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Mirei Shigemori: Modernizing the Japanese Garden

by Christian Tschumi; photographs by Markuz Wernli Saito
Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley, CA, 2005
128 pp., illus. 75+ col. Paper, $18.95
ISBN: 1-8880656-94-5.

Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University, University Center MI 48710 USA.


Often called a "Zen garden", the meditative and aesthetically designed landscape is a Japanese specialty. Mirei Shegemori (1896-1975) worked in this media from the late 1930s until his death at age 79. Shegemori was a modernist working in a traditional media, and the book details his evolution in approaching landscape architecture as art. He was distinguished by his use of materials and of shapes upon the ground and appropriate allusions to the garden’s site and history. He lovingly placed aged and weathered chunks of rock, beds of crushed rock, moss and verdant plantings. Sometimes his choices, such as wavy curb-like forms in concrete (now cracking like a suburban strip mall’s curbs), seem odd to a Westerner. One garden’s walkway is a glistening pudding full of smooth black pebbles in a windy shape upon the ground, almost too precious to walk upon.

Shigemori’s 1939 Tofuku-ji gardens form a processional and directional design but include stone-and-moss checkerboards that dissolve or are truncated by vegetation. These are juxtaposed with jagged, natural stones arranged like the Big Dipper constellation. A 1969 design was originally intended for Kyoto’s Association of Kimono Manufacturers and makes use of a traditional kimono decoration for the shape of its watery pond. For his hometown Kayo-cho, he designed a teahouse garden with ocean waves and sand banks in red and white concrete. The 1972 Sekizo-ji temple garden features stone assemblages that represent gods (dragon, phoenix, tiger and tortoise) protecting the site from four heavenly directions. The colors of stone in each quadrant are chosen for their association with each god, and the bamboo fence bears Chinese characters in the temple’s name. Other gardens employ the shapes of castle fortifications, a bulbous gourd associated with the temple’s founder, and a grid to represent solemnity of Buddhist practice. Stones are placed to create a turtle-shaped mountain or form a hidden cross to allude to the seventeenth century suppression of Christianity in Japan.

Merei Shegemori clearly deserved this well-designed book. Besides a timeline and glossary, there are helpful diagrams and maps, for often the overhead view is necessary to understand the complexity of what’s going on in Shigemori’s plan. Author Christian Tschumi is a practicing landscape architect who appreciates this master’s work with a trained eye. Markus Wernli Saito’s attentive photographs are often focused on beautiful, salient details of the gardens. The book is an inspiration to homeowners and prompts us to imaginatively reconsider and rethink our own landscaping plans.



Updated 1st January 2006

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