Ancient Zen Landscaping: Borrowed Scenery

With the astute use of fences, rocks, scrubs and screens, you can borrow scenery from your surroundings to make a serene Zen-like spot for sitting or even an outdoor Japanese bath, as taught here in The Japanese Bath:

Those fortunate enough to have a scene of distant hills, trees, or the silhouette of a mountain range in their landscapes can actively design such distant views into their bathing spaces. Called shakkei, literally translated as borrowing scenery, this ancient technique of landscape architecture was often used in Zen gardens to connect the enclosed yard to the surrounding views.

To create a shakkei, one must first understand the topography of the area in relation to the house, and then create a visual barrier that eliminates unwanted views while capturing the grand backdrop beyond.

To understand how much the distant scenery is visible and to see what interference is caused by a neighbor’s roofline, it helps to crouch down (as if you are sitting), and study the view. Drawing a diagram and mapping out the angles involved often helps. Additionally, putting up a mock wall with various vertical heights can also help in imagining the type of barrier that needs to be created.

One important detail to remember while creating a shakkei is “the principle of three depths,” a perspective technique used by East Asian landscape painters. Unlike most Western paintings, which have a perspective constructed from a vanishing point, the East Asian technique piles one vista on top of another in three stages: The foreground, middle distance, and far distance. The viewer’s eye can move from the closest scenery of stones and moss and travel to the fence or the hedge, then extend beyond to the beautiful backdrop of waterfall or mountain.

In this created scenery, a person’s mind is allowed to freely travel from one’s own narrow world to the distant mountains or even to the sky and clouds beyond it.

Adapted from The Japanese Bath, by Bruce Smith et al (Gibbs Smith, 2001).


Jenny H.
Past Member 1 years ago

The whole thing is extremely open and clear details of issues. It’s true information. Your website is very helpful. Thanks for sharing.

Monica D.
Monica D7 years ago

This sounds nice, thank you.