The country’s lunar fascination is reflected in features that invite contemplation

Jonny Bruce

December 1, 2017

Autumn is the traditional season for moon viewing. As the heat of summer begins to dissipate, the moon’s silver light seems to sharpen in the cool night air. Across the northern hemisphere the harvest moon, which this year rose on October 5, is a point of seasonal transition but in Japan it has particular cultural importance. Around this time Japanese people come together for Tsukimi, (moon-viewing parties) where tales are told, sake drunk and offerings made in the light of the full moon. The typical setting for these festivities is in the garden, and in no other culture has lunar fascination had such an impact on the form and philosophy of its gardens. In a richly illustrated new book, The Japanese Garden, Sophie Walker explores the philosophical depths of Japanese horticulture. Her study ranges from proto-gardens of 7th-century Shinto temples to contemporary installations in urban office blocks, and addresses manifold themes and influences, but the symbolism of the moon is a thread that runs through the centuries. Possibly the most celebrated example of a lunar-inspired garden is at Ginkaku-ji in Kyoto. Also known as the Temple of the Silver Pavilion, this garden was created in 1480, during the Muromachi period, as a retirement villa for shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa but was converted to a temple after his death in 1490. One enters along an imperceptibly rising clipped hedge that leads to a small gravel garden punctuated by artfully pruned pine trees. The visitor is then confronted with a raised expanse of sand, its surface divided into serried rows of smooth and raked texture, which extends alongside a large pond from the main temple complex to the Silver Pavilion. In the full glare of the midday sun it is hard on the eyes but one can imagine the effect of this silver sea of sand, contrasted against the dark forms of the surrounding conifers, at night and in the light of a full moon.

Emerging from this raked area is the 8ft-high sand cone, or kogetsudai, which translates as “moon-viewing platform” although it does not seem designed to bear human weight. The cone form has precedent in earlier temple gardens such as the 7th-century Shinto shrine of Kamigamo in Kyoto but its truncated nature is atypical and its particular meaning is unclear. Ginkaku-ji is a difficult garden to categorise as it reflects styles of various periods but some of its most distinctive features, such as the raked sand and cone form, are suggestive of the dry landscapes — or karesansui — that are predominantly a product of Zen teachings. Minimal in their design, karesansui depend on the artful arrangement of stones often surrounded by gravel and reached their apogee in the Muromachi period (1336-1573) with the celebrated gravel garden at Ryoan-ji, also in Kyoto and built just 20 years after Ginkaku-ji.

Adhering to Zen philosophy, these karesansui gardens were intended to be viewed during seated meditation or zazen and served as devices to draw the viewer’s mind to their inner landscape. They are best defined by a sense of absence, an emptiness that lends itself to self-contemplation. The Japanese refer to this absence as mu, and the moon, emitting no light of its own, is particularly evocative of a sense of mu. It is no surprise that in his Emmy award- winning documentary Dream Window: Reflections on the Japanese Garden (1992), John Junkerman introduces Ryoan-ji bathed in moonlight. Often unconvincing attempts are made at literal interpretations of these garden forms. The cone at Ginkaku-ji becomes Mount Fuji or the stones at Ryoan-ji a tigress with her cubs crossing an ocean. Guide books press meanings upon the reader but they often simply distract from these gardens’ subtler purpose as a meditative aid. These designs were devised by intellectuals, and shogun Yoshimasa expressed his erudition, not only in his garden but also through poetry. In a description of the Silver Pavilion, he wrote: “I love my hut at the foot of the moon awaiting mountain and the reflection of the sinking sky.”

Discussing her book, Walker explains how such sophistication elevates these gardens to high art. In her view, garden making in the west lacks creative ambition whereas the gardens of Japan often have a greater depth. Walker’s conviction of the garden’s artistic value is echoed by art historian Robert Hobbs in the 1982 autumn edition of Art Journal, where he describes experiencing “the garden at Ginkaku-ji as analogous to a Mark Rothko”. Another celebrated garden, though of a later period, that also hinges its design on the moon’s presence is the Katsura Imperial Villa. Deliberately positioned to the south-west of Kyoto, it was intended as an escape from city life for the prominent Hachijo family. The construction of the villa began in 1641 but was remodelled by subsequent generations. Today the main villa consists of four connected buildings that lead to a garden divided by four tea houses. The garden is saturated with moon symbolism. The name Katsura, although referring to the region where the villa was built, it is also the common name for a Japanese tree, Cercidiphyllum japonicum. Sometimes referred to as the candyfloss tree on account of the sugary smell it produces in autumn, in Japanese myth a giant specimen is said to grow on the moon. The region is also famed for its autumnal beauty, as captured in the classic 11th-century fiction, Tale of Genji, which is set in Katsura. As temperatures fall the hills that surround the villa are set ablaze by the changing leaves and it was for this season, and the harvest moon in particular, that the Katsura garden was designed.

Such cosmological awareness is best observed in the Gepparo (moon wave pavilion), the tea house nearest the garden’s central pond. The pavilion is elevated and orientated east-south to ensure that its moon-viewing platform is provided with the optimal view of the autumnal full moon. The German architect Bruno Taut studied the garden in the 1930s and was largely responsible for galvanising its renovation. He wrote of being “brought to tears” by the tranquil beauty of this structure. Nothing more than an elevated bamboo stage, its visual simplicity and singular function captured, for Taut, the very essence of modern design. The moon has particular symbolism that has insinuated itself into Japan’s cultural traditions and mythology. However, it is the transformative power of moonlight that is its most beautiful effect on a garden — though it is a beauty tinged with melancholy. As Walker points out in her book, even the bright red of a camellia bloom fades to grey in the moon’s ethereal beams. Such poetic melancholia is well suited to the philosophical nature of these gardens and their creators. Today the orange glow of our street lamps does much to lessen the effect of the moon and stars and so to echo the plea from Junichiro Tanizaki’s 1933 In Praise of Shadows — “Perhaps we may be allowed one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.”