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Japanese ‘roji’: a garden path to your mind and spirit—Part 1

‘Roji’ is a type of Japanese garden style associated with the ‘chatei’ (sometimes rendered as ‘chaniwa’), the Japanese tea garden. The Japanese tea garden tradition developed during the late 15th to 16th centuries, the so-called Sengoku (‘Warring’) period—a time of widespread warfare between clans across Japan following the collapse of a centralised government and with it, starvation, disease and civil unrest.

Tea and contemplation at a country temple garden near Tsuruoka, Yamagata, Japan

During this age of turmoil and suffering, ‘chanoyu’ or the Japanese tea ceremony tradition was born. Tea was first brought to Japan during the 8th to 9th centuries by Buddhist monks returning from China. For centuries, however, tea was used as medicine among monks and the nobility, and out of reach for most. From the 13th century onward, tea came to be enjoyed recreationally, rapidly gaining popularity among the Samurai class. It soon became common for feudal lords to hold lavish tea parties where expensive imported Chinese teawares were shown off, and guests enjoyed not only tea, but games, alcohol and even gambling.

Tea fields in northern Kyūshū, one of the first areas in Japan where tea was cultivated

All this decadence and debauchery came to an end as Japan entered the Sengoku period. In the uncertain world of the times, and with the influence of Zen Buddhism, the enjoyment of tea evolved into a spiritual experience—a way to remove oneself (albeit temporarily…) from the confronting realities of everyday life. Chanoyu emphasised the Japanese aesthetic concepts of ‘Wabi’ and ‘Sabi’—loosely interpreted as ‘beauty and fulfilment in imperfection, impermanence and incompleteness’. The enjoyment of tea now centred on simplicity and tranquillity, providing an environment where you could refocus your attention on your mind and spirit. The elaborate Chinese teawares were replaced with subdued Japanese teawares, and the concept of ‘chashitsu’, the Japanese tearoom with its spartan architecture, was developed.

A ‘chashitsu’ (tea room) at Tsuruga Castle, Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima, showing the simple architecture with a ‘nijiri-guchi’ entrance (see below for explanation)

Under the patronage of the warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi (1537–1598)—the unifier of Japan—the great tea-master Sen no Rikyū (Sen Rikyū; 1522–1591) laid down the fundamentals of chanoyu as we know today. Chanoyu gained immense popularity among the warlords, as a diversion from the life-and-death reality they faced every day. Samurais were required to leave their swords outside the tearoom—the only time in their daily lives when they parted company from their weapon. Attendees entered the tearoom via a low window-like opening called ‘nijiri-guchi’ (see photo above)—to pass through, you were forced to lower your head and stoop, symbolising equality of all attendees, whether you were a samurai or a commoner.

Sen no Rikyū is also accredited with establishing the Japanese tea garden style. He likened the tea ceremony experience to a journey into the mountains. The tearoom symbolised a lone farmhouse deep in the countryside, away from the cares of everyday life in the urban environment. The ‘roji’ garden style was developed to represent the long journey to the farmhouse through the forested mountains—and the purification of your mind and spirit by ‘mother nature’. The word ‘roji’ actually has a double meaning—in Buddhist terminology, it represents the state of mind that is free of distracting or negative thoughts (‘kleshas’).

A narrow roji-style path leading to a temple in Kyoto

Plantings in a roji garden are mindfully kept subdued so that it does not distract the mind as one walks towards the teahouse. Evergreen trees and shrubs form the backbone of the plantings, evoking the deep green of mountain forests. Plants with colourful or highly perfumed flowers and deciduous trees that colour in autumn are generally avoided—not only because they are distracting, but also because they are a reminder of the transience of life. Modesty was emphasised in that second-hand materials were preferred—it was not uncommon for the stone path in a roji to be constructed from recycled tombstones.

Roji at a manor house near Tōkamachi, Niigata, showing the understated planting and use of recycled materials, including an old stone mill as a feature

Many elements of Japanese garden design have their origin in the roji garden style—for example, the ‘tsukubai’ or the stone washbasin, was placed near the entrance to the tea room for ritual purification before the tea ceremony, while the stone lantern provided lighting for evening tea ceremonies. The roji garden style subsequently became incorporated in larger gardens of Samurai houses and Buddhist temples—as can be seen in many of the well-known gardens in Kyōto. Within these more expansive gardens, the roji provides an ‘inner sanctum’ of sorts, a private space where your senses can be refocused to the immediate surrounds. In contrast to Rikyū, later garden designers such as Enshū Kobori (1579-1647) and Oribe Furuta (1543–1615) emphasised beauty and form, making use of plants with flowers or autumn foliage, and introducing Zen garden elements such as rocks and raked sand.

‘Tsukubai’ (purification washbasin) at Adachi Museum of Art, Yasugi, Shimane

Roji incorporated into a large stroll-style garden at a manor house near Tōkamachi, Niigata

Roji is a perfect garden style for long and narrow spaces, such as along the side boundaries of a house. It serves functionally as a garden path while being aesthetically pleasing. In Japan, plants used in roji gardens are typically shade-loving—they need to be lush and deep green to calm your senses—so the style is particularly suited to those shaded, damp areas where many plants struggle. By making the pathway the main feature of the garden, you also reduce the area of exposed soil and therefore, the requirement for weeding. An important point here is that the pathway needs to meld with the plantings—it should not ‘cut’ through the landscaping or be hard-edged as most Australian contemporary garden styles are. The landscaping should preferably be kept simple and uncluttered, so that your journey up the pathway has a calming effect.

A private tearoom in Hagi, Yamaguchi, with a small roji garden

Roji leading to the tearoom at Rakusuien, Fukuoka, with a minimalist planting

Read all about an Aussie roji garden project in suburban Melbourne: ‘Japanese ‘roji’: a garden path to your mind and spirit—Part 2



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