10 Small Courtyard Garden Design Ideas

The most precarious motion occurs as garden stones rise when approaching a veranda. The ascent turns especially thrilling at Katsura in two garden paths that climb up to the elevated verandas of the Middle and Old Shoins. Flatter stones give way to ever-higher boulders and their routes begin to stagger almost haphazardly, causing the walker to bob up and down along the ascent, suggesting ‘the desultory flight of a butterfly’. 32

Human exploits on other stone series at Katsura are amplified by crossing eventful garden textures, whose passing allure of moss and roots diverts the eye and widens the margin of error in movement, as seen in the stepping stones to the Shokatei.

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The route established by square-cut granite blocks skirting the Onrin-do traverses bands of smaller, closely fitted stones, and in one instance a pebbled rain gutter. In all these cases one has the impression of a long and momentous journey, where motion is enriched with pauses and twists, turning this way or that, bending down to see a detail with greater clarity, balancing on one stone or another – and for visitors today to do this while also aiming a camera.

The indeterminate garden walk has parallels with the game of Go, which originated in China more than 2,500 years ago and spread to Japan in the seventh century AD. In the game, players set black and white stones on a board to mark out key strategic positions, to be subsequently filled in according to circumstances, while in the garden walk the first stepping stones placed by the gardener function as initial markers, their vague choreography then completed by positioning other stones between. The rough plan of action in Go, a technique called fuseki, as Kiyoyuki Nichihara points out, is essentially the same as the initial stone placements in yakumono (‘things with a purpose’) garden design, their preliminary moves deployed as ‘focal points for action based on an idea of what the future situation will be’. 33

Another peak of agility occurs when arriving at a teahouse, enhancing awareness that one is about to enter a world set apart from everyday life. While perched atop rising stones, visitors slip off their shoes and bend to squeeze through a small door, the nijiriguchi (‘crawling-in space’), an act meant to induce humility but also requiring dexterity, making people conscious of their bodily contortions and, hopefully, grace. This passage rite is preceded by an even more astonishing feat along the garden path to the Fushin-an teahouse (p. 48) at Omoto-senke, Kyoto, eliciting an elaborate manoeuvre through a sliding door, a nakakuguri (‘middle crawl-through gate’), in a freestanding wall. After scrambling up the rocks on one side, a person must then stretch in mid-air through a square opening, without aid of a floor at either side, and, while straddling this opening, balance his weight while withdrawing the rear foot and recovering his balance on another stone on the far side.

Even a simple bridge in the Japanese garden has acrobatic undertones. At their most delightfully primitive these crossings are reduced to a single stone slab set over a ‘river’ of moss or pebbles, or actual water. The Shirakawa bridge at Katsura (p. 48), for instance, is a granite monolith only slightly chiselled when taken from the quarry, its upper surface then further roughened to stimulate the foot while enhancing traction. The water-crossing slab to the amanohashidate (‘bridge to heaven’), also at Katsura, has a slight upward curvature, prompting a mild kinesthesia of ascent and descent, a curving trajectory taken to far greater heights in the steep, earth-covered bridges that begin and end with near-vertical steps (p. 49) – a gravitational adventure derived from China.

A special place in the Japanese repertoire of light-footed motion belongs to the zig-zag bridge, as in the recurring offsets of paired boards at the garden of Murin-an Villa (p. 49) in.

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