Sound of Japanese Garden

by Kaori - Japan Local Guide
(3) Reviews


Garden should be fully admired by five senses, because it is an outdoor space where you are going to be in. The experience of its beauty should be different from watching an art piece of work in a distance.


When I was walking down the water steps of Generalife, Alhambra, in Spain, I was astonished and fully excited with the sounds of water elsewhere in the garden. Sometimes it is rustling, and sometimes it is splashing, and either of them stimulates my innate instinct. The gardens full of waters is both visually and aurally cooling. I felt my body exhausted with the heat was revitalized and activated.


As Japan has a hot summer like that of south Spain, when I come back to Japan, I wondered how our ancestor have used the effect of sounds to take their mind off the baking weather. The sound of wind-bell, fireworks, music of summer festival, shamisen, and the singing of insects, all of them reminds me of Japanese summer. They have roles to entertain people suffering for the heat and bring some coolnes.


And of course, there are devices in Japanese gardens using the cooling effect of the water sound. However, although Japan has dynamic waterfalls everywhere in the mountainous area, I never visited a traditional garden (except for contemporary one) with a  massive cascade with splashing water like those in south-Spain or Italy. The sound we hear in Japanese gardens is rustling, and intermittent. You could easily miss it  if you were excited with the conversation with your friends. This may relate to our philosophy and how gardens been used in its history. Today, I would like to introduce those sound devices created by our playful and clever ancestors.



Sound of Japanese Garden


1. Shisi-odoshi; Synthetic bamboo


The name shihi-odoshi means to scare animals like wild boar or deer. This instrumental bamboo ornament with fountain bowl was originally intended as a device for farmers to protect their crop from wild animals by scaring away by its sound. The structure is genuinelly simple: a bamboo tube that when filled with water revolves to empty and makes a clanking sound by cracking against a stone when emptied.


 Please listen to the sound of shishi-odoshi:


Does it sound scary? No, I do not think it does.

That rhythmic, light and even humorous sound reminds me of the sound of drams in kabuki. People’s lives in old days were filled with silence compare with ours, so even this modrate sound of bamboo and stone were striking effect in that circumstances. I would say,  ‘what a peaceful way to scare off animals!!’

 Sound of Japanese Garden


2.  Suikinkustu: The Aquarian Harp


Suikinkutsu is not visually outstanding, so when you see it, you might think it is just a stone fountain and pass by. But it actually is a clever device, self-playing instrument used in those gardens from Edo period to Meiji period. This reflect the nature of Japanese craftsmanship, adding the detail at somewhere you cannot see directly.  Underneath the fountain, there is a big empty hollow undergroudmd where the sound of dripping water echoed to generate a tranquil and metalic sound. They use various material such as brick, stone, or even a roofing material in that hollow of Suikinkutsu, and it is also designed to contain certain volume of water within to adjust the sound reflection. This device is intended to sooth listener’s mind and to let them feel coolness. 


 listen to the sound of Suikinkutsu:


Sound of Japanese Garden


3.Takigumi; rock arrangement for waterfalls and kare-sansui


You can find artificial waterfalls with rocks  in Japanese garden. Most of them are mimic of landscape of rural area in Japan or imaginary scenery of heaven in Buddhism.


Arrangement of rocks is the key to decide the quality of the sound. Positioning of a rock can change its soundscape so the technique has been succeeded from experienced stone mason or gardener to his protager for centuries.  If you find a waterfall in the garden, it is there because of some reason.  For example, a small waterfall and stream newly added to Happoen in early 20th century is aimed to distract attention of visitors from disturbed scenery of skyscrapers sprung up in the surrounding.


 Also, as I mentioned in the opening paragraphs, the sound has never been used to astonish visitors in Japanese garden.  On the contrary, sound from waterfalls are moderate and rustling. It is perhaps because the garden has been developed as a part of tea ceremony culture and Zen philosophy. The garden should be a space for meditation rather than a social place. The Ultimate example is karesansui-garden (dry garden). They are literally dry, and never use the water. However, it is designed to make visitor feel the existence of water. Chisao Shigemori, a descendant of renowned Japanese garden designer Mirei Shigemori says, our ancestors used the sound of water to wash their spirit dusted by the hustle and bustle of the real world. People listen to the sound and restore the calmness in their mind through the internal, spiritual journey.  For this reason, the sound of water in Japanese garden does not have to be growing and extravagant.


 Sound of Japanese Garden


Of course, Japanese gardens have been  used as a symbol of wealth to show off by rich people like those in Europe. However, they are  used to show some elegance and sophistication by the authority of tea-ceremony culture and arts to those who had built its power  by bloody business. Therefore, in general, Japanese gardens have been designed to be more private, and intimate to let visitors have an internal journey through the walk. Accordingly, the sound you hear in the garden is subtle, elegant and harmless.

 I hope you can feel its cooling effect in your next visit to Japanese garden.

Please join my tour to experience the sound of Japanese garden!!


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Local Guide
(3) Reviews

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