Chisen-kaiyu (or “stroll garden”) is a well-known form of Japanese garden design. These types of garden were originally intended as recreational sites for the wealthy and formed part of the estates of aristocrats and feudal lords during the Edo period (1603–1868), when they reached their peak.
One of the key elements of chisen-kaiyu is space – they are often constructed over several acres. The space is not intended for exercise, however, but to provide stimulation for the stroller’s mind. They are designed to incorporate a combination of vistas and hidden paths.
Great importance is placed on the path that leads through the garden, traditionally made of bamboo, and which is typically set around a large central feature such as a pond or small lake. The significance of the path in chisen-kaiyu gardens comes from the fact that they were originally developed at a time when travel around the country was severely limited by the central government. Since the feudal lords of the time were unable to travel freely, private gardens were created with the aim of creating an “excursion.” As such, the name chisen-kaiyu emphasizes the principal elements of the garden, Chisen, meaning “pond-spring,” if the garden is centered on a pond fed by springs, and kaiyu, meaning “relaxed circuit” or “excursion,” if the garden is designed to be toured on foot in a leisurely fashion.
A number of “scenes” would be built in the gardens to remind visitors of famous places from around the country. In traveling along the “garden path,” visitors would be able to take “excursions” designed for them by the garden’s host. A chisen-kaiyu garden is typically built to incorporate moods of anticipation, suspense, and discovery. The idea is not to view the whole garden from any one particular point but for it to contain hidden elements to be discovered over rises, around bends, and behind bushes.
This way, the garden is experienced as a series of “events,” not just as a static view. It is designed as something to participate in and not simply observe. The trick is to make the path an exciting journey and for strollers to stop on their way around the garden to appreciate a particularly fine arrangement of trees or a flower, for example. Aside from the path and central pond, other typical features include bridges, teahouses, lanterns, and decorative fences. This type of garden is also home to a wide variety of rich colors, striking flowers, and exotic trees.
Visitors are encouraged to take their time exploring and the whole garden is designed to work as an artistic production, something known as miegakure (“hide and reveal”), and characterized by unity and harmony.
The setting out of a chisen-kaiyu garden in a very deliberate way, drawing the visitor through the garden by presenting them with a series of unfolding scenes, as well as the technique of “layering” views, is what distinguishes it from a more “normal” type of garden.
This chisen-kaiyu style of stroll garden features in Kenrokuen garden, the garden in Oyaja-jinja Shrine, and the Gyokusen-in Maru Garden in Kanazawa Castle Park. Kenrokuen, developed from the 1620s to the 1840s, is regarded as one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan.
Photo: Kanazawa City