The SoundSilence of Water

Gunter Nitschke

furui ike ya

Kawazu tobikomu

Mizu no oto


Old pond,

Frog jumping,



[M]ore must have been fantasized into and around this unique haiku by Basho (1644-94) than into any other three-liner in world literature. But the poem does succeed in communicating to us why the sound of water has been so unconsciously attractive to humans of all cultures at all times. It can make us hear silence, and not only the silence after or between sounds, but the silence within and beyond all sound. We experience something of our own original nature, within and beyond all form and non-form. The sounds of a gunshot, a jet plane or a Harley-Davidson are hardly conducive to such ‘experience.’

Somehow not satisfied with one occasional frog jumping into a pond, the Japanese gardener invented a mechanised version, a device to produce sounds of water splashing whenever he wanted it. Water from a garden stream was diverted and fed into the hollow end of a bamboo pole suspended on an axle at the centre; it would splash water back into the stream whenever the top end of the bamboo was full and top heavy. Empty of water, the bamboo falls back into its original position and hits a rock with its hollow end, producing the “shsh-plop” sound at regular intervals that one encounters in many a Japanese garden. This device is popularly known a shishi odoshi, or ‘deer scare,’ since it is reported to have been invented originally by farmers to scare off deer and wild boar. In reality it is closer to an ancient waterfall machine.

The tea-masters of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, mostly lay adepts of Zen, were the ultimate artists in the use of water for its sound, form and haptic effects. Their intentions were naturally aesthetic ones, but often went beyond those — they did not only cater to the sensory delights of their visitors, but tried to sharpen their consciousness, too. Sen no Rikyu is quoted in the Nanporoku as saying: “The tea ceremony of the small room is above all a matter of practising and realising the way in accord with the Buddha’s teachings.”1

Many books have been devoted to the use, placement and form of chosubachistones, the hand water basins initially placed in tea gardens in the sixteenth century, and later as merely decorative objects in almost all Japanese gardens, unconnected with the tea ceremony. In time they became works of art in their own right. In the tea garden the chosubachi was the largest in a whole group of carefully selected and arranged rocks, the whole composition being referred to as tsukubai, literally ‘a place where one has to bend down/ that is, a place designed to rinse your mouth or wash your hands on the approach through the tea garden to the tea arbor. Sen no Rikyu comments on the meaning of water in the tea garden:

In the tea garden, the host’s first act is to bring water; the guest’s first act is to use this water to rinse his hands. Herein lies the great foundation of the roji and the thatched hut. The stone basin is provided so that in the roji, the person who calls and the person called on together wash off the stains of worldly dust.2

The origin of this practice is religious: from approximately the thirteenth century on, such stones containing water for purposes of religious ablution could be found at entrances to Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples or cemeteries. Before that time, the Japanese went directly into the sea or rivers to perform ablutions.

Late in the Edo era these arrangements of rocks around the tsukubai reached the peak of their refinement in the so-called suikin-kutsu, literally ‘water-lute-caverns’: you would hear a strange beautiful melody after dashing the water from your hands or mouth on to the pebbles spread around the chosubachi; where this melody came from would not be obvious. A large ceramic pot was buried upside down underneath the tsukubai, and filled partly with water. The reverberations of water drops falling three or four feet would penetrate through a hole at the top of the bell and then through a layer of pebbles on top of the jug to ultimately mystify the kneeling visitor.

Another famous poetic reference to the soundscape, rather than the landscape of a garden, is found in the Hyakunin isshu, ‘Single Poems by a Hundred People/ which dates back to the thirteenth century and is surely the most popular poetry anthology in Japan:

Taki no oto wa

Taeta hisashiku


nakoso nagarete

nao kikoe kere

Though the sound

of the cascade

long since has ceased

we still hear the murmur

of its name

—Dainagon Kinto

This poem supposedly sings of a well-known waterfall rock setting at the edge of Osawa Pond, where Emperor Saga (809-823) created a detached suburban palace for himself. What is even more amazing is that Shigemori Mirei, perhaps the most outstanding garden scholar of our time, believed the waterfall contained no water: to him the excavated rock of the cascade points to a dry waterfall.3 Unfortunately, very little is left of the original setting which inspired the above poem. The oldest survivor and best-kept dry cascade can be found in the upper garden of Saihoji, The Temple of Western Fragrance, in Kyoto. It is reported that in 1344 the Zen master Muso Kokushi took over this former Pure Land Buddhist establishment centering on a pond and spring garden for boating, and converted it into a Zen temple. As a counterpart to the existing pond and island scenery he created karesansui, a dry mountain waterscape garden just where the garden borders the mountain. This dry garden scenery came to function as something like a Mecca for future generations of Japanese garden designers; it is the prototype of karesansui as such, often mistakenly referred to as the Zen garden. In this garden the biggest attraction is a dry cascade where not a single drop of water splashes down the three-stepped, rather monumental rockwork; still the roar of the water seems louder than at any other, even natural, waterfall in a Japanese garden.

The Cascade in Nature

Skill in constructing waterfalls in gardens was obviously inspired by natural waterfalls abounding in Japan, a country with plenty of water. In Shinto, the Way of the Gods— an offspring of diverse local naturalistic folk beliefs of ancient Japan—is characterised by awe and worship of the unique in nature, such as strangely formed trees, rocks and mountains. Waterfalls were often venerated as go-shintai, or ‘August Body of a Deity.’ One of the best known natural waterfalls in Japan is the Kumano Nachi-san, at which as go-shintai functions as the background for a dramatic fire festival held annually on 14 July.

From the Heian era onwards the original Shinto nature worship, practised in the beautiful environs of the Kumano River and the waterfall at Mount Nachi, became assimilated into Buddhist beliefs, especially those of the esoteric Tendai sect and Yamabushi mountain priests, centering around ascetic meditation practices deep in the mountains and the acquisition of magico-religious powers respectively. The Kumano Nachi Shrine Pilgimage man-dala from the sixteenth century is a vivid document and reminder of the syncretic nature of the Kumano cult, the central natural feature of which is the unique waterfall.

According to one school of Sino-Japanese etymology, the ancient pictogram for water is represented by an iconic sign of a waterfall with drops of water splashing right and left. The ideogram for waterfall itself shows a multiplication of the abridged iconic sign for water with that of dragon. There is a Chinese folktale pertaining to waterfalls and carp; the carp, with its scaly armor, was revered in ancient China because of its skill and perseverance in swimming against currents and even climbing waterfalls. Carp passing above the rapids through Dragon Gate are transformed into those most benevolent creatures of Chinese myth. This passage became a metaphor for the excruciating “examination hell” that the Chinese had to pass to be accepted into government service. Thus, many Japanese cascades feature a prominent rock with some semblance to a carp trying to scale the waterfall. The Dragon Gate Cascade, to the north of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, is not only one of the earliest existing, but also one of the most successful examples of a waterfall displaying in its center a rock very close in form to a carp wriggling and trying to scale a cascade. This waterfall belongs to the few Kamakura era remnants within this estate in the northern mountains of Kyoto, whose name was symbolic of a whole era of Ashikaga culture during the fifteenth century.

Pond, river and cascade have been the blood; rocks, the bones; and vegetation, the meat of the body of the Japanese garden throughout its many epochs. Naturally, each one of these three elements has undergone various transformations in history; a process which is far from complete. The latest transformation does not come from a gardener, but an architect. It can be experienced in Tadao Ando’s Garden of Fine Art in Kyoto, the building which inspired this essay.

Extract from the Saku-teiki

Erecting a waterfall, first one should select a falling-water stone; that stone would not look interesting if it had a smooth front surface as if it was cut artificially. When the waterfall is made three or four feet high one should use a mountain rock with a slightly peculiar surface, which would render the waterfall more attractive. However, even though the waterfalls well and even though the surface of the falling-water stone is somewhat unique, all would be useless unless the support stones are set so as to harmonize with the falling-water stone and with each other…4

If the right side of the waterfall is to be formally emphasized, that is , the main aspect to be seen, then set a beautiful standing stone close behind the left support stone, and a slightly lower one behind the right support stone, If the left side of the waterfall is to be emphasized, then use the reverse order . . .

In front of each of the right and left support stones one should place good side stones which are about half the size of support stones; and then set other stones following the demand of the former. It is particularly advisable to make the stream in front of the waterfall wide and place center stones which divide the stream into right and left. The scenery further downstream should be that of an artificial garden stream … (see I, right)

If the water is made to fall from an unexpected slit within the rocks, it adds to the mystery and depth of the waterfall. Therefore, one should place a fitting stone where the stream curves and shows its throat (A). This makes the water appear, when seen from a distance, as if it comes out directly from the rocks . . .(II)

There are various ways how waterfalls and thus different types of waterfalls: here water is made to fall in equal manner facing each other in a beautiful way (III)

If the water falls from the right (facing the waterfall), then a front stone should be set at the left side, which receives the water. It should be about half the size of the falling-water stone; when the water hits the head of this stone, it will bounce off whitish and fall further down from the right now (IV)

Here the water is made to follow the creased and uneven surfaces of the rocks (V and VI)

Here the stone must have a sharp edge from where the water falls. One also has to let the water stream arrive rapidly without slowing it before the fall; then it will fall detaching itself from the surface. (VII)

Here the front of the falling-water stone is turned slightly around and thus shows its side from the main viewpoint. (VIII)

First install a stone with a smooth surface as falling-water stone; the water before the fall should be stagnated and made to fall very leisurely; the water will drop as if it was a sheet of cloth hanging. (IX)

Set a stone with many jagged corners on its crest at the place where water is to drop; then the water splitting in many ways looks as if a large number of threads are hanging. (X)

The Cascade in the Garden

In the search for waterfall archetypes in Japanese gardens one does not only have to look at life models in nature but probably also to turn to the earliest records on garden-making, such as the Saku-teiki, the record on garden making of the eleventh century. It contains a rather extensive section on waterfalls containing three items; technical remarks on the construction of rock formations for cascades, a typology of the most important waterfalls and remarks concerning some of their Buddhist symbolism.

The Saku-teiki displays mainly a landscape feature-oriented approach to gardening; besides the above eight types of waterfalls, seventeen types of waterscapes or formations of islands and various ways of making garden streams are the main subjects of this earliest record. Quite in contrast to that encyclopedic quest for garden features, the next Japanese garden manual, dated 1466, Senzui narabi ni yagyo no zu, the illustrations for ‘Designing Mountain, Water and Hillside Field Landscapes,’ by Zoen, indulges mostly in endless naming and description of rocks.6 No detailed description of waterfall construction and compositions can be found in this manual.

No mention is made of dry cascades in the Saku-teiki, even though the karesansui or dry mountain-waterscape garden is already described as a distinct type of garden although subordinate to, not independent of, the dominant prototype of garden existing at that time, ‘the pond-spring garden to be savoured by boating.’ The answer might simply lie in the fact that the dry landscape garden (with or without dry cascade) became an independent, even dominating, prototype of garden only with the beginning of the Muromachi period in the fifteenth century.7

The question now is surely where these waterfalls of fancy, both with or without water, were located within the early classical gardens, and what did they actually look like? For documentation I shall choose two early, still well-preserved examples, one with water, the other without.

The cascade in Tenryuji Temple in Kyoto together with its garden was designed as a Zen establishment by Muso Kokushi, who also created Saihoji. Without doubt, the wider rock formation of the cascade is the focus of the whole setting. The garden is composed to be viewed from the slightly elevated vantage point — the veranda of the abbot’s quarters of the temple — framed by the eaves and the vertical posts of the porch. From there the garden presents itself in a manner quite similar to a Song dynasty landscape painting, in various consciously designed layers, even ‘borrowing’ the distant mountains to create depth. On the opposite shore, the cascade appears behind a three-piece bridge over a narrow ravine; the rock group to the right in front of the bridge, echoing the Isles of the Blessed from Chinese myth, displays the most exquisite rock composition in the whole of Japanese garden history.

The new prototype of garden of the succeeding Muromachi era in the history of Japanese gardens was the karesansui. There are basically two variations, one presenting a completely abstract composition, as visible in the Ryoanji rock garden; the other a landscape painting type of composition in which most elements are often further overlaid with symbolism intrinsic to the Zen view of life and the world. The best existing examples of the latter are the various small courtyard gardens surrounding the abbot’s quarters of Daisen-in, the Great Hermit Temple in Kyoto.

From the northeastern corner of the premises one faces several rocks placed in a cascade formation over which the river of life, here painted with small white pebbles, starts and then plunges powerfully and joyfully over various rocks to form the mighty torrent of early youth.

It might be very surprising to a Westerner that a garden connoisseur like Shigenori Mirei states that —- among the 1,025 historical gardens worth mentioning which have survived to our days—two thirds are compositions with real water in ponds and streams, and up to one third are dry.

The Cascade in Architecture

With ‘Fallingwater‘ designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the mid-1930s, the waterfall probably made its unsurpassable debut into modern architecture itself. Here the waterfall became an integral part of the architecture of a dwelling rather than just a feature in a garden attached to a dwelling. From that time on, cascades of any size, made of natural materials or plastic, as naturalistic or completely abstract compositions, became important decorative features of the front or courtyards of large hotels, corporate headquarters, city halls, shopping malls and old people’s homes all over the globe. A fundamental quantum leap in the concept of the waterfall was necessary to transcend the niceties of this endless series of ornamental falls of water that had become familiar in modern architecture.

Visiting the Garden of Fine Arts in Kyoto from Kitayama Street — sponsored by the Kyoto Prefectual Government and designed by Tadao Ando in 1994 — it is immediately obvious that this is neither a building nor a garden in the normal sense of the word. There are flowers, yes, but they are painted. The building really consists of a three-story hole in the ground, reminding one to a certain extent of the famous deep-stepped wells in Gujarat State, in India. The Garden of Fine Art is an open-air museum exhibiting life-size replicas of famous works of art from both East and West in a kind of novel petrified ceramic form. As such they are made to last forever and withstand even the toughest weather; they will not corrode, fade or discolor.8

From the very beginning one is surrounded by ponds on both sides as one proceeds into the interior along a narrow concrete walkway. The first surprise is Monet’s painting, Water Lilies — submersed in the waters of the pond, a very fitting and effective way of exhibiting this delicate painting. Proceeding further, it slowly becomes clear that this is a rather ambiguous world, part open-air museum, part space dominated by cascades. All the walls parallel to any movement are finished in raw concrete, all those at right angles to it are waterfalls. Cascades are faced frontally, an experience surely known to anyone; the visitor is made to quasi-enter them, descending with them from platform to platform, climbing up and down together with them. The visit is not only a spatial experience, but an olfactory and auditory one too; water vapor is carried about by the slightest breeze, as the visitor is totally immersed in the ever-present ambient sound of water.

At one phase the visitor may stand on a pointed promontory, looking down on to a man-made Niagara Falls surrounding Michelangelo’s Last Judgement. Reservation may be expressed about the treatment of the ‘flowers’ of Western art, the religious art in particular. Admittedly, Ando’s museum is no Capella Sistina; but our sacred places today might very well have shifted beyond churches. In addition, it ultimately doesn’t matter what art is exhibited here, European or Asian, sacred or profane, as it clearly plays a secondary role to the art of space and place one is made to experience here over time.

Like so many of Ando’s buildings, this design presents a consciously created sequential experience of space with ever new and unexpected vistas; so the same painting is often viewed in different frames and settings. The most startling example is probably the sudden appearance of three paintings by Seurat, Renoir and Van Gogh, standing free behind concrete windows which one suddenly faces when one turns the corner on the first lower level. Michelangelo’s Last Supper has its own quiet spatial setting without any intrusions or extensions of any adjoining spaces; it is an oasis of its own.

One experiences spaces built of water, but no building. By digging a multi-level hole in the ground, the greenery of the botanical gardens is visually drawn into the scenery of the street. This contrasts with the parade of modern buildings designed as mere objects on Kitayama-dori, not as spaces, let alone places. They are mostly products of the Japanese economic bubble of the 1980s, when clients had so much money that they could afford to glue it on to the facades in the form of tons of twisted metal which then functioned as a metaphor for modern technology. These buildings no longer have any internal spaces worth entering or even mentioning: seen as objects only from the outside, they already appear grotesque.

Paraphrasing my own remarks made on the character of traditional Shinto sacred artifacts, where I stated that deities can and do ‘live’ in objects, but human beings need space,9 it could be argued that modern times contain bloated egos which enshrine themselves predominantly in and on objects; human beings mostly in space. Perhaps it is possible to read from their creations whether and when an architect has made the transition from an egomaniac into a human being who cares about others. After the creation of an anthropology of architecture, a need has arisen to lay a foundation for a psychology of architecture.

Objects, space and place have very different psychological connotations. Buildings as objects basically demand attention and admiration, buildings as spaces are invitations to enter, buildings as places are occasions to participate. Shin Takamatsu’s Week 1986 [update: no longer in existence], Inning 1987 and Syntax 1994 [update: no longer in existence], close by on Kitayama-dori, speak ultimately of one subject — the architect himself. In his buildings, wherever one looks or whatever one touches, the highly manneristic design or overdesign of Shin Takamatsu is evident; nowhere inside or around his buildings is there any relief, any escape from it. In this way, Takamatsu’s buildings give you nothing; they just demand your attention, your energy.

It is really inadequate to call Ando’s creations minimalist. They are minimal in the sense that they are not cluttered with all kinds of pieces of metal, as the buildings on the same street of his contemporary, Takamatsu, tend to be internally and externally. Ando’s buildings are full of space, they are full of invitations and chances to enter, the walk around in, and just to be in.

In the case of Ando’s Garden of Fine Art, the designer really has disappeared; he has been the legendary hollow bamboo on which creation played its tune, to use a Chinese metaphor. The visitor becomes immersed in the ‘soundsilence’ of water, the ‘form-non-form’ of space and the event / experience of place. The building abounds in conscious detailing: the handrails, for instance ride on panes of glass; thus, visually there are no interruptions by way of vertical supports; a horizontal continuity is consciously set in contrast with the vertical rythm of the falling water.

As water falls continuously over the edge of the ponds, the first ten or twenty centimeters of concrete wall appear to be absolutely dry behind the screen of water. The the wall bends forward ever so slightly from the exact vertical to allow for a continuous splashing of the water downwards over the roughened surface of concrete. In the words of the Saku-teiki, these must be the largest ‘threadlike’ falls ever created in the history of Japanese gardening.

It is tempting to infer that Ando’s creations are Zen, or more exactly, are Zen in the sense of the seven salient characteristics which Shin-ichi Hisamatsu has distilled in his seminal book on works of fine art, architecture and gardening influenced by Zen.10 Asymmetry, simplicity, austerity, naturalness, subtle profundity, detachment, tranquility. I would like to add another quality characteristic of Zen creations which one can discover in Ando’s work: the hidden power to make you more conscious of yourself. Surely that must be art’s ultimate endeavor.



• Dennis Hirota “Memoranda of the Words of Rikyu — Namporoku Book I.” from Chanoyu Quarterly. No. 25. Urasenke Foundation (Kyoto) 1980. p. 33.
• Ibid. p.33.
• In deep respect to my most important resource and mentor in the art of Japanese gardening, the late Shigenori Mirei. I here purposely reproduce some of the original measured drawings and photographs of the gardens of Saihoji, Tennryuji. Kinkakuii and Daisen-in, with as little change as possible. Most later drawings of famous rock gardens are based on the unique lifework of this garden scholar and designer, all of which were contained in Nihon teien-shi zukan, here abbreviated as NTSZK (The Illustrated History of Japanese Gardens). 24 volumes. Yukousha (Tokyo) 1936-89,
• Gunter Nitschke and F. Nakazawa, Saku-teiki — A Record of Garden Making. unpublished, but well-circulated translation, 1968.
• Katsuo Saito. Zakai saku-teiki (A Record of Garden Making: An Illustrated Explanation), Gihodo (Tokyo) 1966. His illustrations of waterfalls are reproduced here with the kind permission of his son. Dr. Kozuo Soito.
• A complete translotion of Senzui narabi ni yagyo no zu is contained in David Slawson, Secret Teachings in the Art of Japanese Gardening.
• For a detailed exposition of the dry garden as the second great prototype in the history of Japanese Gardening, see Gunter Nitschke, Japanese Gardens, Benedikt Tdschen Verlag (Koln) 1991, pp. 73-125.
• Ceramic art is created from a positive photographic plate of a painting. The plate is transcribed on to o ceramic board which is then subjugated to o calci-nation process. Many individual plates are joined together to form an original painting. The exhibited Last Judgement is constructed from 110 plates, 60cm x 3m in size.
• “Daijosai and Shikenensengu — First Fruits Twice Tasted,” from Gunter Nitschke, From Shinto to Ando. Academy Editions (London) 1993. p. 28.
• Shin-ichi Hisamatsu, Zen and the Fine Arts, Kodansha International (Tokyo) 1971.

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Gunter Nitschke

Author's Bio

Gunter Nitschke is a regular contributor to Kyoto Journal and the author of Japanese Gardens, Taschen, 1991 and From Shinto to Ando, Academy Editions, 1993. “The Soundsilence of Water” first appeared in the architecture Journal AD. Many of the photographs reproduced here are courtesy of the author and Academy Editions.