Rocks in Japan have long been seen as sacred, John Dougill of Green Shinto points out. In Shinto there are ‘spirit-bodies’ made of rock which form the object of worship, the idea being that ancestral spirits descend into them and are made manifest. These special rocks, known as iwakura, are hung with rice rope and treated with reverence. In Buddhism too rocks are revered, and all over Japan are bibbed stones representing Jizo, guardian of the dead.
One person very much aware of the potency of rocks was a seminal twentieth-century Japanese garden designer, Shigemori Mirei ((1896-1975). The Hojo Garden, Tofukuji Temple (1939) is among over 90 religious and domestic gardens he created.
A great place to get view his work is at the The Mirei Shigemori Residence in Kyoto, which I had the pleasure of visiting on a Community House and Information Center trip in 2019. The residence is a traditional town house dating from the middle Edo period (1789) with an adjoining garden and tea ceremony pavilions. A follower of Shinto, Mirei’s house in which he lived near Kyoto University had belonged to a line of priests from nearby Yoshida Jinja.
‘Nature is a world made by the gods,’ he once wrote, and in an essay on the Japanese garden he identified nature worship as the source. The house belonged to the Shinto order, “Suzuka”, of nearby Yoshida Shrine and was acquired from the order by Shigemori for his family in 1943. He designed 180 gardens in Japan. Shigemori’s work reflects this idea of culturally grounded innovation.
Throughout Shigemori’s career, regardless of medium he persistently questioned the traditional norms, and believed that Japanese garden design had stopped evolving since the Edo Period. His philosophical approach to Japanese garden design reinterpreted foreign influences to breathe new vitality to a traditional medium. He took uniquely Western design aesthetics and created an evolved Japanese garden.
Western influences shaped Mirei Shigemori’s life. For example, the name Mirei is not his birth name but one that he adopted in 1925 at age 29. The name refers to Jean-Francois Millet, a 19th Century French artist of pastoral landscapes and daily life.
He spoke extensively of the growing estrangement between people and the primordial power of nature, and his gardens are full of hybrid symbols that seek to reveal the cultural and natural histories their sites. Traditional garden forms are reinterpreted with modern materials and attempt to reengage the viewer with the ever developing continuum of Japanese culture.