Japanese gardens

Contrasting soundscapes

A video illustrating the contrast between a small and quiet garden in Kyoto and a busy train station in the vicinity. The idea being that the noisy surrounding may enhance the tranquility inside the garden. This raises the importance of variation in city soundscapes.

Articulated contrast at the entrance to Murin-an

This video illustrates how a sudden drop in amplitude can be used to create an effect of tranquility. A water dyke is located outside Murin-an garden, the sound of water increase the intensity somewhat. As the visitor enters through the gate, the water sound is effectively blocked out, and the contrast makes the garden seem more tranquil. The sound from the water dyke can not be heard every day, as it is dependent on water flow.

The tuning of a Water Stream in Shin’en

The garden Shin’en is located at Heian Jingu Shrine in Kyoto. The garden design has been ascribed to Ogawa Jihei, one of the most famous designers of the time (late 19th century). This clip illustrates how rocks were used strateigcally to direct the water to produce a rich soundscape. This technique has been known for at least 1000 years in Japan, as it was described in “The tale of Genji” from the beginning of the 11th century.

Walls and Masking in Murin-an

Noise from urban surroundings can be problematic for gardens, but the negative effects can be mitigated by walls. Garden walls do not (like noise screens can do) suggest a problem, as they are perceived as being part of the aesthetic expression. The effects is optimized if screens are combined with masking water sounds, like here in Murin-an in eastern Kyoto. A road passes just outside the garden, but owing to the combination of walls and a masking waterfall, the passing of cars is not intrusive.

Shakkei in Entsū-ji

Perhaps the most famous example of “shakkei”, borrowed scenery: Entsū-ji temple in northeast Kyoto. Mount Hiei is borrowed and incorporated to become part of the garden, skillfully framed by vegetation in the garden’s border. Shakkei extends the experiential space of the garden. The effect is not limited to visual experience, but we may found that distant sounds are given more attention owing to the interplay between scenses.

Spring in Sanbō-in

This clip illustrates the soundscape in Sanbō-in, Kyoto, as experienced on a spring day in 2018. A series of three waterfalls adds an atmospheric presence towards the left side of the stereo image. To the right, a garden worker is swooshing fallen leaves. As part of the soundscape, there are also birds singing, frogs croaking and garden visitors talking, some of these sounds are “borrowed” from the woodland outside the garden.

Frogs in Nanzen-in

Gardens and other green spaces are prone to attract wildlife. This is perhaps best experienced during spring and early summer when birds are singing, but other animals like frogs are attracted to blue green biotopes. This is a documentation of frogs playing in spring in the pond system of Nanzen-in garden, Kyoto. In Japanese, the frog is called tree frog “Mori o kaeru”. The sound recording is binaural, meaning that the spatial experience can be reproduced if headphones are used during playback.

Forced perspective

Forced perspective is used in several art forms, including film, photography and architecture. By manipulation of the relative sizes, colours etc. of objects, the experienced distance can be made to increase. Traditionally, visual cues have been given much attention, but sound can also be used. Here, a waterfall in Ginkaku-ji, recorded from two different angles to illustrate the effect. The distance to the fall is similar in both locations, but because sound is attenuated by topography from the second location, the distance may seem further than it actually is.

Forced perspective in Adachi Museum Garden

The Kikaku waterfall is drawn in as a “shakkei” in Adachi Museum Garden. The audability of the fall inside the garden is limited owing to (a) long distance (b) the true height is only about half of what it looks like and (c) edges surrounding the collecting pool reduce sound levels. The quietness of the fall could make it seem further away than it actually is, thus exemplifying how sound could be used to build a “Forced perspective”.

Nightingale floor

This video illustrates the sound of the nightingale floor, uguisubari 鴬張り, by recordings from two different sites in Kyoto: Nijo-jo caste and Tōfuku-ji temple. The floor’s characteristic melodic squeek is the result of a special construction technique involving nails and clamps that rub against each other. The singing floor boards have been likened to that of the japanese bush warbler, uguisi, the sound of which is included as a reference. Legend has it that the nightingale floor was used in the feudal era as a way to warn inhabitants from approaching enemies.

Zen drops

The silver pavilion Ginkaku-ji in Kyoto on an eraly morning in December 2018. A barely audible water “stream” in miniature. The subtle expression implies a quiet setting, and features like this are commonplace in Japanese zen gardens. They may be used for meditative purposes and to stimulate a “heightened listening”. Listen also to Chishaku-in and Funda-in.


A  bamboo pipe attached to a shaft. The cavity is filled with water until the equilibrium is broken and the tube turns. Originally, this construction was used by farmers to keep unwanted animals away from the harvests. Gradually they began to appreciate the sound, which can be regarded as a symbolism of time and eternity. This shishi-odoshi is from Shisen-dō, and it is said that Jozan, who built the garden, was one of the first people to start enjoying the shishi-odoshi as part of the garden aesthetics. The sound and character of shishi-odoshi varies, another example: https://vimeo.com/311374391


Excess water from a water basin, chozubachi, drops into a hidden cavity underground. The encounter with the water surface creates a sound which resonates and brings a musical tone. Suikinkutsu is a centuries old tradition in Japan and it can be found in several zen gardens, this video clip is from Enkō-ji in Kyoto.

For a collection of suikinkutsu, visit: https://vimeo.com/album/5683754