Friday, May 28, 2010


Silver Pavilion in winter. Photo C. Zeballos


Some of the most famous monuments and gardens of Japanese architecture we produced under the Muromachi period (1336-1573): the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji) , the Silver Pavilion (Ginkaku-ji) and the Rock Garden of Ryoan ji . Despite (or perhaps as a result) of the devastating violence and wars that characterized this period, these gardens offer peace to the spirit and a truly moving beauty.

Silver Pavilion in winter. Photo C. Zeballos


When Ashikaga Takauji became shogun in 1336, he was the first of 15 shoguns in the Ashikaga family, seated in the Muromachi district in Kyoto, and that would rule Japan until 1568.
During this time Zen Buddhism flourished, spreading its influence not only on religious grounds but also in the arts and culture, developing fields such as architecture, ikebana , literature, poetry, Noh theater , tea ceremony and landscaping .

Feast during the Muromachi period. Source Wikipedia

It was also a time of religious tolerance, in which Buddhism coexisted peacefully with Shinto, while in Nagasaki Christianity entered rampant to Japan, especially led by the Catholic missionary Francis Xavier .
However, it was the internal struggles of the feudal lords, or daimyō that led to absurd and bloody wars, especially the so-called war Ōnin (1467-1477), who in its attempt to control the symbolic capital ended up reducing Kyoto to ashes.

"The capital which we believed would flourish for ten thousand years has now become a lair for the wolves. Even the North Field of Toji has fallen to ash...Now the city that you know/ Has become an empty field, / From which the skylark rises /And your tears fall."
Hikorokusaemon-No-Jou, on the Ōnin war

The civil wars developed until 1573 when the daimyo Oda Nobunaga enters Kyoto defeating the Ashikaga clan, restoring peace and ending the hegemony Muromachi.


While the Golden Pavilion , built by Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, represented the pinnacle of this era, the Silver Pavilion (1474), built by his grandson Ashikaga Yoshimasa marked the decline of the clan.
Located at the foot of the Higashiyama mountains, northeast of Kyoto, occupying an area 30 times larger than where now stands, at the end of what is now the Philosophy Path, the Ginkaku-ji was built as a resting place for Yoshimasa.

Layout of the Silver Pavilion.

It is ironic that on the eve of the outbreak of the war, the shogun Yoshimasa give his back to the capital and moved to this lavishing palace complex, and that while the population suffered from famine, destruction and death, he was enjoying watching the garden, enjoying tea, incense and other esoteric pleasures.

The palace complex would become a temple after Yoshimasa's death and it was called Jisho-ji (慈 照 寺) or Temple of the Shining Mercy. However, it became known as Ginkaku-ji, or Temple of the Silver Pavilion (银阁寺).

Silver Pavilion and pond panorama. C. Zeballos

Ginkaku or Kannon Hall.

Despite its name, there is not any silver in the pavilion, since that the intention of Yoshimasa of covering it with this metal was never fulfilled, since the outbreak of war prevented it.

Hypothetical reconstruction of the Ginkakuji if it had been covered with a sheet of silver.
It is noteworthy that many Japanese prefer the current Silver Pavilion than the Golden one, as it represents the typical simplicity of Japanese architecture.
3D Image C.Zeballos

This is a very simple building, arranged in two levels, with curved roofs and topped by a phoenix made of brass.

Roof top image. 3D Image C. Zeballos

Its lower level, called Shinkunda (Chamber of the empty heart) measures 6.7 m x 5.4 m and it is divided by movable panels that give flexibility to the interior space. The wooden sliding doors allow us to see a simple room of flat ceiling. Inside, they venerate the image of Jizo, the protector of children.

Layout of the first level. 3D Image by C. Zeballos

The room is surrounded by a railing and the walls have bell-shaped windows (3 in front of the pond and in the back and two on each side).

Layout of the second-level. 3D Image by C. Zeballos.


One of the main contributions of the Muromachi period to the Japanese residential architecture is the Shoin style. "Shoin" means "writing room" and has its origins in the rooms of the humble rooms of the monasteries, more modest than the structures of the Heian and Kamakura periods.
Hence, these rooms included furniture for writing .
The four characteristic elements of Shoin style are: recessed niches ( tokonoma ), staggered shelves, built -in desk and decorated doors.

The Tōgudō room of Ginkaku-ji, a modest one-level structure with a roof of cypress bark, contains the oldest Shoin style of Japan.


It is impossible to understand the Silver Pavilion without also considering the surrounding mountains, nor without underscore the role that has the moon in its conception. The moon is a crucial element in the Japanese mentality, present in the visual arts and literature. Spiritual enlightenment in Zen Buddhism is often portrayed as a reflection of the moon on the water: the moon makes the surface visible and vice versa.

Silver Pavilion Pond in winter. Photo C. Zeballos

Higashiyama area, where the Ginkakuji stands, was reknown as a point for the contemplation of the moon even from the Heian period.

Ginkakuji on the mountains.

Facing the Ginkaku-ji, there is a pond where people use to contemplate the moon. Behind him is Tsukimachiyama Mountain (Mountain to wait for the moon). Yoshimasa wrote a poem about it:

"I love
my hut
at the foot of the mountain to wait for the moon
and the reflection
in the sky at sunset."

Ginshaden in winter. Photo C. Zeballos

For the first time in the history of Japanese landscaping sand is used only to represent elements such as water or mountains. The esplanade of sand that lies on the side of the pond, a plateau of 60 cm in height , is called Ginshaden, and that means Silver Sand Sea, whose form is said to be modeled based on the shape of the West Lake in China. In fact, when the moon rises in the eastern mountains of Tsukimachi, the sea of sand seems to generate waves in the moonlight.

Images of Ginshanden or platform of sand. Photo C. Zeballos

In this area there is also a huge cone of sand of 1.80 m, which symbolizes the Mount Fuji, called Kougetsu dai (Platform facing the moon), designed to accentuate the reflection of the moon in the sea of sand. It is said that, as seen from the second floor of the Ginkakuji, the cone resembles a full moon reflected on a silver sea.

Dai Kougetsu sand cone, also during maintenance. Photos C. Zeballos

But the most interesting aspect of the garden is the way it interacts and makes use of the mountain in its design, offering a view of the pavilion from above, together with all buildings, allowing nice views of the city of Kyoto.

Gingaku-ji seen from the mountain. Photo C. Zeballos

Finally, it is important to highlight the seasonal experience in the garden, which is always changing at different times of the year.

Gingaku-ji in autumn.


Yesterday I visited again the Ginkaku-ji and I was surprised to find that it was being restored.
It was a good opportunity to see the lightness of Japanese architecture, supported only by slender wooden columns and sliding wood panels.

Secondly, the interesting technology for the construction of roofs, made with a wooden structure that gives its characteristic curvature.

Overlapping wooden slats lay over the structure, fixed with pins of bamboo, made of Japanese cypress about 30 cm long, although only 3 cm are exposed at the bottom. As shown in the photos, every few rows the is a sheet of copper for reinforcement.



Monday, May 24, 2010



When tea is made with water drawn from the depths of mind
Whose bottom is beyond measure,
We really have what is called cha-no-yu.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi

Tea is one of the most conspicuous elements in Japanese culture. Since its introduction during the 10th century by Zen monks from China, its use has evolved, influencing many arts such as calligraphy, architecture and garden design, flower arranging, pottery or poetry.
The complex and fine aesthetic developed around the tea ceremony, modeled by the tea master Sen Rikyu Soeki, goes far beyond simply being a beverage or fulfilling a social role, as in the West.

Thus, in medieval Japan, during the time of the bloody wars between states (1467-1572), the tea ceremony (sadō or chanoyu) became a symbol of peace, a ritual where the samurai found peace after coming back from battle. In fact, they had to leave their swords outside, before entering the premises of the tea house. As Plutschow mentioned, tea ceremony is a sacred ritual, as it is sacred the space where it is prepared and sacred are the utensils used therein.
However, in the sadō deities are not invoked, so the "sacred" ceremony lies in the assembly gathered in the tea house. The participants are those who become sacred, since Zen Buddhism, under whose influence the tea ceremony took shape, looks for the sacredness not outside but within the human being.

In that sense, it is common for tea houses to be separated from the outside world, usually by a very subtle element. This is the case of Kano Shoju-an, a quiet tea house located at the southern end of the Philosophy Path in Kyoto, which is separated from it by a footbridge across the stream, and in that way detaching the visitors from their mundane daily life.

Entrance to the Tea House Shoju An Kano. Photo C. Zeballos.

However, despite its sacred character, the aesthetics of the tea houses are far from the opulence that can be found in a temple. By contrast, the Kano Shoju-an is a construction that enhances the fragile and fleeting nature of life, based on principles such as wabi (the beauty of things imperfect, simple and natural) and sabi (the patina covering things over time.)

Details of the shoji screens. Photo C. Zeballos.


"Soan" means "grass hut" and refers to the typical characteristics found in many of the teahouses. It was influenced by the style Shoin, that we will discuss in the next post.

The Kano Shoju-an has, like most tea houses, two elements: the garden and the building itself. Very simple materials make up the garden, although it is carefully designed. The path of stones or roji, which features a larger stone at the entrance, the gravel paths, the finely arranged thatched islets, the stone where visitors take off their shoes or kutsunugi ishi, are part of a complex but subtle micro cosmos surrounding the tea house.

The construction system of the house uses bamboo walls and columns, coated with mud and rice straw roofs.

In front of the windows, there are some suspended screens made of woven straw, which are climatic devices, since they protect the inside from the incidence of the sun during hot days while not preventing the passage of the breeze, and they can be removed in winter.

Inside, space flows between the different environments with harmony and flexibility.

The fine sliding screens or shoji (which is a window of rice paper framed by a wooden lattice), the terraces, the wide windows and the simplicity and lightness of the materials help establishing a strong link between the interior and exterior environment. In fact, the exterior is used as a "tableau" since the window frames a particular view by being located at a certain height and position.

The soft lighting contributes to enhance the atmosphere of the place for meditation. Inside the house, we are received in a semi-public area of stone floor, where visitors await their turn to participate in the ceremony. Like many Japanese arts, the Sadō is a participatory event and it takes place in a special environment. After slipping a screen, a pretty maiko or apprentice of geisha invites us to enter tea room, where there are sunk niches or tokonoma. Usually the tea rooms have tatami floor (finely woven straw mats), but in this case, the floor is also made of stone. It contains the tools that will be used for the ceremony and a flower arrangement called ikebana .

In one corner (Tama datami) the preparation of tea is carried out .

The guests are located in an area in the opposite side (Kyaku datami). While the maiko performs the preparation of tea, an assistant gives us a Japanese sweet of pasty consistency, smooth appearance but nice flavor, called Warabimochi , made from rice and vegetables. Then we are served thick and slightly bitter green tea (macha ) in a fine lacquer pot (chawan ).
The chawan is delivered by turning it 180 degrees in three small movements. After a respectful bow, the guest turns the pot in reverse and proceeds to drink the bevarage.

For a Westerner like me, quite a beginner at the time of the ceremony took place, I was overwhelmed by the solemnity, elegance and the skill with which it was carried out. It transmits peace, tranquility and also admiration for the exquisite, fine beauty and harmony in the delicate choreography that involves the preparation and serving of the tea.

For a Japanese, however, Sadō is a condensed, stylized version of everyday life.

"What is the cause of suffering, the cause of life, since we deny the existence of a God who created the universe? That concept is what Buddha called the zen .... We have to the suffering from the beginning, which is the zen. And the Zen produces life and life is necessarily unhappy, because what is life? Living is birth, aging, illness, death, and other ills, including a very pathetic evil, not to be with the ones we love. "

Borges' Seven Nights.