Welcome to the Tsubo-en diary. Thanks for stopping by and reading. If you have any questions feel free to email us or post in the comment sections of one of the posts you'll find here.
     Marijke & Piet.

Tag search

Follow us

Slow Blog Button: Go to Manifesto discussion.

A new type of modern karesansui garden


Ryogin-an, one of Tofuku-ji sub-temples, Kyoto, has Japan\’s oldest Hojo building, that was built around 1387. The Rinzai-shu sect temple has beautiful modern karesansui gardens that were laid out in 1964 by Shigemori Mirei (1896-1975) who was the first to use red, blue and dark-grey gravel.

In my second article on the subject ‘Your own Japanese garden’ Part one and Part two, I list the Japanese garden archetypes as defined by the Tokyo Agricultural University.

Modern Gardens from the last century and a half

I must say that we are very impressed by many of Mirei Shigemori’s and Shunmyo Masuno’s, “works of art”. Shunmyo Masuno started to build gardens some 10 years after Mirei Shigemori ‘s death. On the website of Shunmyo Masuno and in his profile I did not find any reference to Shigemori or his work. Nonetheless, although his master was Katsuo Saito, it would be hard to believe that Shunmyo Masuno has not been influenced and inspired by the works of Shigemori. Although his “innovations” are not as extreme as some of Shigomiri’s, some designs come very close in their “modernism”.

Important properties and characteristics of the modern Zen-garden are reduced maintenance effort and use of new materials as well as different ways of treating these materials. Designs need to take into account the often small plots located in densely populated area’s. The use of hewn stone is a break from ancient traditions of using stones as they where found in nature. Use of stainless steel, iron, polished stone, concrete and even “rocks” of glass can be seen more often and are no longer an exception nor a taboo.

It is an interesting distinction to suggest that natural materials should be used in their natural state to symbolize nature. Is it possible for this to be a matter of degree ? That is, can we truly distinguish between refined gravel and concrete from the perspective of pure and unspoiled nature ?

If at all possible, perhaps these gardens have become even more, “works of art” based on gardens rather than being a garden in the classical sense, an idealized abstraction of nature. This may then in particular apply to the gardens with the lowest grade of planting.

Mirei Shigemori (1896-1975)

This includes A “new type of karesansui garden” or “modern karesansui garden” by Mirei Shigemori. This type is not (yet) included in the list Archetypes of garden archetypes according to the Tokyo Agricultural University, but gets more and more recognition as a distinct type, perhaps not so much as a new archetype.


Tofuku-ji. The northern garden of Hojo in autumn.

The stone in cement like that in Fukuchi-in and in Kyokusui no Niwa (Matsuo Taisha) are very impressive.
And then the fabulous concrete tsukiyama like in Hõkoku Jinja. These all come more close to “3-dimensional paintings” than anything else. With that I mean that they also get closer to the maintenance effort that a real painting requires and that for some owners and owning institutions is much more affordable.

I think that Shigemori brought in the contemporary spirit of the modern times i.e. bringing in more pragmatism regarding the maintainability and maintenance effort (read cost) involved in owning a garden.


Komyozen-ji, Fukuoka. A garden by Mirei Shigemori.

The Tenrai-an tea-garden has an extreme high level of concrete and cement compositions. Regarding that work Shigemori himself gives two reasons for the choice of material, and these both have to do with minimizing the required maintenance effort.

“For centuries the karesansui garden had mainly been a symbolic representation of the natural landscape. Then the Kyoto artist and scholar Shigemori Mirei (1896-1975) set out to explore ways to transform this traditional Japanese Garden type. His background as a painter allowed him to see several new ways to do so. Shigemori introduced lines, shapes and colors to the karesansui garden. Also he departed from the usual reference to a historical or natural landscape and based some of his new gardens on a story or the images a place’s name evokes. The result is a new type of karesansui garden.”

From: A Study of a New Type of Karesansui Garden [ a ] by Christian Tschumi.

Mirei Shigemori decisively shaped the development of Japanese landscape architecture in the twentieth century. He founded the Kyoto Garden Society in 1932 and published the 26-volume Illustrated Book on the History of the Japanese Garden in 1938. One year later he designed his own first masterwork, the garden of the main hall of Tôfuku-ji Temple. Between then and his death in 1975, he went on to design 240 gardens throughout Japan. Among the most famous are the Tenrai-an tea garden (1969) and the Matsuo Taisha garden (1975). All of his gardens are distinguished by the fact that they honor tradition while at the same time through their openness to Western modernity they free themselves from their weight and develop a language of their own.

Some books about Mirei Shigemori and his gardens are by Christian Tschumi:

In the many selected genuine and authentic examples from Japan in Cross-reference or per Subject-domain on the Tsubo-en pages, you can find a number of examples from the hand of Mirei Shigemori.

Shunmyo Masuno (1953)

Shunmyo Masuno of Kenkoh-ji temple is a modern day Zen priest who through this art form, strives to express his spiritual self.


Hotel Kohjimachi-kaikan (Hotel Le Port), Japan. The garden was created by Shunmyo Masuno in 1998.

The now 57-years old professor of garden design lives in Yokohama, Japan’s second largest city. Masuno is an 18th generation Zen priest, and the very last of his order still engaged in garden creation. Masuno’s gardens reflect the combined inspiration of Japanese and Buddhist traditions. Significantly, the Zen monk has not withdrawn from the modern world. On the contrary, his designs can be found today in the great, modern cities of Tokyo and Yokohama. For the stressed inhabitants of these metropolises the artist has endeavored to create oases of quiet and serenity.

Shunmyo considers both viewing and creating gardens his most critical moments of ascetic practice.

A famous Zen saying is, “when venomous snake drinks water, it becomes poison. When cow drinks water it becomes milk”.
This suggests that whether the garden becomes poison or milk is dependent on the creator.

Shunmyo Masuno considers it his responsibility to create gardens, composed of stones and metaphors, which invite their visitors to adopt a simpler, more serene world-view. To accomplish this task he places particular significance on a dialog with the particular garden’s elements, as to where they ought to be placed:

“I think that the most important thing in executing a design is to talk to the plants and stones and hear what they themselves have to say about how they wish to be laid out.”

Unfortunately we do not own more photo’s of his gardens that we can place here. The one shown is not an example of a karesansui garden but the link below leads to a collection of fine examples of his “dry” works as well, as Shunmyo himself has a beautiful website with a great collection of photo’s of his gardens.

Shunmyo Masuno + Japan Landscape Consultants. An excellent website dedicated to Shunmyo Masuno you can see some beautiful examples of modern Japanese gardens domestic and overseas.
For a list of publications by Shunmyo Masuno see the relevant section on the above mentioned website.

To see a beautiful 26 minutes filmed portrait of Shunmyo Masuno and his creations by Off-The-Fence ( 21st Century Garden Art – Episode 8 ) go to the Video clips page and scroll to “The Zen Gardens of Shunmyo Masuno.” close to the end of the list. Or this link for a better size videoclip.

Literature: The Modern Japanese Garden by Freeman/Nosé. Mitchell Beazley, London (2002), ISBN 1-84000-505.

Related: How to typify, architect and compose a Japanese garden ? Specifics on the realization of Tsubo-en, Monochrome landscape ink painting examples, Tsukiyama and stone setting.