Gardens, Shrines & Mountains

The study of Japanese religion, and the archaeology associated with major religious sites, provides a fascinating insight into alternative ways of engaging with the transcendental. Shinto and Buddhism, the two major religions of Japan, have different ideas about nature and the place of human beings within it.  These ideas are often expressed through sacred monuments, including as shrines, temples and gardens, and also through ideas of sacred landscapes, such as mountains. This strand explores some of the discoveries that are helping us understand the development of Japanese religious traditions and their place in the religious history of humanity as a whole.

Shinto (which means ‘the Way of the Gods’) is usually described as the indigenous religion of Japan. Many aspects of Shinto were described in early historical documents, but it was not until later on that it was fully codified, and used as the basis for State Shinto, the official ideology of the modern Japanese state from the Meiji period to 1945. Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the 6th century AD, originating in the teachings of the Buddha, who lived in India in the 5th century BC. Today, most Japanese people follow aspects of both Shinto and Buddhist religions – visiting Shinto shrines at New Year and other auspicious occasions, and following Buddhist related funerary practices. These two religious traditions now co-exist with a variety of other beliefs, including shamanism, Christianity and a series of so-called ‘New Religions’. This diversity is reflected in the wide range of sacred places (many now recognised as ‘Power Spots’ and contributes to the great interest of studying religion in Japan

Part 1: Ancient gardens and imported religions

Japanese gardens are renowned worldwide for their beauty and meditative qualities. The history of creating gardens in Japan goes back to the 8th century, and archaeologists have discovered elaborate garden features in sites associated with some of the earliest palaces of the Asuka region, and the Chinese-style capital at Nara. Archaeology has also uncovered a hidden history for some of the famous temple gardens in Kyoto and elsewhere. The following teaching materials can be used to address the question:

How do changes in garden design relate to changing religious ideas?

Fig. 01 – Asuka period water conduit at Sakafune-ishi, Nara prefecture

1: An elaborate stone water conduit at Sakafune-ishi, Nara prefecture

The Asuka region in the southern part of the Nara Basin is home to one of the most important clusters of historical sites in Japan. Now designated as UNESCO World Heritage, this area of gentle hills and rice paddies was where some of the first Chinese-inspired palaces, temples and other facilities were built. The area is also famous for its stone sculptures and huge burial mounds with massive stone burial chambers.

Water was an important aspect of some of these early Japanese gardens. At Sakafune-ishi (the name possibly means ‘rice wine – boat – stone’) this stone water feature was discovered, an important part of a formal garden. Water from a spring in the nearby mountains flowed through a wooden duct into an oval stone tank. It is thought that by passing through the tank, impurities in the water would be removed. Other stones with grooves for liquids were found nearby

Fig. 02 – Tortoise shaped stone at the Asuka period water conduit at Sakafune-ishi, Nara prefecture‘. The tortoise-shaped stone is 2.4 metres long and two metres wide. The circular hollow on its back is twenty centimetres deep.

2: Tortoise-shaped stone from the water garden at Sakafune-ishi, Nara prefecture

The tortoise is an important figure in East Asian religion. Part of the water feature at Sakafune-ishi is shaped like a tortoise. Water passed through the small hole on the oval hollowed-out stone to the left, through a hole in the nose of the tortoise, and into the circular hollow on the tortoise’s back.

Fig. 03 – Excavation of the Nara period garden at Block 6, East Second Ward on Third Street, Nara

3: Excavation of a Nara period garden in the Heijo capital

The garden was built after the middle of the Nara period. A meandering stone-paved stream, varying between 2 and 7 metres in width and 55 metres long, was the garden’s centrepiece. The bottom of the stream was paved with stones and the bank arranged with upright boulders. A pebble beach (suhama) sloping gently into a pond, served both to protect the bank and enhance the view.

Fig. 04 – Reconstruction of the Nara period garden at Block 6, East Second Ward on Third Street, Nara

4: Reconstruction of the Nara period garden in the Heijo capital

The garden and building were restored after excavation. It is designated a national special historic site and special scenic spot. It is thought to have been an official facility for banquets, even though it was located in the Nara capital outside the palace. Upright stones and rock islands were placed on key points, and wooden pots for water plants were set at the bottom. A building stood to the west of the stream.

Fig. 05 – Kinkakuji temple in Kyoto

5: Garden at Kinkakuji temple, Kyoto

Kinkakuji is now one of the most iconic temples in Kyoto. It was built by the Shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, during the Muromachi period. The garden around the temple is built in the style of Pure Land Buddhism, which subsequently became very popular in castles and elite residences around the country. Archaeological excavations in the grounds of the temple have shown how the garden developed over time.

Fig. 06 – Ryoanji temple garden in Kyoto

6: Garden at Ryoanji temple, Kyoto

Another form of garden that became popular with the advent of Zen Buddhism is the dry garden (karesansui). This distinctive garden style used arrangements of stone, white sand, moss and pruned trees, instead of water. These gardens are symbolic representations of natural landscapes, and provided an excellent setting for Zen meditation.

Student Activity:

Key question

  • Did different garden structures have different symbolic functions?

Secondary questions

  • How did the design of Japanese gardens change over time?
  • How did these various designs reflect different religious beliefs?

Part 2: Excavating mountaintop sites

Gardens are not the only evidence of religious belief. Archaeology finds many other remains of religious practice. The following teaching materials can be used to answer the question –

What other discoveries can tell us about religion?

Fig. 07 – Mt. Nikko Nantai, 2,486 metres above sea level

7: The sacred mountaintop site of Mount Nikko Nantai, Tochigi prefecture

The mountain and lake of Chuzenji are a beautiful landscape. The top of the mountain was a sacred space. Deposits beside huge rocks are a common feature in the Kofun period and this habit continued later during the practice of Buddhism. In the Edo period, the Nikko Toshogu shrine was established at the foot of Mt. Nantai, and registered as World Heritage Site.

Fig. 08 – Bronze mirrors of the 11th and 12th centuries from the Hattori collection‘, akin to those found at Mount Nikko Nantai’. [and capitalise ‘C’ of ‘Collection’]

8: Bronze mirrors used in Buddhist mountaintop rituals

From Mt. Nikko Nantai 130 bronze mirrors and other artefacts were found around huge rocks on the top of the mountain. These were tools used in the practice of Esoteric Buddhism.

Fig. 09 – A ritual weapon (tokkosho), made of iron with pointed ends)

9: A ritual weapon used in Buddhist rituals

Goods offered at the site emphasized Esoteric Buddhism, such as gold sculptures, and ritual weapons, such as this iron club with pointed ends (tokkosho) pointed at both ends.This archaeological context of placing artefacts on mountains shows a blending of traditional beliefs in sacred mountains with Buddhism, related to the Shugendo religion.

Student Activity:


Key question

  • What can other discoveries tell us about religious practices?

Secondary questions

  • Where would you expect to find archaeological evidence for religion?