Explore the varying landscapes of Japan through the eyes of Isabel Griffiths.

    View from the Asahi Building, Sumida, Tokyo. Image © Isabel Griffiths

    Strolling through fairy tale landscapes of moss-carpeted glades below red-leaved maples, along twisting paths of irregular stepping stones across inlets and islands, gazing from wooden terraces at elegant scenes of mysterious dark rock forms within expansive white spaces of neatly raked gravel… during my study trip to Japan I found myself in some of the most surprising and beautiful places I’ve ever been. I had a few adventures, and met some great people – some I already knew, others I was lucky to meet to learn more about Japanese landscape design and others still through chance conversations – it’s amazing how many people you can get to know in temple gardens! The aim of my trip was both to investigate how vast landscapes can be expressed within small spaces, for example in karesansui dry gardens like Ryoan-ji and Daisen-in or in the tsuboniwa courtyard gardens of temples and town houses, as well as to learn about the use, cultivation and meaning of moss in Japanese gardens. Basically, I wanted to experience how design techniques that have been used by Japanese designers for centuries can create spaces which are intimate yet expansive, through both illusion and implication, to get some ideas which could hopefully be used in our increasingly urbanised landscapes in the West. I also wanted to learn more about the relationship between landscape painting and the spatial arrangement of Japanese gardens, and consider the importance of representation in their design.  I had a lot of fun and learnt an awful lot, but not just in the form of facts that I can list here for you, more through observation, experience and new impressions – of spaces, moods, of surprising colour and gentle light… of a different way.

    I began my journey in Tokyo and then spent a few days in the mountain areas of Hakone and Yamanaka-ko, near Mount Fuji, before spending the majority of my time exploring the historic temple gardens of the ancient capital, Kyoto. As soon as I arrived in Tokyo, I was greeted by my friend and classmate Junko, with hot tea and a warm welcome, which was a wonderful start. The next day I wandered up the road to Senso-ji Temple and across Asakusa to Ueno Park, where I sat for a little while on a bench by the fountains, before visiting the National Museum with its Chinese Song landscape paintings, imported into Japan at the same time as Zen Buddhism and whose monochromatic compositions with expanses of negative space were to be so influential on the development of Japanese garden design. On the way I’d been impressed by how shopkeepers arrange numerous plants in pots outside their stores and narrow strips of planting are incorporated into the pavements and alongside buildings, which is one of the latest projects to bring greenery into Tokyo’s streets. Here in the seemingly endless city, I found that the variety and detail of these potted plants and fine-textured shrubs on the pavement with me created an effect of there being more space, and gave the neighbourhood a very pleasant village-like feel.

    While researching for my trip, I’d made with Professor Makoto Suzuki at the Department of Artas-ua.info Architecture Science at NODAI, The Tokyo University of Agriculture, who had kindly offered to share his knowledge and had invited me to give a presentation to his students about English gardens and my studies in the UK. My friend and classmate Shunsuke Kamoshida did a brilliant job of translating to the audience of 150 final-year undergraduate students as I told them about projects I’d done during the Master’s course, about my research interests in Japan and showed them some key historic English gardens. As well as this being a great opportunity for cultural exchange, it was also a very enjoyable experience and allowed me to make also with other students. During this visit I learnt a lot – about the concept of ma, referring to a space, or gap, or time between elements, about recent research carried out in Tokyo regarding the use of moss on green roofs and also about the difference in conditions between Kyoto’s micro-climate, which is so well-suited to the cultivation of moss, compared with the difficulties of this in Tokyo’s drier climate, as illustrated by the moss-covered entranceway to the Prada shop by Herzog and de Meuron, which I later had the chance to see for myself.

    After a final day in Tokyo exploring the Sumida River, observing the tidal design of the ponds in Hama Rikyu Park and my first experience of a tea house, I set off by train to the mountains of Hakone, an area famed not only for its views of Mount Fuji but also its onsen. But the main attraction here for me was the moss garden at the Hakone Museum of Art. When I arrived and was chatting with Ayumi Shiino, who was keen to help me with my questions about the cultivation of the moss, I suddenly noticed what was behind me… and could just about utter, “Oh, wow…” – at the panorama of luxuriant velvety green mossiness spreading out in all directions.  I’d never seen anything like it. She later told me that the moss is watered every day, and yes, it is patched, by a special gardener. With a needle. Like an embroidered work of art.

    After seeing the ukiyo-e woodcut prints of the area by Hiroshige and taking the cable-car above red/orange/brown-flecked mountainsides to the sulphurous hot springs and Lake Ashi, I travelled the next day by bus to Yamanaka-ko, a small tourist resort on Lake Yamanaka, right at the foot of Mount Fuji. It was another rainy, overcast day, but as the bus neared its destination and I began to wonder where on earth Mount Fuji was behind the murk, suddenly there in front of me, high in the sky, I saw – and the hair was standing up on the back of my neck – a line. A faint line, at that angle that can only be the angle of Mount Fuji. It is enormous.

    I got up before dawn the next morning, and walking just a few minutes through the streets of houses to the lakeside, saw the perfect form of Mount Fuji reflected in the water below. Like a sleepy seaside town in the off-season, I liked Yamanaka-ko. I’d deliberately planned this into my itinerary, not only to get a close-up view of the iconic, awe-inspiring mountain that has been depicted so often in painting and design throughout the centuries, but also to experience the countryside and enjoy some quiet after the busyness of Tokyo. Staying in a traditional guest house was a revealing insight into Japanese life, as you have a very different perspective on the world when you sit on the floor and unroll your futon every evening, transforming your living space for different purposes. I also experienced how different boundaries in the Japanese home create a hierarchy of space, illustrated most obviously by the practice of wearing different footwear in different zones. Later in my trip I was to see how hierarchies of space – formal, semi-formal and informal – are also important to the spatial layout of temple compounds and gardens.

    I was very lucky that Fujisan was out again in brilliant sunshine on my second morning, but now it was time to set off by bus to Gotemba, local train to Mishima, and Shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto… where I was finally to experience for myself the famous gardens of its Zen temples.

    – About the author: Isabel Griffiths is one of three Student Travel Awards 2014 recipients. Find out more about the Student Travel Awards in the Student section.

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