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keys to japanese garden composition | hira-niwa or "flat gardens"

Today I’m going to talk about how we can gain some insight into balance and composition in Japanese gardens through looking at Hiran-Niwa Flat Gardens.

This style of garden shows how the dry rock gardens, or Karesansui, have continued to developed over time, as they start to employ characteristics from the tea garden as well.

The key point to this style of Japanese garden composition is balancing the flat horizontal plane with the upright volume of pruned shrubs and trees, rocks, and other garden ornaments. The designer is aiming to create layers of depth, which has a lot to do with the Japanese concept of Ma, or spatial design, which I have a whole video on if you haven’t checked it out yet I recommend watching that one after this video.

Hira-Niwa flat gardens were originally more of a residential garden and could also be seen next to temple residence halls, but without the strong spiritual symbolism used in Zen dry rock gardens. The minimalism used in this style of garden is a calming and pleasing one that also introduces more plant varieties toward the back of the garden scene, framing it.

Accents of garden ornaments like lanterns, pagodas, stepping stones, water basins etc. Can often be seen as bringing some human creativity and structure into the garden composition. For this time period (Edo Period, 17th – 18th centuries) it was really the first time you started to see Japanese lanterns, water basins, and stepping stones introduced into the Japanese garden through decorating rustic Japanese tea huts borrowing characteristics from tea gardens.

The flat areas in the foreground are usually made of gravel, sometimes sand or pebbles also, that symbolize water and movement, often being racked into various patterns. The designer controls the viewers flow of attention with the lines created by raking the patterns. This often represents the vast ocean or lake with shrubs pruned in the tamamono mound or dome style representing hills and mountains in the distance.

Hira-Niwa flat gardens also often, but not always, make use of background scenery, what they call shakkei. This borrowed scenery is often a beautiful mountain or maybe a temple in the distance. You can see it just over the top of the wall or hedge that defines the boundaries of the actual garden, again adding another layer of depth to the scene.

Another characteristic of this type of garden is that it is often seen from one viewing point. Unlike the kaiyu-shiki strolling gardens or tea house gardens with winding pathways, the viewer enjoys this garden from a specific viewing area or side. This type of garden is often viewed from a veranda, or engawa, where you have long shoji doors that open up to see the garden. So it’s not exactly one static viewing point, you can still see the garden from different angles, just not a 360 interactive view.

Think of it like you are creating or seeing a landscape painting. Compositionally there are things you can do to create that necessary depth and layers needed to spark the viewers imagination. Sometimes “islands” of moss or rocks are used in the foreground to create that depth. By focusing the composition on its basics of flat planes and volume structures you can see a relationship to minimalism, cubist art, and a natural modern style of Japanese garden.

The one problem that I have seen is with the maintenance of this style of garden. I can see why it evolved in residential areas where there are less tree leaves surrounding it. The cleanliness and simplistic beauty that holds this style together becomes completely undone when the flatness is broken up by weeds growing up from underneath it and leaves falling or blowing on it. I did a version of this as a display garden at our old garden center but eventually changed the style because the maintenance was overwhelming with all of the maple and elm trees towering nearby. You really have to take into consideration the surrounding environment for this type of garden to work.

If you’d like to go deeper on the aesthetic and spatial aspects of Japanese garden design watch my video on The Importance of Spatial Design in Japanese Gardens.

This is all a part of my Shizen Style, so I hope you can take something from this and find your own creative and natural style.

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