As with many of the elements found within Japanese gardens, many Westerners feel there must be a certain mystique or folklore which explains their purpose, but in reality, their identity and purpose mostly come from Japanese history, art, poetry, and culture.
Below you will find a brief history of the yatsuhashi’s origins, compiled by Dr. David Slawson, a Japanese garden designer and author on the subject, who trained in Japan and has spent much of his life living and learning the Japanese garden. My hope is that this explanation will give you a better appreciation of the yatsuhashi and encourage you to learn more on Japanese gardens, their elements, and their origins.“Once a certain man decided that it was useless for him to remain in the capital. With one or two old friends, he set out toward the east in search of a province in which to settle.
Since none of the party knew the way, they blundered ahead as best they could, until in time they arrived at a place called Yatsuhashi in Mikawa Province. (It was a spot where the river branched into eight channels, each with a bridge, and thus it had come to be called Yatsuhashi—‘Eight Bridges.')
Dismounting to sit under a tree near this marshy area, they ate a meal of parched rice. Someone glanced at the clumps of irises that were blooming luxuriantly in the swamp. 'Compose a poem on the subject, A Traveler’s Sentiments, beginning each line with a syllable from the word ‘iris’ [kakitsubata],' he said. The man recited,
I have a beloved wife, KA-ra-go-ro-mo (からごろも)
Familiar as the skirt KI-tsu-tsu-na-re-ni-shi (きつつなれにし)
Of a well-worn robe, TSU-ma-shi-a-re-ba (つましあれば)
And so this distant journeying HA-ru-ba-ru-ki-nu-ru (はるばるきぬる)
Fills my heart with grief. TA-bi-wo-shi-zo-o-mo-u (たびをしぞおもう)
They all wept into their dried rice until it swelled with the moisture.” -From Tales of Ise: Lyrical Episodes from Tenth-Century Japan, translated by Helen Craig McCullough (Stanford University Press, 1968)
The marsh scene of iris clumps and zigzag wooden plank bridges over the eight channels was later depicted in the famous paintings of Ogata Korin, and in Japanese gardens such as Korakuin in Okayama. You can see how knowing something about Japanese history and art can help us understand the scenic effects that evoke shared experience in Japanese gardens, and how we might evoke our own shared experience in garden art.
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