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Book Review: Japanese Stone Gardens: Origins, Meaning, Form

Written by Stephen Mansfield with a foreword by Donald Richie!

japanese-stone-gardens-book-coverWith a foreword by the formidable Donald Ritchie, in itself a recommendation, the Japanese Stone Gardens is divided into two parts. The first covers the pivotal points during the development of the Japanese dry landscape garden (kare-sansui), often referred to these days as a Zen garden. It explains how this developed from the pre-animistic use of stones as markers of space to their use as connections to the natural world and the landscape, their use as mystical vectors with which to communicate with the Gods, the influence of Korea and China, their eventual connection with the conceptual elements of Shinto and Buddhist beliefs, and on through to their adoption as meditative vehicles for Zen mediated enlightenment in which their primary perceived function is to encapsulate the fundamental representation of the essence of the ‘nature’ of things as they are.


Kongobu-ji a Shingon sect temple on Mount Koya a sacred Buddhist complex in Wakayama Prefecture © Stephen Mansfield

The generally specific (oxymoron intended) aesthetics and design of Japanese gardens are covered in two chapters which are instructive and eminently helpful for the practically minded gardener who may be contemplating designing and building their own Japanese garden, perhaps even a kare-sansui, as well as the academic scholar of the Japanese garden.


The pondside shore at To-in (East Palace Garden) at Nara © Stephen Mansfield

Some of the expositions link back to a number of the contemplative issues highlighted earlier on in the book by reflecting on the allegorical nature of the relationship between small and large, earth and cosmos, and figurative and abstract and the use of that relationship in the elaboration and discovery of the fundamental truth as Zen practitioners understand it. Whilst some of the more, ironically in the context of Zen, esoteric concepts of the structure and nature of stone gardens explained in the book are difficult to grasp even for the seasoned Zen enthusiast Stephen Mansfield’s exposition is a valiant attempt to bring some deeper understanding and appreciation of the underlying principles involved.


Daisen-in from the illustrated garden manual Tsukiyama Teizoden (Building Mountains and Making Gardens) © Stephen Mansfield

As highlighted in the book the saying in the Heart Sutra that, ‘Form is emptiness, emptiness only form’ stresses that the gardens are as much about what is not there, the spaces created therein, as by what is there. The historical explanations of the various era influences on the development of the stone landscape garden over time and the much later association of stone gardens with and as vehicles of Zen in the book are much the easier going sections of the book. Whilst some critics might be completely disparaging of the idea of the power of Zen to influence the current use of kare-sansui as vehicles to enlightenment there is absolutely no doubt, as is evident in this book, of the what is now indelible association of kare-sansui with Zen epitomised by Ryōan-ji in Kyōto.


Banryutei the dry landscape garden attached to Kongobun-ji Temple on Mount Koya comprises 140 granite rocks making it the largest stone garden in Japan © Stephen Mansfield

The first section ends with a chapter on modern stone landscape gardens something which, given the propensity to the obscure of some modern artistic ideas, can be even more difficult to understand and appreciate. However Mansfield does a great job of explaining the influence of modern conceptual sensibilities on the design and creation of modern stone landscape gardens and the continued dialogue between space and structure in urban, suburban and rural settings and their use as adjuncts to many modern but also some historical buildings.

It is in the first section of the book that the author begins to attempt to elaborate on some of the fundamental underlying concepts of stone landscape gardens by making the link between the concepts and how they are manifested in existing stone landscape gardens in Japan, some of which are profiled in the second section of the book. This section of the book features fifteen gardens from all over Japan, some famous like the world renowned garden at Ryōanji-ji in Kyōto, the temple stone landscape garden most associated with Zen, and others not so famous, like the modern stone landscape garden of the Canadian Embassy in Tōkyō. Though this is not a guide book per se the general locations of the fifteen selected gardens are given with practical advice on how to find them. The links expounded earlier in the book between concept and manifestation in existing gardens is further expounded in this section where for each garden Mansfield provides a potted history, the layout, design origins and the positions in the gardens from which give the viewer the optimal perspective.

As would be expected the book contains many beautiful photographs illustrating the principles and aesthetics of kare-sansui as well as illustrations from historical texts to place some of the gardens and some of the concepts of stone landscape and the development of Japanese gardening in general into context.

Overall this is an in depth book that is educational at a practical level as well as illustrative at a conceptual level, albeit on some subjects and concepts that may be difficult to understand and as such is a book that will benefit both the Japanese garden enthusiast and the Zen aficionado alike.

One to be dipped into time and time again and absorbed over time.


Publisher: Tuttle Publishing

Format: Jacketed Hardcover

Date Published: 10/10/2009

Illustrations: 150 color photos

Number of Pages: 160

Trim Size: 8 1/4 X 8 1/4

Available at all good bookshops and online stores including Amazon.co.uk 

Author Bio:

Stephen Mansfield is a British photo-journalist and author who was born in Oxford. He arrived in Japan in the late 1980s and now lives not far from Tōkyō, in Chiba Prefecture with his Japanese wife and two children. He began working in photo-journalism in 1985 and has had his photographs published extensively in many magazines, newspapers and journals around the world. He has written many guidebooks on South East and East Asia published by a variety of book companies. He is a fan of Japanese gardens and has written and published many articles and two books on the subject, the other book being ‘Japan’s Master Gardens: Lessons in Space and Environment’ (pub. 2012) and has designed his own Japanese garden at home.

Book Reviewer Profile:

Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.

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