Wind and Water

In the last decade the knowledge of Feng Shui, the Chinese geomancy, has become popular. Like the Chinese term, the Japanese word Fu Sui means wind and water respectively.  Referring to essential natural elements, both Chinese and Japanese conceived a science which was able to determine the energetic form and the best place to build a house, locate a tomb, develop a garden or design an entire city, inside its natural or artificial environment. The geomancy understands the human being in a holistic conception of the Cosmo. It conceives the human being as an integral piece of the nature and its energy fields.

The principal instrument of Chinese geomancy is the compass which symbolizes a representation of the Cosmo, a kind of Chinese mandala, a symbolic-iconographic representation of the universe. It is divided in 3 levels: the sky, the human being and the earth. We can see this mandala in the Heaven Temple´s plan, the up right picture. On the right, we can see the famous Imperial Palace of the Forbidden City of Peking (model).

According to Gunter Nitschke  in his book “The Japanese garden”, the practical geomancy is similar to an acupuncture of  the nature and the acupuncture  is similar to a  geomancy of the human body. It is the notion of  reflex action, sky and earth, human being and nature, a holistic conception. In ancient times it was so important that during the reign of emperor Temmu geomancy became a matter of state, there even was an office called Ying and Yang in charged of inspections. Of the integration of what we conceived as “different” levels of reality, including time, the art of geomancy was constituted.

Japan had a particular geomantic art before importing the Chinese Feng Shui. It was related to the religious system and the agriculture cultivation of rice. It included the relations between the mountain kami and the villagers, the cultivation field and the shrine situated in the meeting point of divine and human. Nevertheless since ancient times the consolidation of a central power under the emperor caused the adoption of different aspects of Chinese culture, which was taken as a referent  and a model.

The fist capital, more and less stable, erected according to  this model  was  Asuka  in the VII century. From this moment on it was regularly moved towards north and the squared  model of the Chinese imperial cities was adopted. Fujwara was the first one of this kind of settlements ( at the end of the VI century) then  Heijo (present Nara) would come in 710-784 and finally Heian-kyo, the capital of Peace and Tranquility. In 194 the imperial government settled here and commenced a new period in Japanese history which took the city name: Heian period.

Chinese and Japanese cities as well as gardens and palaces were built facing south. Chinese believed that the power came from  the  sky and it wasn’t conceived as a personal god. The emperor was an intermediary, he produced the balance between this powerful force and our world. That’s why he is compared with the polar star: the movement of the constellation seem to be a wheel that goes round this fixed star, the heavenly sovereign as well. Here on earth everything goes round the emperor who lives in his palace situated north of the city. From there a broad avenue divide  the city in two and it becomes its axis, its spine. In Kyoto this avenue had 85 meters wide. We can see it in the right bellow picture.  Another wider avenue cross the city in a perpendicular way and starts in the south front of the palace. A difference between Japanese imperial cities and Chinese ones is  the absence of walls because Japan is isolated from the continent.

Both cities and tombs had to adopt a geomantic configuration “armchair” type, surrounded on three sides ( back and armrests) by mountains. In Chinese the word for this is Xue, which means cave or shelter. The diagram Xue is also used to designate the acupuncture point. The city of Kyoto fulfills these requirements: it is located in a valley, surrounded on three of his sides by mountains of approximately 1000 meters. We find Tamba mountains towards north and on the northeast area it reaches its highest height with the mount Hiei. According to Feng Shui the unlucky direction, the northeast, had to be conjured. In the case of Kyoto, mount Hiei protect the city from the cold winter winds which comes from northeast.

Not only these mountains gave a beautiful frame to gardens, temples and palaces but also they maintain a kind of micro climate with high levels of humidity, which benefits the growth o moss, one of the distinctive elements of the gardens. These mountains also provide with abundant water utilized in gardens. Three rivers cross Kyoto: Katsura river from west, Kamo river from east and Uji river from south. They embody the presence of the element water and thus the abundance  and prosperity linked to it, don’t forget we’re talking about agriculture societies. In this way, the harmonious diagram between wind and water is completed and the best example of this, is the modern Kyoto, a city with 1300 years of history where one million people live

The initial urban configuration was reproduced at a minor scale in the aristocratic villas and palaces, with their gardens situated south of the buildings. The pavilions “embraced” the gardens, since from the ends of the principal building situated north, two long galleries stretched out delineating the garden from east and from west. At least this happened  during the Heian period, from the end of VIII century to the last part of the XII century. During this time the Sakuteiki was written, the most ancient garden book known.  This text is full of geomantic allusions, one of them refers to the location of the house or pavilion regarding the water course, this one is an essential element of the garden and feeds the pond. The favorable location was the one which was surrounded by the river route, stream or water course. The Sakuteiki says:

“…the inner curve of the Garden Stream is considered to be the belly of the dragon, and it is considered felicitous to build on’e house there. Conversely, the outside of the curve –the dragon’s back- is considered to be unlucky. ” (1).

The obedience to this indication, which is the search of  harmony between architecture and nature, has survived the passage of time. One example of this, is the Temple of Tenryuji layout in Kyoto. We can also see it in the garden of the imperial villa of Kastura, in Kyoto, situated on the banks of the river of the same name. It was built between 1616 and 1660. All its buildings are located in several “dragon’s bellies” which delineated the arms of the pond. It's a dream villa, one of the most beautiful examples of Japanese aesthetic and perfect integration of human work and nature.




Originally published in our blog:


(1) In Sakuteiki, visions of the Japanese garden, by Jiro Takei and Marc Keane, Tuttle, USA, 2001, p. 176




Present throne at the Imperial palace of Kyoto


  Main entrance of the Imperial palace complex in Kyoto


Model of the Imperial precincts in Kyoto. The avenue that starts at the south gate of the complex can bee observed. For more detail see the up right picture.


The mount Hiei appeares on the horizon completing the zen garden frame of the Shodenji temple.

An illustration of the Katsura villa