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Japanese Gardens and Sounds
Japanese Gardens and Sounds
Yumi Hara

I decided to put some pieces of information and my thoughts together here because the research process itself would be interesting, I thought, and I could add information easily as I find.

Chris Cutler asked me, for his podcast series ‘Probes’:
‘interested in a source for the philosophy of garden/water sounds in japan and a condensed history if such a thing exists - or whatever you can tell me..’

It took me a couple of email exchanges to find out exactly what he wanted to know…clarifying what he meant by ‘garden/water sounds in Japan’ to begin with. So I asked him whether he was talking about these things:

and his reply was ‘yes, but is there a firm tradition, with a philosophy behind it? are there rules?’

I still wasn’t quite sure, so I asked:
‘do you mean musically/sound aesthetics-wise? (such as the sound must be like this, rhythms have to be like this, etc?) or construction? (how to build and where they are placed) both?’

And his reply:
‘yes, those things but more importantly is there a philosophy - a why it is good to do this and what aspect of the sounds for instance, is beneficial; what purpose does it serve? what tradition does it belong to? where did it originate and why?’
‘maybe these are wrong questions or questions that can’t be answered…’

I got an idea more or less, and as for most things Japanese, I did know of these and how they sound, how they look like, how they work and how people appreciate them, but no idea about ‘philosophy behind’ them, probably because they are just there, like the sound of cicadas and crickets, also wind chimes in summer…This reminded of me Tadanobu Tsunoda’s theory…Japanese speakers (n.b. not genetically Japanese, but people whose first language is Japanese) perceive and process nature sound such as water sound and insect by the left (language) brain (see Yumi Hara Cawkwell Identity, Ethnicity and the International Music Scene: Oriental composers and Western expectations pp.23-26). This theory has been controversial, but I guess everyone would agree, at least, that people in Japan do appreciate and enjoy these sounds to the extent that no other culture does. It is so culturally embedded…onomatopoeia of these sounds appear in songs for children and we grow up with these. They appear in classic and modern literature. The Ministry of Environment designated ‘100 Soundscapes of Japan’ to hear such sounds in 1996.

On the following day Chris asked me, David Toop was mentioning in his Facebook entry that the background ‘music’ in a Japanese restaurant where he was dining in Tokyo was the sound of ‘suikinkutsu’. I don’t normally see the word that often…probably once every 10 years or so…

One of good things living in foreign country: people ask you about ‘your own culture’, and you'd have to find out about it and ended up gaining more knowledge than living in home country, although sometimes I’m not quite sure whether some things actually belong to ‘my own culture’ or not. Japan is a big country and actually very diverse. Anyhow, I did know about these and became curious, I decided to gather some information for Chris and write this little article so he can refer to, as these things are easier to find in Japanese language, and not a lot of them are translated in English.

And I am really amazed that the first thing I found was that:
the first ever suikinkutsu unearthed and properly researched exists within walking distance from where I grew up in Tokyo, the same area as the rehearsal studio Half the Sky used in 2015. It was built in a garden of a large house now is part of local history museum http://www.city.shinagawa.tokyo.jp/jigyo/06/historyhp/en/hsindex.html

Apparently suikinkutsu was long forgotten device until prof. Hirayama published an article in a gardening specialist journal in 1959, at that time there had only two suikinkutsu been found, neither of them produced any sounds. His article was the first ever mentioning the term ‘suikinkutsu’. He heard about it in 1920s and actually saw one in Tottori prefecture in 1937, then in Shinagawa ward in Tokyo (the one I mentioned above) in 1956. In 1981, Shinagawa ward local authority commissioned Tokyo Agricultural University to research it, and it was reported in Asahi Shinbun (national newspaper), then in 1983, the paper mentioned it twice, from then on, it became known to wider Japanese public. In 1986, suikinkutsu in Gifu prefecture was discovered and reconstructed, and a documentary TV programme was made and NHK broadcast nationwide, since then it really came to public knowledge and nowadays there are many newly created suikinkutsu in Japan.

It seems like most of the research and articles are in the field of gardening and acoustics (how it produces sound), and discussions have not been done in philosophical or musicological way. So below are rather random findings I have come across, but may be of interest:

Hikaru Tamura, maker of modern suikinkutsu and gardener, says 'suikinkutsu itself is not visible, only the tiny sound is heard, that’s wabi-sabi aesthetics. Most of the unearthed suikinkutsu are from Edo period, and there is no literature found from that time, so probably it is thought to be not that popular and the skills to built it was kept secret which is probably why it was forgotten and no tradition was passed down. (pp8-9, Nihon Suikinkutsu forum journal vol.7, 2003, translation by Yumi Hara, originally in Japanese) http://www.suikinkutsu.com/suitoha.htm

Ryoichi Ohashi, an owner of newly built modern suikinkutsu, says ‘there is no water in my garden so I wanted this instead. I guess that was one of the functions of it: imagining water by hearing the sound of water which should be in Japanese garden’. (NHK 'Bi no Tsubo: Mizu no aru Niwa', translation by Yumi Hara, originally in Japanese) https://www.nhk.or.jp/tsubo/program/file172.html)

Japanese gardens tend to represent the nature, so water is one of the important elements. Even if there isn't any, there is a desire to express water (karesansui in Ryoanji, for example).

Another reason why water is important in traditional Japanese gardens is that the guests need to wash their hands before tea ceremony, so there must be hand washing facility at the entrance of gardens…there came suikinkutsu idea. The excess water from the wash basin was utilised to make the sound.

According to Asahi Shinbun, crock (which was used in suikinkutsu) was also buried under Noh stage, Buddhist temple bell and even Judo gym. I guess it must have been used as amplifier with 'effect unit'.

Since the rediscovery and construction of modern version of Suikinkutsu, it has already been used for collaboration with musical instruments such as shakuhach and (western) harp, and soundscape community is showing interests.

In contrast to long-forgotten suikinkutsu, shishiodoshi (‘device to scare lions’) seems to have much clearer aesthetical idea from the very beginning of the introduction to Japanese gardens. The first person who introduced this to garden (it had been deterrent for wild animals), Jozan Ishikawa
(1583–1672), stated that 'If there was no sound, silence is not impressive, but the sound of bamboo tube hitting the stone emphasise the silence in between the sounds' (NHK 'Bi no Tsubo: Mizu no aru Niwa', translation by Yumi Hara, originally in Japanese) https://www.nhk.or.jp/tsubo/program/file172.html

Jozan Ishikawa's garden is in Shisendo temple in Kyoto https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shisen-dō

I haven’t found any comprehensive literature about sound and Japanese gardens in Japanese language. In English, although I haven’t actually read it, probably this may be the most comprehensive book about the matter: http://www.transcript-verlag.de/978-3-8376-2568-4/sound-worlds-of-japanese-gardens

by YumiHaraCawkwell | 2017-04-30 12:19 | Others その他