In 1953, the Japanese government designated Suizen-ji Jōju-en as a Special Place of Scenic Beauty and Historic Site. This designation, under the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties, provides a legal framework for the garden's protection and preservation. It involves restrictions on the modifications and developments that can be made in and around the site, thus ensuring that interventions are in harmony with its historical and aesthetic integrity.

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2. Conservation and Restoration

Continuous efforts in conservation and restoration are undertaken to maintain and restore historical structures, landscape elements, and vegetation according to traditional methods. These ongoing tasks include regular maintenance of buildings, management of plants and trees following Japanese horticultural principles, and the restoration of elements damaged by weather, natural disasters, or the passage of time.

3. Research and Studies

Regular research and studies are conducted to better understand the history, features, and optimal preservation methods of the garden. This includes the study of historical documents, the analysis of traditional gardening techniques, and the application of modern conservation knowledge.

4. Education and Awareness

The garden serves as an educational center to raise public awareness about the importance of preserving cultural and historical sites. Guided tours, educational workshops, and publications are offered to inform visitors about the garden's history, its unique features, and preservation efforts. Awareness is crucial to generating public support for the garden's conservation.

Japan: The Suizen-ji Jōju-en Garden in Kumamoto

© O. Robert

5. Collaboration with Local Communities

The management of the garden involves collaboration with local communities, cultural organizations, and government authorities. This collaborative approach ensures that preservation efforts are in harmony with the needs and values of the local community while respecting the site's national and cultural importance.

6. Visitor Management

Visitor management strategies are implemented to balance public access with the preservation of the garden. This includes limiting the number of visitors during peak times, creating defined trails to minimize impact on vegetation and infrastructure, and encouraging mindful and respectful visits.

The Final Word

Suizen-ji Jōju-en Garden is a living encapsulation of Japanese philosophy, a canvas where the harmony between man and nature is painted. This garden, with its meticulously arranged elements, is a worthy representative of Japanese aesthetics that values beauty in simplicity, impermanence, and the subtle interaction between natural and artificial elements.

Japan: The Suizen-ji Jōju-en Garden in Kumamoto

© O. Robert

The art of photography, much like the design of Suizen-ji Jōju-en Garden, is a quest for balance and beauty in capturing the ephemeral and the permanent. Each image is an attempt to seize not just the form, but the very essence of the moment. Every shot evokes the emotion captured in front of a play of light and shadow. It carries with it a moment of the garden's exceptional serenity.

For the landscape photographer, Suizen-ji Jōju-en is a potentially inexhaustible source of artistic creation. Through the lens, each component of the garden can be explored from various angles, at different times, and across the seasons. The water of the main pond, a mirror of the sky and surrounding structures, allows for the capture of subtle nuances of changing light throughout the day.

Suizen-ji Jōju-en is not just a place of picturesque beauty but a deeply philosophical space, imbued with the harmonious coexistence of man and nature. For the photographer, the garden becomes an open-air studio where light, water, stone, and vegetation come together to create living works of art, snapshots of the silent dialogue between man and his environment.


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