Shinden Garden (Shinden Teien) Heian Period, c. 9th -12th centuries

gardens of this type once occupied the estates of the nobility in and around the capital city of Heian-kyo (Kyoto). The principal feature of such gardens, a large pond, lay adjacent to a residential complex called a shinden, which consisted of a number of buildings connected by open roofed corridors. A brook feeding the pond meandered through the shinden complex passing beneath the raised floors of the open corridors. Usually one such corridor also led to a kiosk built out over the water.

Such gardens were frankly sensory in their appeal, pleasurable environments to serve as backdrops for the elegant amusements of the Heian nobility such as impromptu exchanges of poetry. Access to the garden was principally by boat; Heian dress, at least for women, did not facilitate strolling out-of-doors.

No examples of shinden-style gardens exist intact today; our knowledge of them derives from the vestiges of a few remaining ponds, hand scrolls painted near the end of the period, descriptions in literature such as The Tale of Genji, and an early treatise on garden design, Sakuteiki, written in the 11th century.

AT THE MORIKAMI, two landscaped islands situated in the lake around which The Morikami’s gardens are laid out represent the shinden-style garden. The islands are reached by a stately arched bridge similar to those often painted vermillion in Japan after models originating in T’ang Dynasty China (618 – c. 907). Shinden ponds in Japan usually featured similar islands, one of which would have been reached by such a bridge. Other islands may have been connected by low, level bridges, a precedent also followed here.

From the islands a view to the northeast reveals a waterfall feeding the lake. Shinden lakes were similarly fed by a cascade originating in the northeast corner of the estate; here moved to the lake shore since no shinden actually exists. Between the waterfall and the lake a small bridge crosses the brook, a detail which characters from The Tale of Genji would surely recognize.

The word “shinden” can carry other meanings, apart from that of a residence of the Heian nobility, when written with different characters. One meaning is ‘god’s place’. According to the garden designer, the word’s spiritual connotations also enter into his conception of the island gardens. They represent a symbolic transition where worldly concerns are left behind, where visitors might begin to sense the spirituality of nature as distilled and interpreted in the Japanese garden.