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Eternally Modern: The Kyoto Gardens of Shigemori Mirei

Creating over 200 gardens across Japan, Shigemori Mirei was a radical. Head to any zen or stone garden in Kyoto, and it’s most likely been designed by Mirei. His avant-garde and rule-breaking approach in the early 20th century introduced straight lines and grids that revolutionized Japanese garden design itself, and now decades later, remain as relevant as ever today.

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“If you look at this garden, you can’t tell which era it’s from. It’s eternally modern. That was his concept,” beamed Komyo-in chief priest Fujita-san as he guided us around his temple. The “era-less” garden in question was the Hashin no Niwa, a garden created in 1939 that is well-known in Kyoto for its autumn colours, flowing lines of moss, and dynamic stone work. This garden contains seventy-five unique, carefully handpicked stones, and although they were laid out in a planned, controlled space, they somehow still express the free and wild spirt of their creator: the great Shigemori Mirei (1896-1975).
Mirei was a landscape artist, probably one of the most famous in post-war Japan. Over a span of thirty years, he created over 200 gardens all over the country, mostly in Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. Although he rose to prominence designing for the most traditional of places, he was no conventional artist. Mirei’s mission was to step out of the strict rules of traditional garden design and express a new style of creativity.  He was never formally trained, nor did he attend a gardener’s trade school. All of Mirei’s designs came purely from his innate artistic ability and life experiences.  
When talking about Japanese gardens, one might imagine a minimally designed and stereotypically structured Zen garden— words such as “peaceful”, “serene”, and “passive” might come to mind. The beauty of Mirei’s gardens, however, comes from the strength and primitive nature of his design, evoking impressions far more “wild” and “loud”. 

 


 

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Before Mirei was a landscape designer, he was an artist. He was well-trained in tea ceremony, ikebana flower arrangement, and painting. Even as a youth he was already beginning to design, creating a tearoom at the tender age of eighteen. It’s noted that he enjoyed ikebana the most of these early mediums, but at same time he found all of the rules very restrictive. The aesthetic sense and sensitivity that would serve him well in later life can be traced back to this base discipline and knowledge of traditional Japanese art. Mirei was also influenced by Western philosophy, (all five of his children are named after Western philosophers), and Western art. He actually changed his name Mirei to honour Francois Millet, a French artist he admired whose name is pronounced “Mirei” in Japanese. 
So, what makes his gardens “eternally modern”? First is his use of stones. Mirei loved working with stones, and the way he arranged them turned simple rocks into artwork, almost like avant-garde sculptures.  A singular stone might not tell a story, but when they come together the garden looks complete, with a certain type of harmony and balance executed amidst the chaos. The way Mirei designed the ground layer was equally important. Though it may sound simple, his use of white sand and moss in straight lines to express modernity alongside diagonal lines to express motion revolutionized Japanese gardens. 
Mirei’s first masterpiece was the four gardens he created for Tofuku-ji temple in 1939. These gardens set the tone for his idea of the eternally modern garden. Later in life Mirei was quoted as saying he “could not surpass the gardens he built at Tofuku-ji.” 


 

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Although many years has passed since the gardens were first designed, Mirei’s work continuously attracts attention, especially from the younger generation. Because he challenged the rules and ideas of a traditional Japanese garden, many young people consider him a daring artist or a rebel. However, as someone who went beyond (though not necessarily against) tradition, he was also met with critics who questioned if his work could be categorized as a proper Japanese garden. Although many dismissed his work, he also had his share of strong creative allies. One was Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, whom he worked with for the UNESCO garden project in 1957. Noguchi was a huge supporter of Mirei, and according to Mirei’s grandson, Noguchi invited his grandfather to the United States many times. Despite his fascination with Western culture, Mirei never did end up traveling to the States, as he was afraid of flying. 
Though people continue to argue if Mirei’s work can be categorized as Japanese gardens or not, it is worth noting that whatever might be said… Mirei accomplished exactly what he set out to achieve. Even fifty years later, his gardens continue to survive the test of time. They remain era-less, edgy, and wild. Eternally modern.
 

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Text: Sara Aiko 

Images: Mitsuru Wakabayashi

With thanks: Tofuku-ji, Shoden-ji, Komyo-in (Kyoto, Japan)

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