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Posts tagged lafcadio hearn

Japanese Gardens

I’m back from my winter vacation, although it seems strange calling it a vacation when I went from a cold, snowy place to a colder, snowier place. Hopefully you enjoyed the Italian offerings of the past couple weeks. We’ll turn back to Japan now.

On my trip I finished both volumes of Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan. I’ll share a few quotes and thoughts on the book here in the next week or so. To go along with the following quote I present the above photo which I took at ginkakuji in Kyoto last year.

“Now, a Japanese garden is not a flower garden; neither is it made for the purpose of cultivating plants. In nine cases out of ten there is nothing in it resembling a flower bed. Some gardens may contain scarcely a sprig of green; some have nothing green at all, and consist entirely of rocks and pebbles and sand, although these are exceptional. As a rule, a Japanese garden is a landscape garden, yet its existence does not depend upon any fixed allowance of space. It may cover one acre or many acres. It may also be only ten feet square…  Therein are created minuscule hills with minuscule houses upon them, and microscopic ponds and rivulets spanned by tiny humped bridges; and queer wee plants do duty for trees, and curiously formed pebbles stand for rocks, and there are tiny toro, perhaps a tiny torii as well, – in short, a charming and living model of a Japanese landscape.

Another fact of prime importance to remember is that, in order to comprehend the beauty of a Japanese garden, it is necessary to understand – or at least to learn to understand – the beauty of stones… Until you can feel, and keenly feel, that stones have character, that stones have tones and values, the whole artistic meaning of a Japanese garden cannot be revealed to you. In the foreigner, however aesthetic he may be, this feeling needs to be cultivated by study. It is inborn in the Japanese; the soul of the race comprehends Nature infinitely better than we do, at least in her visible forms. But although, being an Occidental, the true sense of the beauty of stones can be reached by you only through long familiarity with the Japanese use and choice of them, the characters of the lesson to be acquired exist everywhere about you, if your life be in the interior… At the approaches to temples, by the side of roads, before holy groves, and in all parks and pleasure-grounds, as well as in all cemeteries, you will notice large, irregular, flat slabs of natural rock, mostly from the river beds and water-worn, sculptured with ideographs, but unhewn. These have been set up as votive tablets, as commemorative monuments, as tombstones, and are much more costly than the ordinary cut-stone columns and haka chiseled with the figures of divinities in relief. Again, you will see before most of the shrines, nay, even in the grounds of nearly all large homesteads, great irregular blocks of granite or other hard rock, worn by the action of torrents, and converted into water-basins (chodzubachi) by cutting a circular hollow in the top. Such are but common examples of the utilization of stones even in the poorest villages; and if you have any natural artistic sentiment, you cannot fail to discover, sooner or later, how much more beautiful are these natural forms than any shapes from the hand of the stone-cutter. It is probable, too, that you will become so habituated at last to the sight of inscriptions cut upon rock surface, especially if you travel much through the country, that you will often find yourself involuntarily looking for texts or other chiselings where there are none, and could not possibly be, as if ideographs belonged by natural law to rock formation. And stones will begin, perhaps, to assume for you a certain individual or physiognomical aspect, – to suggest moods and sensations, as they do to the Japanese. Indeed, Japan is particularly a land of suggestive shapes in stone, as high volcanic lands are apt to be; and such shapes doubtless addressed themselves to the imagination of the race at a time long prior to the date of that archaic text which tells of demons in Izumo “who made rocks, and the roots of trees, and leaves, and the foam of the green waters to speak.” (Lafcadio Hearn, 1894, Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, p. 345)

Daibutsu 大仏

“No matter how many photographs of the colossus you may have already seen, this first vision of the reality is an astonishment. Then you imagine that you are already too near, though the image is at least a hudred yards away. As for me, I retire at once thirty or forty yards back, to get a better view. And the jinrikisha man runs after me, laughing and gesticulating, thinking that I imagine the image alive and am afraid of it.

But, even were that shape alive, none could be afraid of it. The gentleness, the dreamy passionlessness of those features, — the immense repose of the whole figure, — are full of beauty and charm. And, contrary to all expectation, the nearer you approach the giant Buddha, the greater this charm becomes. You look up into the solemnly beautiful face, — into the half closed eyes that seem to watch you through their eyelids of bronze as gently as those of a child; and you feel that the image typifies all that is tender and calm in the Soul of the East…

…a priest, who acts as guide, states the age of the statue to be six hundred and thirty years, and asks for some small contribution to aid in the erection of a new temple to shelter it from the weather.

For this Buddha once had a temple. A tidal wave following an earthquake swept walls and roof away, but left the mighty Amida unmoved, still meditating upon his lotus.” (Lafcadio Hearn, 1894, Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, pp. 78-79)

And here we are more than 110 years in the future and the new temple still hasn’t been built! I suppose the moral to this story is “Never trust the religious man asking for contributions.” 😉


“Blessed are they who do not too much fear the gods which they have made!…

Descending the shadowed steps, I find myself face to face with six little statues about three feet high, standing in a row upon one long pedestal. The first holds a Buddhist incense box; the second, a lotsu; the third, a pilgrim’s staff; the fourth, the beads of a Buddhist rosary; the fifth stands in the attitude of prayer, with hands joined; the sixth bears in one hand the shakujou, or mendicant priest’s staff, having six rings attached to the top of it, and in the other hand the mystic jewel, nioi houjiu, by virtue whereof all desires may be accomplished… Archaic, mysterious, but inexplicably touching, all these soft childish faces are.

Roku Jizou — “The Six Jizou” — these images are called in the speech of the people…” (Lafcadio Hearn, 1894, Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, pp. 35, 43)

Garden statue maker

“Most of us who now call ourselves agnostics can recollect the feelings with which, in the period of our fresh emancipation from a faith far more irrational than Buddhism, we looked back upon the gloomy theology of our fathers…

Japan has nothing whatever to gain by conversion to Christianity, either morally or otherwise, but very much to lose.” (Lafcadio Hearn, 1894, Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, pp. xii, xvi)