Material for presentation at Grad Show

Following feedback from Penny about the layout of the photos I have re-worked the slides on Water Bowls and put them up on Moodle.  I am quite keen to print these at A4 and use them for presentation if there is space and the group is happy with that idea.  But my main piece of work for presentation is still in my head.  I am interested in doing something that explores the overlapping space of haiku and dry gardens, and to the extent that I can understand from very limited study, Zen Buddhism.  I had a whole lot of haiku on my Kindle that I surfaced while we were in Japan which got me thinking about some of the parallels and commonalities.  I love the spareness and the concentration of both haiku and dry gardens, and the way both require the reader/visitor to “co-author” the work (though some dry gardens e.g. Daisen-in, require this to a much lesser degree) to determine meaning from one’s own experience or emotions or contemplation.   I like the way both conform to quite strict boundaries but within that form find seemingly limitless variations and subtleties.

I am also interested in the way dry gardens are like Japanese ink and pen landscape drawings made 3D – someone I was reading (not sure who!) talked about the way Japanese landscape paintings fill the space without filling it, and I see the dry gardens that I liked the best doing that. So I want to use drawings and make images that are in black and white and stylised as drawings using photoshop.

Images something like this…

….and this…

I am thinking of a set of 2 or 3 A1 sheets of tracing paper…..not sure how it will come together…..a mixture of images, text, and haiku…I am still somewhat conceptually muddled, but I’m sure it will unravel into something reasonably comprehensible.

I have re-worked my tryptych slides a bit and would prefer to use them for a pechakucha presentation.  I won’t be there on Friday 30th for that – I have mucked up my travel dates and will still be in the South Island.  I am very sorry about this – would like to be there with the group.  But when we meet again before the end of semester, as I’m sure we will to plan this extravaganza, I will happily do my pechakucha presentation to the group.

And Jordan, lets do the rocks, plants, origami cranes (subject to Yue doing the folding) thing and as you suggest, divide the space.  In an exhibition about our Japan experience we don’t want people to be able to see everything at once – if we learned nothing else from going through Japanese stroll gardens….!  Plus I think it would be good to introduce a 3D element.

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Tea houses and wabi-sabi

I did my pre-trip research on the tea ceremony which included tea gardens and tea houses. There are many famous tea houses, and they are often associated with a particular Tea School. The tearoom is an embodiment of the philosophy and aesthetics of wabi-sabi, guided by Zen spiritual beliefs.

The tea-master Rikyu was very influential in driving the aesthetic of simplicity, humble austerity, and intimacy in the tea ceremony.  He advocated the stripping away of unnecessary ornamentation leaving restrained elegance and economy of movement in an environment of carefully designed rusticity.  Tearoom design grew out of Zen monastery design principles, with an emphasis on simplicty and sobriety.  The first four-and-a-half tatami mat tearoom (each mat being approximately six feet by three feet) was made within the Silver Pavilion, Ginkakuji.  Subsequently tearooms were traditionally sized by the number of tatami mats, and in general were kept small and intimate, suitable for a ceremony that focused on the personal interaction between one human being and another.

In the little weathered huts there is also a sense of temporary refuge, a place of protected hospitality, a nuturing environment.  The concept of wabi-sabi also encompasses a sense of solitude and a certain serene melancholy associated with an acute awareness of the impermanence of all things, an understanding of mortality and one’s place in the flow of life to death.  I felt some of the tea houses I saw expressed this fullness of the wabi-sabi aesthetic more than others.

This is the tea house in the moss garden at Saiho-ji.

This photo captures the rusticity of the tea house. This little waiting space outside invites meditation.

The tea houses I saw and photographed all expressed the rustic aesthetic, though several were designed for specific purpose, or for a specific effect and had a less intimate feel.  There are four tea houses at Katsura.  Shokin-tei, for example, is one of four tea houses at Katsura.

The tea house reached via a small bridge.

Shokin-tei has the small entry way that you have to hunch down to get through.  This was seen as humbling – as you crouch down you leave your earthly ambitions, and your sword in the rack if you are a samurai, behind.

Shokin-tei – the small door is visible on the left.

This tea house is interesting for the blue and white checked pattern on the sliding doors and the Tokonoma – highly creative and unusual at the time and surprisingly contemporary now.  I found the departure from the purist wabi-sabi aesthetic interesting – it is clearly more decorative and less subtle than than many tea rooms.

Another tea room at Katsura that I found particularly interesting was Shoiken.  This tea house was constructed to look like like a country house.  To reinforce the effect Prince Toshitada, who completed the construction of the tea houses by about 1662, acquired land behind the tea house and had it planted with rice to give some verisimilitude to the artifice.

Shoiken, with a boat landing in front.

The rice field behind Shoiken.

So this is another example of a departure from a purist Zen philosophy.  It does appear simple, modest and rustic, though not particularly small.  But it also expresses the whim of a rich man – a pretext to show wealth and influence.

The tea house at Shigemori’s residence shows a number of traditional features, with a little modernist twist.  Tucked in a back corner of the garden you approach via a winding a paved stone path.  There is a rustic bowl for the process of symbolic cleansing before entering the tea house, reached via stepping stones.

Approach to Shigemori’s tea house.

A modernist twist on the traditional – checkered decoration on the wall.

At Isuien, the garden some of us visited at Nara, is a tiny tea house that more closely expresses the wabi-sabi aesthetic esposed by Sen no Rikyu.  Named Seishu-an, this tea house is replica of the Yuin-Seki, a famous tea house of the Ura-Senke School of Tea in Kyoto.  The Ura-Senke School of Tea is one of the schools whose founder is a direct line descendent of Rikyu, so it probably not surprising that this tea house conforms closely to the aesthetic.  According to the notice in the garden the 12th headmaster of the school came to stay at the garden to guide and supervise the making of the tea house.

Seisyu-An at Isuien.

Another tiny tea house in this garden shows the simplicity and intimacy most treasured by the tea masters.

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Shingonshu Honpuku-ji (The Water Temple) – the art of being oblique.

This temple was designed by Tadao Ando for the Shingon Buddhist sect.  It is stunningly beautiful and can be appreciated for that alone.  It also masterful in its use of the indirect and oblique, much like the Japanese themselves.

We went on yet another incredibly hot day, walking up the hill from the bus stop past a cemetery.

The entrance to the temple is indirect – as you approach the path seems to lead you to a blank wall, only at the last minute turning to the right to take you between two curved whitewashed wall.

Following the path around the wall beings you to the round pool that reflects the surrounding hills and bamboo.  The stairway down into the pool is not immediately evident – you come across it as you walk around the perimeter of the pool.

The stairway takes you underneath the pool to a circular corridor drenched in colour.  You follow the corridor around to a small Buddhist altar.

This temple struck me as quintessentially Japanese.  It expresses the enigmatic Japanese character perfectly – what you see on the surface, obliquely and modestly expressed, hides a deeper meaning, the true heart.

First is the ambiguity of the entrance – is this a wall or an entranceway? The material of the wall (typical of Tadao Ando) is unadorned concrete – humble, modest and unassuming. Then there is an indirect approach to the pool following curved walls.  The entrance through the pond, almost concealed, is wonderfully ambiguous and surprising; followed by the indirect approach to the altar.  The colour in the corridor is pure Shinto vermillion orange, expressing a comfortable co-existence between Shinto and Buddhism, a blurring of boundaries that resists a dualistic view of faith and religion.

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When good landscape architecture goes bad

Peter Walker’s landscape at the Centre for Advanced Science and Technology is a sorry sight.  It was grandly conceived, with the great curving terrace reminiscent of a renaissance Italian garden; the line of standing rocks like menhirs from European pre-history; the curved dark grey rock wall intersected by hedges and the road; the paved pathway winding across, and uniting, the hard surfaces and the grassed areas; the broad rock mound; the winding river through a bamboo forest; the large, flat, stepped terraces for sheets of water.

Having had no maintenance the water features are dry and grungy, plants are dead or scruffy and unkempt, grass is growing through paving.  It has a deeply melancholic, post-apocalyptic feel about it.  It is a salutary lesson about impermanence, life after installation, the ravages of time, and the imperative for an ongoing relationship between a caretaker and the designed landscape.  It is quite bewildering to see an expensive work such as this apparently abandoned, and a shocking contrast to the pristine, immaculate gardens we visited in Kyoto.

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Lessons in scale

The various places we have visited have made me think about scale in the garden and landscape design.  Shigamori’s residence, for example, uses scale in a verybold way.  It is a small space and Shigamori has almost completely filled it visually with large rocks placed closely together creating strong vertical and horizontal lines, and a very dense volume of rocks.  A less bold and confident designer might have looked at the size of the space and been constrained by it, reducing the scale of intervention.  I think the stroke of genius here was to scale up to create an  almost confrontational intensity that distracts the viewer from the boundaries of the site and disguises its size.

View of the garden from the main room of the house.

Having created a weighty, intense space at the front of the house Shigemori then reverts to a much smaller scale along the side of the house in the approach to the tearoom.  Here he has used small, precise compositions on mossy mounds and gravel paths, creating a greater sense of space and a contrast to, even a sense of relief from, the energy of the front garden.

In this image you can see the small scale of the composition of bowl, rock and stones.

Shigemori has another little twist on scale.  He uses very small rocks to carry a big message.  A stone on the path with cord or twine around it is a signal for the visitor to stop and go no further down the path.  It is a very important message in Japanese gardens. In the context of the tea ceremony, for example, it signals to the guest that the host is not yet ready to receive him.  It is a typically subtle way to structure time, space, movement and social relations in the Japanese garden setting.

Very small stones used to convey a significant message.

With his cones at the Centre for Advanced Science and Tecnology, Peter Walker uses the same device as Shigemori does in his front garden – big scale in a small space.  He takes the device even further by creating cones or mounds that are larger than human scale.  Whilst Shigamori’s stones are large they are still at a human, domestic scale.  Peter Walker has made his cones monumental in stature, and then scaled up the path materials.

There is a paradoxical effect in the relationship between the scaled up paths and cones and the space they occupy.  On the one hand the cones create smaller spaces to be discovered as you make your way around them making the space seem larger than it is.

On the other hand one is aware of the walls of the buildings that enclose the area, and the volume of the cones seems to fill the space making it seem small and tight, in turn accentuating the size of the cones.  Again the effect is muscular and intense.  Most potent though is the way the design illustrates the dynamics of scale and space.

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Nara – Todai-ji and stroll gardens

We took a train to Nara, pleased that it seemed not to be quite so hot, but that turned out to be quite wrong – it got very hot.  Nara is a obviously a major tourist attraction – it was the capital of Japan for about 70 years from 710, and there are several important shrines and temples there.  It was very busy with Japanese tourists, souvenir shops and traffic. We went to the Buddhist Temple, Todai-ji,  that houses the huge statue of the Vairocana Buddha.  It is the largest wooden structure in the world, even though having now been rebuilt twice after fire it is two thirds of its original size.  It is another example of the Japanese practice of renewal whilst keeping things the same – or in this case almost the same, only the scale being changed.

There is a myth that a god came to Nara on a white deer, so deer are regarded as divine messengers and protected there as national treasures.  They are smelly and everywhere, but charming and cute.

Some of us visited two very lovely stroll gardens after going to the temple.  Part of their charm was the relief from the crowds at the temple – we were pretty much the only people there.  But that is also what stroll gardens were in part for – to provide sanctuary and peace from a busy world.

The first one, Yoshikien, is relatively small and domestic in scale, with a feeling of intimacy, but still demonstrating all the key features of a stroll garden – pond, bridges, rocks, shaped vegetation, lanterns, stone paths.

Isuien is larger and comprises two quite distinct spaces.  It uses a number of classic devices – a the sound of water throughout the garden; borrowed views of a temple gate and Wakakusayama Hill as a backdrop; the presence of rocks and carefully shaped trees.  The presence of a number of tea houses accentuate the sense of history.

“Borrowed views”

Shaped trees

Seishu-an Tea House – a duplicate of the famous Yuin-Seki tea house of the Ura-Senke School of Tea.

I  particularly liked the way stones have been used to create paths with different patterns and surfaces – the paths become a feature in their own right, not just for walking on but for admiring as you go.

In all these are both lovely examples of the stroll garden that I particularly appreciated for their peacefulness and beauty after visiting the temple.  In a way coming to the stroll garden hot, bothered and a little stressed is to come in the state of mind to best appreciate the harmony and serenity of the garden.

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Tofuku-ji is a Zen Buddhist precinct.

The gardens surrounding the Hojo were designed by Shigemori Mirei in 1939, so they are a product of the 20th century, not old history, and there are definite modernist elements in them.

There are four gardens – this is unusual too to have all sides of the Hojo circumscribed by gardens.  The dry garden has 4 clusters of rocks, and down one end five mounds and a single small tree, the mounds apparently symbolizing sacred mountains.  At this time of the year the mounds are brown, so the tree stands out as a single green element.  In the other seasons I imagine the moss on the mounds becomes green and the relationship of the tree to the mounds changes as the green-on-green colour scheme emerges.

The single tree amongst the five mounds. This image also shows the borrowed views of trees and temple roof beyond the wall.

The rocks have very strong horizontal and vertical lines – quite a bulky presence – with quite deeply raked circles around them like ripples of water or waves.

Most interesting to me were the “empty” circles raked in the long area of sand where no rocks are placed.  These raked circles are not in the photograph on the brochure so they are not always there, or have not been there in the past.  They seemed to me to represent a space where a rock might of have been, or might one day be – like a memory or a prediction of rocks.  For me they gave the garden an added ethereal quality that contrasted with the materiality and the bulk of the rocks.

The next garden, the Western Garden, is comprised of squarely trimmed azaleas juxtaposed with squares of white gravel.  The Northern Garden has stones set in a field of moss to create an irregular chequerboard pattern.  These gardens are distinctly modernist, which is surprising in this context.

The final garden uses foundation pillars set in gravel, and repeats the raked circles.  I particularly liked the balance of white gravel and moss in this small garden.

I found the experience of being here very moving – it made me want to be quiet and still, it invites contemplation.  It is like breathing out and only then noticing that you were holding your breath.

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Surreal moments in the cultural soup.

A bunch of kiwis sitting in a French cafe eating pastries on  a Japanese railway station at the ancient capital city, with Frank Sinatra playing in the background.

An instrumental version of a 1960`s Helen Shapiro song piped out in a main shopping street in Kyoto.

In an electronics shop a whole lot of different music playing, and under layers of  Japanese music, filtered through the cacophony, the William Tell Overture.

Having black coffee and toast in a tiny quaint Japanese coffee bar with Mozart and Chopin playing.


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Shinto Shrine – Fushimi Inari

Fushimi Inari is one of many Shinto Shrines dedicated to the Shinto God of rice, Inari.

Foxes are considered the messengers of Inari so statues of foxes feature throughout the Shrine.

The Shrine buildings and surrounding forested hills are beautiful, but most spectacular for me were the torii tunnels.  The individual torii are donated by families and businesses and the name of the donator is inscribed on the back of each tori.  These are an extraordinary lesson the power of repetition, scale and colour in the landscape.  The repetiton of the the form creates a tunnel which is a powerful thing in itself, but the scale changes as you move through it, starting very high and becoming gradually lower as you climb up the slope, so your relationship to the form changes.  They start as something monumental and dominating, and become domestic and enclosing.  The colour is astonishing in the landscape both as contrast to the green of the forest and in the way it behaves in the sunlight – it absolutely glows, and takes on a pulsating energy that I found very exciting.

Looking from the outside at these two vibrant orange stripes up the hill they seemed very modernist to me.

We did climb some way up the mountain beyond the end of the tori tunnels, and found ourselves in a bamboo forest.  The pale green of the bamboo was an exquiste contrast to the orange of the torii.

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Dry gardens – Ryoan-ji.

We visited three gardens in the north-west sector.  We got to Ryoan-ji early before the crowds – seemingly the most famous garden in Japan.  It is strange and interesting to visit a garden that you feel you know already from photographs and writings – the experience is so much richer.  Firstly you experience the garden in its context.  You approach the temple along a path past a lake with water lilies, so the first encounter of the garden is a distinct contrast from the approach.

Secondly you experience the containment of the garden, and it is the containment that in part fosters the sense of peace and tranquillity.  The containment comes not just from the wall but also from the horizontal overhead line of the wide verandah roof.

The walls and the roof of the verandah not only contain the space but they also frame it as an artistic composition – like a drawing made three dimensional.

Then you experience the second contrast as you go around the corner of the building and encounter the moss garden.  The stark whites, browns and greys of the dry garden and the greens of the moss garden seem to complete each other.

I loved the texture of the ground plane of both gardens – the raked gravel and the network of roots under the moss – for me these textural qualities created a sense of connection between the two gardens.


Many commentators have noted the clever placement of stones so that one of the fifteen is always hidden from any viewpoint on the verandah.  I like that – it is a nice metaphor to contemplate.  In all situations of life we cannot see everything at once – there is always something hidden to be discovered or learned.

I am intrigued by the need of some commentators and visitors to ascribe meaning to the placement of the stones.  I like the Zen notion that in and of themselves they mean nothing – meaning comes from the  interaction and contemplation of the individual in and upon the space.  The viewer co-creates meaning.  I found it to be a deeply quiet and still place – it invited one to be silent and still.  I found it very moving, though it is hard to know how much the impact of being there is weighted by its iconic status.

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