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Borrowed Landscapes

“Landscape brings to mind the earliest modern usage of the term, in the seventeenth-century, which applied ‘landscape’ to ‘a picture representing natural inland scenery.’ Only later was ‘landscape’ applied to actual scenery . . . landscapes are never stationary, but are constantly in transition. Some changes are predictable. There are the complex, superimposed cyclical patterns that result from planetary motion, diurnal cycles of light and darkness and the succession of seasons. . . Besides these regular, predictable changes, catastrophic changes irregularly intrude on those patterns in the form of both natural disasters and human-caused natural calamities.”  

 Arnold Berleant, from Aesthetics beyond the Arts: New and Recent Essays (2012)

So much of the human work attempting to shape the Earth into a more habitable version of itself, into a kind of second nature, seeks to recreate the planet’s inherent features into more stable and quintessential forms. Those idealized spaces have been imagined and prototyped in the traditional ink brush and printmaking traditions of East Asia. Two-dimensional images and three-dimensional gardens have been in continuous representational exchange, serving as reciprocal reference for each other over centuries.


The Chinese text Mustard Seed Garden: A Chinese Painter's Manual (1782) gives pictorial instruction using examples of landscape elements–shaped rocks, slopes, trees–that can be employed to compose a landscape on paper. The resulting scenes are imaginary in one sense, but are made quite real in others, for arguably the construction of traditional Chinese and Japanese gardens are the sculptural manifestations of the painter’s conceit. Garden architects borrowed from paintings, and painters borrowed back from gardens.

From Mustard Seed Garden: A Chinese Painter's Manual (1782).

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Further still, garden-makers have long borrowed from the landscape as a way to simultaneously naturalize the garden and cultivate nature at the same time, and in this way “unify” the two. Borrowed landscape or borrowed scenery (借景) is a concept from traditional East Asian gardening in which naturally occurring features of the surrounding environs are visually incorporated into the garden. The garden is designed so that its manicured foreground fuses mimetically and metonymically with the forms of the hills in the more distant background.


landscape at

the Adachi Museum

Yasugi, Japan.

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Borrowed landscape

emerging at the seaside reconstruction zone in Kesennuma.


In the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami and the ongoing recovery efforts, the notion of borrowed landscape has taken on additional–and very material–layers of meaning as coastal towns reconfigure the land by building hills, embankments, levees, and berms of every conceivable kind to mitigate the risk of future tsunamis.

A seaside reconstruction zone in Ishinomaki. 

In the background is a hill, up which many people evacuated and found safety from the tsunami in one of the most directly hit districts of the city, Kadonowaki .

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Ishinomaki was perhaps the hardest-hit town on the Sanriku coast, with 3,900 residents dead or missing and fifty thousand buildings destroyed. The commercial and residential district of Kadonowaki was scraped and flattened by the tsunami; seven years later the cleanup is still in process. Like all the coastal towns of this region, Ishinomaki is also constructing new concrete fortifications on the shore, but unlike the towns of Kesennuma or Minami-Sanriku, very few new residential buildings will be allowed. The former city district is instead being turned into a forty-hectare garden, a large landscaped park modeled on wetlands that existed prior to the area’s urbanization.

Called Ishinomaki Minamihama Tsunami Recovery Memorial Park, it will be a garden created to both mitigate and memorialize. The plan specifies a plaza for mourning as well as a prayer monument to those who died in the disaster. Some of the roads that existed before the tsunami will remain, reminding people of the place's former life. As a site of reflection and contemplation, the park will certainly serve a similar function to many traditional Japanese gardens; however, the terraforming of its lakes, hills, and groves is directed not only towards visual pleasure, but also the awareness of future threats. After all, wetlands are thought to work as a natural buffer to tsunamis, as are wooded groves and forests, albeit with varying degrees of success.^  Such preventative thinking was certainly central to the design of this garden’s pine grove to be planted on the slopes of the sea fortification.

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The park plan also indicates the creation of hinan tsukiyama (避難 築山)—an artificial evacuation hill, which provides higher ground for when the next tsunami strikes. Interestingly, tsukiyama is a term traditionally used to describe artificial hills built as miniaturized landscape in the specific context of a garden. With this particular evacuation hill, then, the pictorial ideal of a mountain and the prophylactic hill come together as one. Within the packed earth of the landscaped hill is also packed a duality between the imagined harmony of human/nature on the one hand, and the recognition of nature's predictably destructive powers on the other. 

The fusion of such poetic and pragmatic imaginings may seem contradictory, even ironic. However, recalling that “garden” in the English language derives from gard (“enclosure”), and that in Japanese, “garden” (niwa, 庭) is synonymous with “courtyard,” the simultaneous emulation of nature and protection from it that characterizes Ishinomaki’s new park makes a certain kind of sense. Still, the feeling of facing confinement by all the new protective  construction is very real.^ This tending of the landscape and its aesthetics is increasingly less about perceiving features of the local environment and more about perceiving the risks that seem to dwell within the unpredictable qualities of natural phenomena.

From Niwa (The Garden), 2007.

by Yuichi Yokoyama


"Let's take a running jump and try

to climb it."

"do-do-do-do- (the sound of running)

"What do you think this high wall is?"

"An elegant garden."

"Without doubt it's a park."

"Let's go in."

One of the most famous architectural sites in Kyōto is a temple and garden complex called Jishōji, better known as Ginkakuji, or The Temple of the Silver Pavilion. The pavilion within the garden was meant to be coated in silver when it was constructed in the fifteenth century. Although that never happened, the silvery name relates equally well to the argent grey sands found all along the paths of this Zen temple’s garden. In fact, two of the garden's best-known features are made of sand: the Kōgetsudai (Moon-Facing Platform), which is a two-meter-tall cone evocative of Mount Fuji, and the Ginshadan (Sea of Silver Sand). As such, Ginkakuji is a paragon of Japanese dry rock gardening, a miniature landscape connecting the eternal (and eternally changing) relationship between sea to land, ocean to mountain.

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Left: Kōgestsudai stone garden (Ginkakuji, Kyōto). Supposedly evocative of Mt. Fuji, though some historians speculate it originated as an incidental pile of construction sand.  


Above: The Ginshadan or “Sea of Silver Sand” that is said to  represent waves on the ocean. 


 How did these two emblematic features originate? Apparently, there is little in the historical record to explain them. Japanese garden scholar Louise Kuck hypothesizes that the mountainous Kōgetsudai was, in fact, unplanned. “The cone,” she writes, “may have been, originally, simply a pile of extra sand to be drawn on as needed in renewing the paths.” I wonder about what spontaneous, scenic mountains may be born of the innumerable construction piles found along the Sanriku coast today.

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Construction gravel in the Minamihama Recovery Memorial Park in Ishinomaki.

A view of the massive hill building in the reconstruction of bayside Minami-Sanriku in the past few years (as seen through Google Earth).

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