The plain upon which Kyoto sits is inclined slightly toward the north and sheltered on the east, west and north sides by low, rounded mountains, giving it a very human scale. The Kamo River, entering the city from the north is joined by the Takano at Demachiyanagi to flow straight down the east side and out toward the southwest. Laid out on a grid plan after the T'ang capital of Ch'ang-an, Kyoto was sited not only for its central location in the Kansai region but for its supposed geomantic properties. A site cradled by protective mountains on three sides with the highest mountain, Mt. Hiei, to the northeast (the
direction from which evil spirits were thought to come) and an opening to the south was seen as particularly auspicious. Kyoto residents have since come to see the mountains in their backyards as a mixed blessing as not only they block the cooling winds that might ease the humid summer, but also prevent the cold, damp air of winter from being swept away.
Nonetheless, proximity to these mountains has long been the site of choice for the well-to-do citizen. If one maps out the gardens and villas of Kyoto, they are almost all located on the outskirts of the original city grid, usually at the very foot of the mountains. When one could not have a mountain actually in the backyard, a superior view of it would suffice. These north, east and west "suburbs" that afforded such siting had been attractive almost from the founding of the capital in 794, but by the 16th century they were the only place of refuge for those who could afford it. Two hundred years of internecine warfare and numerous fires had taken its toll and any location of note within the city grid had been destroyed.
Tokugawa Ieyasu finally brought peace and reunification to the country in 1603, but despite its imp'verishment, the court aristocracy continued to seek refuge outside the city. The seat of government was moved to Edo ('Tokyo' after 1868),
a long trip to the east from Kyoto, but the Tokugawa continued to give financial aid to the imperial court in order to legitimize its own rule. The degree of support was much reduced, however. From its very establishment the Tokugawa government was beset with financial difficulty and could not afford to support a lavish imperial lifestyle. Like the temples of the time, the imperial family was forced to make do with less.
Despite its limited means, over the next one hundred years, the imperial family would be responsible for some the finest gardens ever constructed then or since, including: Sento Gosho, Entsuji, Shodenji, Shugakuin, and Katsura. In many ways this period was one of synthesis of the eclectic mixture of forms that had emerged from the previous period of chaos
before a long decline characterized by imitation and stagnation of the garden traditions.
In 1629, the Emperor Gomizuno (1596-1680) abdicated the throne while still a young man, following a long imperial tradition of relinquishment of power that had probably kept the succession of shogunates from exterminating the imperial line and setting up one of their own. While possessing no real political power, his strong personality had often set him at odds with the military government. The shogunate was grateful to see him step down and encouraged him to seek pastimes other than politics. Like his predecessors, he turned his attention to the cultivation of aesthetic pursuits, the most significant of which was garden and villa construction, and in the ensuing years he established three villas at Hataeda, Iwakura and Nagatani on the northern outskirts of the city. His primary residence was the imperial palace at Sento Gosho, but as the villas were completed from 1644 to 1650, he began taking retreats, alternating between them with the change of the seasons.
The modest "detached palace" at Hataeda, located about a kilometer due north of the city near what is
Ryoanji Temple, Kyoto
Only in the cloister
Could such a garden thrive, a soil where nature
Flowers in spiritual dryness,
Drawing an interior nurture
From sand and rock.
Where the labyrinth of illusion
No longer entangles the senses
Enmeshing vision in delusive lusters;
Where the lust of the eyes is silenced
And desire of forms, and names of forms,
Move to no visible end.
Those who planted here
Sowed no ephemeral seed
For the seasonal tempests to scatter,
But the silent root that ripens in detachment,
Flowers in renunciation.
Gardeners of eternity,
Those who planted here
Framed the garden in the image of a desert
And the desert in the image of a sea --
Then shrunk the seas to the mind's salt and, tasting,
Dissolved all thought away.
On these rocks no water breaks. Without attrition
Tides and currents in this ocean rest and revolve
In a void of sound, vortex of sand; perpetual
Circles enmesh and paralyzed sea and air:
The effigy of time and measure
Purged of time and measure
Becalmed on this dead sea of being
No wave moves, no wind of desire
Flexes the indolent sail.
But focussing its single eye
On dreamless immobility
The gulf like a burnished mirror
Regards the empty void.
In this dead sea of vision the surges
Merge without movement; the tides
Indifferent to flood and ebb
Freeze in a flux of haste.
The seagull without motion
Broods on the changeless waste,
Then sinks, his feathers frozen,
In a sand ocean.
Frail caravels who sail
This subtle gulf, morte mer,
Who stir with urgent keel
The fossil waters of the Great Mirage,
Or steer by lodestone to delusive ports:
In this calm beyond stasis, dead calm,
No compass points to the land,
No magnet of attachment
Guides the helmsman's hand
Through fifteen naked rocks in raked and rhythmic sand.
Here is no sea for the admirals,
The whalers, the merchants of cargoes --
Those finite venturers for the temporal haven.
These depths are destination,
And naufrage sweeter than harbor.
Shipwreck is haven on this inland sea.