By Masako Ikegami, ASLA
Few landscape architects embody an aesthetic style as striking and intertwined with a country’s identity as Mirei Shigemori. His landscapes in Japan are one of the greatest representations of the karesansui style, a dry garden that uses neither ponds nor streams but is latent with references to nature. This master designer’s palette includes ripples of stone, deliberately-placed boulders, and highly-sculpted plantings. Each element represents the natural world, not a deletion of it. Indeed, the beauty of Shigemori’s garden is in its exercise of abstraction, not elimination.
In a new book, Mirei Shigemori — Rebel in the Garden, landscape architect Christian Tschumi deconstructs the multiple influences represented in the outward simplicity of Shigemori’s iconic gardens.
Shigemori is presented as an omnivorous seeker of knowledge. By focusing on the complex passions of this landscape master — his upbringing, lifelong pursuits, scholarship and publications, family, and spirituality — the book succeeds in creating a nuanced perspective.
In the first part, Tschumi explains that Shigemori was a practitioner of chado – the art of tea; ardent student of ikebana, the art of flower arranging; one of the first designers to survey all of the gardens in Japan; author of 81 published books; and a designer of 239 gardens. Given the breadth of his interests, it is reasonable to wonder if Shigemori would have called himself a landscape architect. He was a true polymath.
Born in 1896 in Okayama prefecture, Shigemori is enterprising and artistic from his youth; building himself his own chashitsu Tea Room in his teen years and embarking on an education in nihonga (traditional Japanese painting) at the Tokyo Fine Arts School.
Imagine a time in Japan before the Shinkansen bullet trains between Tokyo and Kyoto were first made available in 1964, years before Narita International Airport opened to serve as a gateway for global travel. In the few photos of the man himself, Shigemori is highly engaged, wearing a hakama (traditional Japanese men’s attire) and serving tea, or a three piece suit while accompanying Isamu Noguchi at a stone quarry in mid 1950’s.
The author mentions in a rather factual manner that 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. What is implied in this observation of Shigemori’s nom de guerre?
The book then explores a number of Shigemori’s landscapes in detail, including the Maegaki Residence. Built in 1955, this residential garden demonstrates the emergence of Shigemori’s signature style of the undulating line, cut out of stone as if to frame the rectilinear nature of property lines and the engawa veranda typical of traditional homes. Tschumi states this garden was designed early in his career, but at this point Shigemori is just shy of sixty years old. Shown below is the generous residence of a sake brewer, with three distinct garden areas in the front and back of the house.
The South Garden located in the back of the house is entirely visible and unified with the interior space. The placement of risseki (standing stones) is intended for the viewer imagine boats out in the sea, a mythical journey to the islands of the immortals.
Tschumi offers a thorough analysis of the garden with Shigemori’s own words, which were a rebuke of what he deemed the amateur nature of gardens in Japan at the time. “People tend to think that anybody can make a garden, without any education or original ideas. A lack of insight on the part of the owner, and knowledge on behalf of the garden maker, provides for many tasteless gardens.” Shigemori is seeking a way to connect to timeless, essential beauty through his artistic endeavors. Lucky is the artist who himself is immortalized in the many gardens still in the care of clients who relish his work.
Perhaps the Japanese term haikara, though colloquial, is an apt description of Shigemori’s personality. Haikara describes a certain type of Japanese gentleman with a Western flair, derived from the English “high collar” fashion popular during the Meiji Era (1868 – 1912). To use a personal example: my grandfather would have shokupan (sliced milk bread) for breakfast and was considered haikara because he didn’t have the traditional choice of asagohan (rice for breakfast).
Much has been written about how Japanese culture at all levels demonstrates a competition between two opposing forces: modernity and tradition. In simple terms, modernity is often seen as rooted in westernization, and at times an incursion into or dilution of Japanese tradition. But the limitations of such discussions are obvious, and Tschumi is careful not to steep in this theme, allowing the reader to imagine a more complex man in Shigemori.
The majority of the publication focuses on present-day photographs of Shigemori’s landscapes and detailed plans collected by the author with the cooperation with Shigemori’s estate. The projects are astonishingly simple yet staggeringly beautiful. And the reader is again left to question how Shigemori could embark on so many creative endeavors in one lifetime. One quibble: the photography does not depict people and is deliberately devoid of any visitors or caretakers. In reality, droves of visitors admire Shigemori’s landscapes, so they require rigorous maintenance.
In my experience, visiting Tofuku-ji Hojo in Kyoto is like the moment you finally arrive at Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa at the Louvre Museum in Paris.
As visitors to Japan seek out Shigemori’s landscapes, which they may view as aesthetic experiences quintessential to Japanese culture, one actually finds the world at his landscapes. It is a safe bet that a log of visitors to Shigemori’s public gardens would demonstrate more international traffic than any regional airport. This reverse haikara — foreigners flocking to Kyoto to take in Japanese culture and aesthetics — is perhaps driven by the same impulse of the Japanese dandies: in studying the other, they find more of themselves.
Masako Ikegami, ASLA, is a marketing associate with SWA Group in Los Angeles.