Isuien is located in Nara, several miles to the southeast of Kyoto and the site of the capital for several decades prior to 794. The garden lies just southwest of the great Todaiji temple and is actually two separate gardens. The small lower or western garden is built around a pond with two islands representing the crane and turtle, the classic symbols of longevity. It was built in the early Edo period around the 1670's by Kiyosumi Michikiyo, a wealthy textile merchant who managed to escape the sumptuary laws.
Momentos of Kiyosumi's trade make an appearance in the larger, eastern garden built by Tojiro Seki, another Nara merchant in the early 1890's. This so-called rear or upper garden was probably designed by Horitoku, a garden architect patronized by the Ura Senke school of Tea. Another retainer of the Ura Senke school, the carpenter, Kimura Seibei, was commissioned to build Hyoshintei, the pavilion on the west side of the pond.
The pond in the eastern garden inscribes the Chinese character for "water" and contains a small island, reached by the millstones mentioned above. The basic layout is a stroll garden with some artificial hills, three-tiered waterfall and minimal rockwork, much being replaced by topiaried azaleas as was common throughout the Meiji period.
This garden is another excellent example of scenery external to the garden being capture alive. The shakkei here, intended for a viewer near the Hyoshintei pavilion captures the three hills of Nara, Wakakusa, Kasuga and Mikusa, which are foregrounded by the upper part of the South Gate of Todaiji. The capture is effected by the nearby woods of Himuro Shrine, framing the view and trimming out the intervening ground plane.
The two larger gardens on east and west are separated by a much more modestly scaled tea garden with two pavilions at either end connected by a path of stepping stones.
Itoh Teiji. Space and Illusion. Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1973, p. 43.
Mori Osamu. Teien Shohakka. Tokyo: Tokyo-do, 1993, p. 319-320.
Nietschke, Gunter. Japanese Gardens: Right angle and natural form. Cologne: Taschen, 1993, p. 220-221.
When the floating bridge
Of the dream of a spring night
Was snapped, I awoke:
In the sky a bank of clouds
Was drawing away from the peak.
Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241) Shinkokin Wakashû trans. by Donald Keene