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Here and There introduces art, artists, galleries and museums around Japan that non-Japanese readers and first-time visitors may find of particular interest. The writer claims no art expertise, just a subjective viewpoint acquired over many years' residence in Japan.

Immortal Isles: The Gardens of Mirei Shigemori at Tofukuji
Alan Gleason
Rocks representing the immortal isles of Horai cast late-afternoon shadows in the South Garden of the Abbott's Hall at Tofukuji. Moss mounds representing the five main Rinzai temples can be seen in the back.

On a recent too-short trip to Kyoto, I wanted to see some of the many works in that city by Mirei Shigemori (1896-1975), the legendary creator of avant-garde Japanese gardens. With a tight schedule, I had to choose between visiting the Mirei Shigemori Garden Museum -- his former residence, which features the one garden he designed for himself -- and Tofukuji, a temple boasting several gardens that constitute Shigemori's first major work and are widely regarded as his masterpieces. I decided to focus on Tofukuji and did not regret it.

Headquarters of one branch of the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism, the temple occupies a huge plot of land in the Higashiyama hills southeast of Kyoto Station, with several sub-temples and gardens on the precincts. When Shigemori was commissioned to design four gardens circumscribing the Hojo (Abbot's Hall), the temple was too poor to pay him; he agreed to do the job in exchange for complete creative freedom. The results revolutionized garden design in Japan.


The South Garden from a slightly different angle. Though spread out, each rock grouping appears as a single island when viewed from the veranda at right.


Shigemori's famous ichimatsu-inspired pattern of paving stones in the North Garden. The trees in the back are Japanese maples.

An overview of Shigemori's career can be found in the January 2012 Focus, as well as a review of the remarkable exhibition of his work at Watari-um, which reconstructed parts of the Tofukuji gardens indoors. A genius and a polymath, Shigemori never formally apprenticed himself to a traditional garden designer; his first love was ikebana. But at the time of the Tofukuji commission, in 1938, he had just completed a mammoth three-year survey of gardens throughout Japan that culminated in a 26-volume work on the subject. So he knew his stuff.

One of Shigemori's inspirations: the checkerboard pattern of the Fumon-in garden by an anonymous Edo-era designer. In the back is the unique Kaizan-do hall, an Important Cultural Property.

Zen gardens are notable for the stark rocks-and-sand landscapes of the karesansui style, which we tend to think of as visual renderings of satori, the state of enlightenment. In fact, those motifs owe more to Chinese and Japanese mythology in their frequent evocation of Horai, the isles of the immortals, and the crane and the turtle, auspicious symbols of longevity. Shigemori did not dispense with these stock images, but created variants unprecedented in the Japanese gardening tradition. His tour-de-force, the large South Garden at the Abbott's Hall, is dominated by four massive rock clusters, representing the Horai isles, that thrust both laterally and vertically on a scale unseen in previous temple gardens. At the center is a towering monolith of twisted, gnarly lava that looks almost threatening -- yet its deformity hints at the mirages that allegedly gave birth to the Horai myth, and that, apparently, was Shigemori's intention.

The cylindrical foundation stones of the East Garden, laid out in the shape of the Big Dipper constellation.

Surrounding the rocks is an ocean-like expanse of raked white gravel, much like that of better-known gardens at Ryoanji and elsewhere. At the opposite end, however, comes another surprise: five mossy mounds, symbolizing the five main temples of Rinzai Zen. Whereas most Zen gardens were designed to let moss gradually encroach from the periphery, Shigemori abhorred this practice and inserted a straight diagonal edge -- made of concrete, no less -- that separates the moss from the gravel.

Such innovations notwithstanding, the South Garden is not a particularly radical departure from earlier Zen gardens. The elements that brought Shigemori fame and controversy -- lauded overseas while castigated by many critics at home -- were more dramatic, and can be seen in the other three, smaller gardens around the Hojo.

The "crane" (left) and "turtle" (right) rock groupings designed by Sesshu Toyo (1420-1506) and restored by Shigemori in the garden at Funda-in, on the Tofukuji grounds.

Best known, perhaps, is the North Garden, in which Shigemori laid square paving stones in a moss-embedded checkerboard pattern that gradually diffuses into apparent randomness, fading out altogether at the far end of the garden. Yet this gentle dispersion cleverly draws the eye to the stand of Japanese maples beyond. In autumn these trees provide a glorious crimson contrast to the gray parade of stones in their deep green setting. Shigemori repeated the checkerboard motif in the Western Garden, a dense, symmetrical array of square-cut azalea bushes.

It was Shigemori's bold introduction of straight lines and grids like these that earned him the ire of Japanese traditionalists, as well as plaudits from abroad as the "Mondrian of Japan" -- though Shigemori himself was fond of pointing out that his first use of such designs predated Mondrian. Indeed, he says he was inspired by the centuries-old ichimatsu checked pattern that can be found on the walls of the Shokin-tei teahouse at Kyoto's celebrated Katsura Imperial Villa, built in the 17th century. But Shigemori's design is also a response to another, older garden on the grounds of Tofukuji. Designed by an anonymous artist in the mid-Edo era, the Fumon-in garden consists of a stretch of sand raked into perfect squares.

Shigemori's homage to Sesshu's crane and turtle at the eastern end of the Funda-in garden, viewed through the window of the Tonantei teahouse.

Just as controversial as Shigemori's checkerboards was the East Garden, in which seven truncated, carved-stone cylinders take the place of the usual rocks in an otherwise conventional arrangement of sea-like swirls of raked gravel, moss lapping at the edges. Initially these artificial shapes strike the uninitiated viewer as a modernist's conceit -- actually, they are foundation stones that Shigemori recycled from the temple's old outhouse. They are also highly symbolic: the seven pillars are laid out like the stars of the Big Dipper, the constellation known as the Seven Northern Stars in Japanese. Upon entering a Buddhist temple, one uses a dipper to wash the hands and rinse the mouth, so the garden also represents a ritual of purification.

Those of us who are fond of Zen gardens of the more orthodox variety may experience a bit of a learning curve in coming to appreciate Shigemori's more experimental efforts. So it was a pleasant surprise to encounter his contribution to Funda-in, another Tofukuji sub-temple, where his work tastefully complements the existing garden, laid out in the 15th century by the renowned Zen artist-monk Sesshu. One of Kyoto's oldest dry-landscape compositions, the garden's centerpiece is two rock groupings representing a crane and a turtle. Both had fallen into disrepair (the crane had been completely demolished) and Shigemori was called in to restore them. This he did, in modest albeit highly abstract fashion. Rather than mess with Sesshu's success, he confined his own innovative impulses to a delightfully low-key extension of the garden at its eastern end, where he laid out a series of small stones in what appears to be a linear deconstruction of the original crane and turtle. For a sublime view of this arrangement, look at it through the circular window of the adjoining Tonantei teahouse.

Though he went on to design some 200 more gardens, so masterful was Shigemori's work at Tofukuji that many believe it to be the high watermark of his career, and he himself bemoaned his inability to top it. However, that career is bracketed by an equally impressive achievement: his final project, a series of three gardens at Matsuo Shrine (also in Kyoto), which he was working on when he died in 1975. The last one he completed there, the "Garden of Ancient Times," is a wild jumble of sharp boulders protruding at crazy angles from a jungle of bamboo grass. Inspired, Shigemori said, by the sacred rocks worshipped by Shinto devotees (of which he was one), it triggers archetypal visions of druidic ruins and Easter Island totems. Almost brutally powerful, it is a far cry from the solemn, meditative arrays at Tofukuji.

The famous Tsutenkyo covered bridge at Tofukuji, one of Kyoto's top tourist attractions. Throngs flood the temple grounds during the peak season for autumn foliage, when the maples that fill the ravine below surround the bridge with a sea of red.

All photos by Alan Gleason


Matsuo Taisha
Mirei Shigemori Residence

Alan Gleason
Alan Gleason is a translator, editor and writer based in Tokyo, where he has lived for 28 years. In addition to writing about the Japanese art scene he has edited and translated works on Japanese theater (from kabuki to the avant-garde) and music (both traditional and contemporary).
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