In this first in a series exploring Japanese aesthetics, The Diplomat focuses on meanings that can be found in the country’s unique streets and gardens.
What is it about Japan’s visual landscape that sets it apart from other countries? And is the answer to this question the key to defining the ‘Japanese aesthetic’?
Gathering the insights of scholars, authors and architects on Japan’s contemporary landscape, this series aims to answer these questions over the next week. However, to better understand the complex and much-contested idea of Japanese aesthetics, it’s important to take a closer look at two specific, common landscapes—streets and gardens.
Japanese Streets: One-of-a-Kind
Gordon Kanki-Knight, author of the new Wallpaper* City guide: Sapporo and other Wallpaper* Japan city guides, thinks the Japan’s streets have developed into something exceptional as a result of the lack of common gathering places in its cities:
‘During my time spent in London, Helsinki and New York I came to love the fact that they all have busy central zones, marked out by Trafalgar Square, the Senaatintori and Times Square. Japan’s cities, on the other hand, are often relatively empty at their core,’ he told me.
He explained that because of this lack of central gathering points, ‘the street, almost any street, plays an important role in Japanese urban life. The Japanese street is a public space—a place to hold parades, eat taiyaki (fish-shaped traditional sweet), over-indulge in beer. It’s not just about providing efficient routes for cars. In Japan’s cities, Tokyo included, you’ll still find kids playing hopscotch on the road or messing around on unicycles.’ He notes that it’s in these small ways ‘Japanese cities are defiantly anti-modern and anti-rational.’
Julian Worrall, a Tokyo-based architect and a professor of Architecture and Urban Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study at Waseda University, has a similar take.
‘I do feel a twinge of pleasure when I come back to Japan after being abroad,’ he told me. ‘I think when it comes to the city itself the fact is that it’s a really intimate place. It’s the world’s biggest city but it’s intimate.’
On the specific elements he feels give it this edge, he explained: ‘Once you get off the expressway or the walkway you come into these little backstreets with these tiny roads and there are five-year-old kids walking alone home from school or the little potted plants all over the streets—that kind of intimacy, you don’t find it anywhere else. Not in my travels, anyway.’
Worrall went on to say that he finds something almost ‘medieval’ about the backstreets of Tokyo, and added: ‘There’s a gentleness and a sweetness about the built environment here that can be very appealing, although it can appear a bit chaotic and disordered your first time here.’
Japanese Gardens: Serenity Now
Not quite as ubiquitous as the windy, cramped lanes, but easy enough to come across around the country, are traditional gardens. Stephen Mansfield, a Tokyo-based photojournalist and author of numerous books, spent six years fitting garden visits into his regular photo-shooting itineraries for research for his 2009 book, Japanese Stone Gardens. Over this period, Mansfield told me he visited about 150 gardens from Tokyo down to Okinawa.
On what makes Japanese garden landscapes different visually from those in other countries, Mansfield told me that one key factor is the use of rocks. ‘Rocks are the skeleton plan for the classic Japanese garden, the template around which all subsequent design accretions are built up, something that is very different from other parts of the world, with the exception of course, of China.’
He also noted that in the city of Kyoto alone, there are over 20 varieties of moss used in gardens, ‘a plant that’s hardly used at all in gardens outside of Japan, let alone prized for its inherent aesthetic qualities.’
Mansfield also pointed out that the garden landscapes of Japan are unique in the way they integrate other forms of the country’s art and culture into them and, like traditional flower arranging and the tea ceremony, have ‘bits of Zen’ in them. ‘You don’t find this incorporation of other cultural expressions or forms in Western gardens, which are beautiful but bereft of the deeper allusions embedded in Japanese gardens.’
In terms of how he felt on seeing the hundreds of gardens he’s visited, Mansfield told me that the older gardens evoke in him a sense of traditional Japan ‘that’s usually only possible to reconstruct in the mind.’ He went on to describe the traditional Japanese garden from his own experiences, ‘The sensation of calm I feel when stepping into the little universe of the Japanese garden is combined with an urge to inquire more deeply…Just at the moment you acquire a bit of serenity, of no-thinking, you feel compelled to restart the mind.’
Gert van Tonder, a professor at the Kyoto Institute of Technology in the Dept. of Architecture & Design, saw his study of the garden at the famous Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto, a UNESCO world heritage site,widely cited by the media in the early 2000s. The Ryoanji Temple’s dry landscape garden attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year ‘with its abstract, sparse and seemingly random composition of rocks and moss on an otherwise empty rectangle of raked gravel.’
There, Van Tonder and his colleagues found that ‘by applying a specific model of shape analysis… to show that the “empty” space of the garden is implicitly structured and critically aligned with the temple’s architecture’ at Ryoanji, there’s an ‘invisible design’ that actually creates a visual appeal to the garden.
Their conclusions led them to believe that, to put it simply, the way objects in such a garden are placed unconsciously contributes to the ‘enigmatic appeal of the garden.’ In cases like the Ryoanji temple garden, the arrangement ‘suits the visual brain like a glove, meaning that less work is needed to obtain good holistic visual information about the terrain.’ And the emotional impact of looking at such arrangements, he told me, can be ‘compassionate and embracing.’
Van Tonder added that the kind of visual ‘laws’ they studied, which are paramount to our perceptions of gardens, may have been understood by gardeners in Japan more than 1000 years ago. This suggestion is underscored by the fact that he and his colleagues, using the same analysis on various other Zen temple gardens, found similar converging structures in a few other places. To Van Tonder, this suggests the remarkable possibility that ‘this was a specific characteristic style of an (unknown) genius of garden design.’
Small, engaging Japanese streets might be the result of a lack of central gathering spaces in urban areas, and the calming, tranquil effect of Japanese gardens could owe something to our biological make-up, something that gardeners in Japan may have been reflecting for centuries. Regardless, both unique aspects of the contemporary Japanese landscape often evoke powerful feelings in those that see them. Next week, I’ll take another look at what makes the country's appearance one-of-a-kind, before touching on the unique contrasts found within it and finally, what the future may hold for Japan's urban landscape.
Images: Street in Osaka by takato marui (top), Ryonji Temple garden, Kyoto by Banzai Hiroaki (bottom).