The Japanese aesthetic sense in gardens, as can be seen in the gardens of Kyoto’s Ryoanji and Kinkakuji Temples, puts the focus on recreating natural scenery with flawless arrangement. In Europe, the focus is placed on remaking nature based on designs created by people. This likely comes from differences in how the relationship of people and nature is viewed. Asians see nature not as something to be overcome by people, but as “a place where people are allowed to exist”. The gardens of the temples and shrines in Kyoto were designed based on that philosophy, so that people could cultivate that sense of their relationship with nature, even in a city. In contrast, Tottori’s Mitaki-en, by creating a place where people are allowed to exist in the midst of natural surroundings, helps that same aesthetic sense flourish.
Eastern Thought is Best Expressed in Gardens
In contrast with the monotheistic world view of the main religions of the West, the idea that many gods exist all around us still remains in East Asia. In particular, the existence of gods in Japan is not a concept that sees them as being similar to people, but instead sees natural features such as boulders and large trees as gods in and of themselves. Many Japanese people still hold respect for the vast scale of nature and for things that have a longer lifespan than people. Buddhism was originally a religion foreign to Japan, but by not rejecting the gods of Japan, it was relatively easily accepted by the people here. That East Asian spirit is strongly reflected in the magnificent gardens that can be seen at the shrines and temples of Kyoto and Nara. Many of those gardens recreate the scenery found in nature using ponds, rocks, and trees. This is because people living in urban areas crave that spirit that respects nature. Using only rocks and pebbles, the stone garden of Kyoto’s Ryoanji Temple represents nature in such an effective way that even though the scenery right before their eyes is not in the middle of nature, people’s imaginations allow them to become one with nature. Making this feeling of unification with nature possible in a place removed from natural surroundings is the ultimate in philosophical thought.
The culture of recreating and appreciating nature in the small worlds of bonsai and miniature gardens is a part of this current of thinking as well. It is in stark contrast to the Western sense of beauty that can be found in the gardens of monasteries and palaces, such as the one at the Palace at Versailles. This sense of beauty that developed in the West was methodically designed by people to reshape nature in a fashion more desirable. Western culture reshapes nature to fit people’s ideas of beauty, while Eastern culture focuses instead on recreating the beauty already in nature. After Claude Monet saw how nature was recreated in Japanese gardens, he made a similar garden of his own and painted many works based on it.
The Forest itself is the Ideal Japanese Garden
On the other hand, in areas outside of urban centers which are rich in natural scenery, respect for nature has led people to believe that nature belongs to the gods, and destroying it is offensive to them. In big cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, where people have created their own world, recreating nature in the gardens of shrines and temples is one way that people could bring nature back into their lives. In contrast, the way of thinking in more rural areas was to arrange fields and buildings in such a way that affected the natural surroundings as little as possible. Here in San’in, the area known as Izumo is thought of as the home of the gods, and the place where they all gather once a year. As a result of this, the areas around Izumo, the sense that nature must be treated with respect is stronger than in other areas of Japan.
Incidentally, all of the gods are said to gather in San’in during the tenth month of the old Japanese calendar, so while that time is called “The Month of No Gods” in other parts of Japan, it is called “The Month of the Gods” here. There is a sense that this land of San’in was chosen by the gods. That sense of needing to respect and care for nature can be seen at Mitaki-en, where buildings, paths, and various other features have been arranged in the middle of a forest without disturbing the natural features of the forest itself.
Right next to a murmuring stream that has carved out its path through the rocks over time, there sits a moss-covered thatched roof house with a Japanese-style hearth (irori). Rather than a space designed by people, it is a place where the constructions people have placed there have been made even more beautiful by the influence and power of the natural surroundings. There is a waterfall in the garden, and there is a true appeal to the fact that you can enjoy a traditional Japanese countryside meal while enjoying the scenery it helps create.