Friday, 30 August 2013

Pines in the Japanese Garden

The seminal tree of the Japanese garden, indeed one only has to see a wind-swept pine in the landscape for it to conjure images of Japanese gardens. The elegance of the sparse 'clouds' of foliage is accentuated by the stature of the rugged trunk. It is a tree much shaped by landscape and climate, a tree capable of evoking the essence of landscape within itself. The pine has long been appreciated in Japan and China as being a symbol of longevity and resilience.
The lower limbs of this pine have been much extended. Ninna-ji, Kyoto.
In the Japanese garden  three varieties of Pine are most commonly featured, Pinus thunbergii  (Kuromatsu, Japanese Black Pine ) is perhaps the most widely used of the genus. A two needle pine, used as an important timber tree in Japan, which grows well in coastal areas in poor, sandy soils. It will be found shaped in myriad ways, from the loose informal, windswept styles, to the more formal upright shapes. It will be set on hillside, along the banks of mountain-streams, on lake and seashore. It is by nature a tree well suited to growing in coastal areas. With regular and meticulous pruning of the needles, to reduce overcrowding and hence the loss of lower limbs, the trees may be coaxed into any shape. Black pine is used both as a feature tree as well as being planted more extensively to create a 'forest' look.
A small gracefully pruned black pine in the grounds of Koto-in, Kyoto

A highly elaborate white pine in the grounds of Jonagu Jinja, Kyoto
Pinus pentaphylla, (Gyomatsu, Japanese White pine), a 5 needle pine often used in more formal situations, it has long been a tree much favoured by the bonsai fraternity for its short needles , which are a deep blue-green with a blue-white inner colouring, that are densely arranged. Slower growing than the Black pine it takes longer to produce large specimens for the garden. The arrangement of the 'cloud-like' formations of the branches are generally more elaborate than on other pines, and may become highly complex structures on trees that have undergone pruning over many years. More often it will be used in close proximity to architectural structures, from where its form may be appreciated, rather than being sited as part of  landscape scenery.

Pinus densifolia, (Akamatsu, Japanese Red pine), the bark of this two needle pine has a reddish hue similar to Pinus sylvestris, it grows into a medium to large tree. It is less commonly planted in the garden than P. thunbergii, and its form appears lighter and more airy. 
P. densiflora at Toji-in temple, Kyoto. A large venerable tree overhanging a pond, the gardener to the left actually has his ladders in the pond enabling him to carry out the needle thinning by hand.

There are a number of very old and extraordinary specimen pines in Japan. One of the most stunning is located at Yoshimine Dera temple south west of Kyoto. Known as the "Gliding Dragon" pine tree (Yōryu no matsu), at over 500 years old, it has been designated as a national monument. Two lower limbs have been trained to grow horizontally and the entire tree was once over 50 meters long, it has suffered from disease in the recent past which has resulted in some dieback which has curtailed its length. The limbs are supported at regular intervals on heavy wooden crutches. The supporting of limbs is commonly done in Japan, relieving the tree of overburdensome weight. All the foliage is on top of the branches and gives the appearance of a landscape scroll painting.  

Part of the Yoshimine dera pine

Not yet having become a Buddha,
This ancient pine tree,
Idly dreaming.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

The Mystery Of Surface

This is the edge
Where land slips into the sea
From here on
The eye knows only the mystery of surface
A shimmering dance of temptation and dreams.

Here the sea is full of light
With waves foaming froth-filled
All energy and combustion
Beating wind driven onto the shore –
Beyond the breakers the surfers congregate
A bob of slick black seals
Waiting their moment to arrive.

Pines bending to the north wind blow,
A scrap of paper caught momentarily
Amidst the tentacles of dune grasses
Silent words headed for the sea.

Layer over layer
Climbing hills and filling valleys
The city’s history sprawls as mercury -
Yet still we come and seek the same
As those upon whom we now tread
In streets thickened by dust and dreams.

How can we ever find our path,
Where there are no way markers -
Just endless beginingless shifts of light
Folding day into night
And night into day.

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Sunday, 18 August 2013

The Sweetest Fruit

So, with your news
The next generation is announced.
Yet barely formed
A soul finding its place in the world.

High summer, just turned,
The cycle of life drives on
As one branch slips towards infinity
Inexorable, the turning wheel turns.

Such pleasure is engendered
In knowing of continuation,
It’s also a reminder
What comes to walk this earth
Also passes back to the earth.

Pass me your garlands
That I may know the scent of wisdom,
Fresh flowers forming in the dark
Gathering strength to come into light.
The sweetest fruit
Comes in the continuation of the dream.

What is there to offer in celebration?
A sheaf of rough poems perhaps,
Fresh minted as the air
Bound between leather covers
For another generation to read.

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Friday, 16 August 2013

In Silence Summer Dances

Stepping about in circles
Weaving one within another
And then another
Until dance becomes
Dancing within dance.

Now flow is known,
Wind and rain felt vividly
The pull of gravity on the hills.
Time emerging as a sphere
Radiating in every direction.

“The heavy is the root of light,”

So it’s spoken of in the Tao Te Ching:
Listening out for signs
just following what is there,
rocks awaiting their place.

Such sweet sound taste and smell,
Sweet touch too.
Opening the inner to the outer
That one may become the other –
Out at the edge.

Always will there be this bond
A thread of connection
Thinner than a hair,
Yet holding wind and trees
Clouds and rain, full canopy of leaves –
Taste remaining for tongue's memory.

Born again into landscape
Seeking every which way back to Source,
Perhaps this path
Perhaps that one-
The path is strewn with re-remembered flowers.

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Ponds in the Japanese Garden

Water is such a central feature to the Japanese garden that the pond often holds centre stage of the composition, the garden will literally revolve about the pond. Perhaps one of the greatest achievements was the garden at Katsura Palace, Kyoto, where the landscape and the water wrap around one another to stunning effect.
Katsura Rikyu, Kyoto

Ponds have been central to the concept of a garden since the introduction of the idea of garden building was introduced from China in the fifth century. Ponds were created for their innate decorative effect and were also used as settings for courtly ritual and entertainment. On the larger ponds of the later Heian period (785-1184) boats with prows carved as dragons carried groups of courtiers on voyages, accompanying boats carried a compliment of musicians. The practice never entirely died out, and enjoyed a revival in the Edo period (1603- 1867) where boating was popular on large lake gardens of the daimyo lords.
Daigo Sambo-in, Fushimi

"It was possible to go by waterfall the way to the Spring garden, first rowing along the Southern Lake, then passing through a narrow channel straight towards a toy mountain which seemed to bar all further progress. But in reality there was a way round, and eventually the party found itself at the Fishing Pavilion...."
                                                                                               Lady Murasaki, ‘The Tale of Genji’.

There was always a concern that the pond should fit to the lie of the land, the pond shape was determined by the shape of the ground. It is true that the pond of the 'Upper garden' at Shugaku-in Villa, is created by a dam wall, even so the placement and configuration of the pond gives a completely naturalistic impression. It is said that Emperor Nomizuno-o worked on a clay model for the pond, during the design of the garden. The pond is called the 'Bathing Dragon Pond' ( "Yokuryu-chi" ), a name that is not entirely fanciful.
Shugaku-in Rikyu, Kyoto

The ideal direction for bringing fresh supplies of water to the pond is from the north-east, and the outflow set to the south-west, according to the principles of feng shui, or geomancy. The pond was seen as being able to accumulate the vital essence ch'i, as  ch'i will run away along straight lines, the shoreline should be of a convoluted form. The Dragon represents the vital energy ch'i itself, the very quality that the garden is intended to both accumulate and generate, thus empowering those who open themselves to the garden.

The shores were, and still are, created with boulders or pebble beaches. The beach at the garden of the Sento Palace, Kyoto is laid in flat, black stones the size of the palm of a large hand, it runs for nearly one hundred metres long. Each and every stone arrived to the garden individually wrapped in silk. The  Sakuteiki mentions two styles of shoreline, 'suki hoko kishi '' and ' kuwagata kishi ', the 'Spade shore', where the shore line is convex in profile, and the 'Hoe-shape', where the shoreline is concave, respectively.

The ponds themselves are often relatively shallow, leading to the term, kage ike or 'mirror pond', which relies for much of its charm on the patterns of reflection in the water surface. The curvature of the underside of bridges is matched in still water by its reflection, thereby presenting an image of the interaction of yin and yang principles. Whilst the Sakuteiki mentions ponds dug in the shape of turtles and cranes, one is far more likely to recognise these symbols as islands in the pond. The ponds were obviously well constructed, as a number have survived into the present day, even if their attendant gardens have not. The ponds were normally clay lined, the pebbled shore line of the pond would be installed at an early point in the construction. One can easily imagine the scene of frenzied activity during the digging out by hand of these ponds.

Sento Gosho, Kyoto
One shape of pond that has generated much interest over the years is the shinji chi , or 'heart-shaped pond' , so called as the outline of the pond was loosely based on the calligraphic character shin or kokoro, meaning 'heart' or 'spirit'. In Japanese it is a character charged with meaning, and especially so for the Zen Buddhists. The shin that is referred to by the Zen priests is the 'pure heart', the origin of everything and nothing. Like the dragon, it is the originator of all rhythmic life, like water it is formless and yet takes on form.
The Chinese character for shin or kokoro, below a  typical pond outline based on the character.
What is said of water-ponds may equally applied to karesansui ('dry landscape' style) ponds too. The same rigours of composition will apply, though the extent of the 'pond'  would probably be smaller. In the event of a karesansui pond featuring in the design, it would not be necessary to define the full extent of a pond. Presenting a section of the pond only, as part of the composition would be sufficient to allow the viewer to complete the picture within his own imagination. Today, some of the older gardens featuring karesansui ponds have had the 'water' taken over by moss, the garden of Manshu-in retains something of the feel of a 'dry-pond'.

With the evening breeze,
The water laps against
The heron's legs.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Hakaze-an; Tea Pavillion Project part 1

羽 風 庵

In Japan and China it is common practice to name buildings and gardens. Naming something gives it an extra depth to its character. At this project in the south of England, I was commissioned to create a Tea Pavillion and garden. The clients want a place of quietude and beauty, a meditative loci set in the garden or landscape. All gardens are paradisial settings, where the location is intended to inspire, uplift and act on the viewer in a positive manner.

The inspiration for the original design of the building came about in an unexpected way. I wanted to create a building that was 'light' looking, seeming to float in its space. As I walked down to the area one morning a pigeon took off from the ground. I had my moment of inspiration; the shape of the roof, and the garden would be derived from a bird's wing. Later researching in Nelson's 'Japanese-English Character Dictionary', I found what I was looking for, a name.

In Japanese Hakaze-an, is made up of three characters; ha - represents a wing, kaze - breeze, draught or wind, the suffix -an means a hermitage. Hakaze together indicates 'the breeze created by a bird flapping its wings', perhaps in taking off from the ground or a branch. It is a cooling, calming image, it has a sense of lightness and elevation about it. The ideal of a hermitage, indicates a place separate from the trials of the everyday world, a place apart from hustle and bustle. A place to retire to, to simply be. Thus Hakaze-an, can also be called the 'Hermitage of the Breeze From A Wing', its  simpler mouthful in Japanese. Hakaze-an.

The area where the building is to be sited is at the bottom of a gentle slope
 with a tall backdrop of established trees.
The boxes are preparation for the concrete pads to hold the main upright timbers supporting the roof.

Robert Ketchell, project designer with Andrew Ninnis, master builder,
blessing the building and the site.
A ceremony was recently held to bless the building, the craftsmen, and the site, in order to attract beneficial energy to the project. Right Mind is an important consideration when evoking beauty, in no matter what you do. Holding a ceremony brings conscious attention to the process of creation. What ever we bring to the project, good or bad, beneficial or a hindrance, will stay within the creation, and become a part of what someone else will take from the experience of the garden and building. So we all need to be aware of bringing the best we can to whatever we do.

In honouring the intention and the process of creation, it is to recognise the potential of space to be sacred. Creating Beauty in whatever form it may manifest, is part of a search for the sound of the voice of the divine in the landscape.

This is a copy of the script for the site blessing ceremony:

Ceremony of Blessing for the Tea Pavillion ‘Hakaze-an'

羽 風 庵

(‘Pavillion of the Breeze Created By the Wings of a Bird’)

Each corner of the building is blessed by sprinkling sake, salt and water.

Evoking the Lotus Sutra:


At the entrance to the building:

Sake, salt and water is sprinkled on the ground.


May this building, Hakaze-an, be blessed
By good intention and the right mind;
Where the hand follows the heart,
And the heart follows the hand into calm breath.

May this building, Hakaze-an, be blessed
By the viewer seeing both inside and outside as One;
Where the senses follow the heart
And the heart follows the senses into the present.

May this building, Haukaze-an, be blessed
As a place of meeting of earth and sky;
Where the mind follows the heart
And the heart follows the mind into emptiness.

At the main garden site:

Sake, salt and water is sprinkled on the ground.


For the garden which is the path and the view,
The means and the way
The outside that becomes the inside;
May you reveal yourself through Beauty.

Salt is to feed the earth
Water is the presence of the sea
Sake is for the laughter of the gods;
May you reveal yourself as sacred space.


View from the interior space looking out to where the principal garden view will be. The large maple in the centre will remain and the garden design laid out to place it at the centre of the composition.
The main frame of the building is of Western Red Cedar grown in the UK. The main sitting space will be open to the elements in order to allow the maximum sensory experience of the surrounding gardens.

The wildflower meadow in the middle ground is to be developed as a large pond
A preliminary sketch of the pond layout. The shape of the pond is derived from the character for 'heart' (kokoro in Japanese). This style of pond is known as Shinjiike.

The entrance to the building is where the yellow step ladders are stood. It will be an open doorway. A path will lead the visitor to this point. The main viewing garden will be on the other end of the building.
The roof will be covered in sedum plants and will 'float' over the garden surrounding the building. The garden area  has yet to be started. This will feature in successive posts on this blog. Walls are to be created at the front end of the building, the main sitting area will be open. The main posts will act as frames to capture garden views.

The creation of the building and garden will feature in a series of blogs. Sign up for e-mail delivery to follow the progress of this fascinating project. The building is the kernel of the whole space, with a garden to wrap around it. The way through the garden to the building is a journey made to prepare the visitor to enter the building itself. Once in the building, the gardens as seen from within will calm the mind; as the inside becomes the outside and the outside becomes the inside.

Project Manager/Designer: Robert Ketchell
Architectural Consultant: Andrew Broughton-Tompkins
Master Builder: Andrew Ninnis

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Saturday, 10 August 2013

The Silence Of The Sky

Words do not come at all
Further search unveils but deeper silence
Not just a circle but a sphere –
Nowhere to go, nothing to find.

More and more
Letting slip the anchor hold
Bearing down on the trust of Being,
Tree song bending in wind shifts.

Last-light’s dawn is breaking,
In and out of inky shadows darting
Stuttering flickering flight
Bats busy chasing the fullness of cycles.

Cutting into the diamond ice
Pushing out the belly of the year -
At the edge quiet holding,
One breath, no breath.

Two heads above the parapet
Fledgling swallows waiting
Mackerel sky spreading from the West,
No where else to be.

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Friday, 9 August 2013

Paths and the Japanese Garden

Paths are central to the structure of a Japanese garden, it may be argued that the garden is in essence a path, one that leads the viewer from the Everyday world into a space of a different order. Much attention is paid to the design and construction of a path or system of paths as they will have a bearing on the way a viewer will experience the garden itself. There is a distinction made in the design of paths leading toward an entrance to a building, and the paths that take the viewer around the garden. Deep in the garden landscape paths can becoming absorbed into the landscape they flow through. Just as the viewer becomes absorbed into the landscape.

The path that leads from the street to the entry of a temple or traditional building will rarely lead in a direct line of access, the path will make a twist, turn or corner. The path is wide enough to be walked freely, and will be composed of a even surface. The dislocation in the line of access from the building entry to entry from the street is an influence of geomantic practice, to prevent the depletion of vital ch'i from the site (see Feng Shui ). A variety of texture in the path may be introduced through variations in the layout of the materials being used. Occasionally at the entry to a Zen temple one sees a final section of Entry path laid out as large stepping stones in a pattern of  seven, five and three stones, the numbers having potent auspicious associations thereby act as a blessing for the person approaching the building. There is such a path at Nanzen-ji, likewise Shinju-an.

In the gardens themselves paths are generally classified into three types, Shin, Gyo, and So (see separate entry), naturally the paths that are in close proximity to buildings or are main thoroughfares connecting buildings may be the most formal, leading to greater informality ( ) the further into the garden one progresses. Whilst this is often the case, it is a 'rule' that is frequently enough disregarded. In the garden context full range of expression is given to the potential of humble pieces of stone. 

Whilst nowadays, tobiishi (steppingstone paths) are used with great frequency, in the garden at Katsura Rikyu there are over 1700 steppingstones used in the path system, their popularity did not really come into such prominence until the sixteenth century. It was after the Tea Masters began to exploit the use of steppingstones in their gardens that they became quite so common elsewhere. In the Tea garden only rough stone would be acceptable, whereas for Gyo- style paths it is acceptable to mix cut stone and rough stone in the same section of path. Sections of steppingstone path will lead to sections of pavement-type of pathways. It is a design technique to set a short pavement section of path at a point of pathway that leads immediately to a view point. Once on a pavement section of path it is natural for the viewer to raise his head and be able to take in the scenery being presented. It is only the unwise who tread along steppingstone paths without watching where their feet are being set down. Thus one can see the potential for influencing the way the garden may be perceived by manipulating the manner of surface offered to walk along.

Stone slabs laid a into paths are often referred to as tanazaki-ishi or 'Poem card stones' after the strips of paper that poems and prayers are written on, tanazaki-ishi may be laid offset in pairs. Where small stones are brought together to make up pavement sections it is important that the intersection of the stones are of a T or Y pattern, and not as an X or radial intersection. Pointing gaps of 25 - 30 mm are preferred, the pointing should come to no more than 12 mm of the top of the stone, which allows for the play of light across the surface. The mortar used sometimes has ground charcoal mixed with it to darken the colour in order to harmonise the pointing with the stone. Pavement sections of 45 cm wide are enough   for most garden situations. Black stones in a pavement section will give a sense of formality, whilst rough textured stones will give a more subtle air to the path. The pavement sections should ideally be of a comparable height from the ground to the setting of stepping stone paths.

It should also be recognised that in Japanese the word for path, 'do' has connotations that will inevitably have a bearing upon the way that the garden is appreciated. 'do' may be understood to carry the sense of a path, as a way in life. Following the 'do' in this way is to make a commitment with one's whole being in following  a particular course. The goal that is being sought is a measure of transcendence from the 'everyday world', that is  simply seeing the duality of the material world and failing to grasp the underlying unity of all things.  The garden being revealed by a path, both physical and metaphysical, evokes this sense in the heart of the viewer who enters and experiences the garden with "empty hands". The viewer surrenders to the way of the path without knowing.