Are you lucky enough to have a stunning view of a natural landscape from your garden? Perhaps you have a vista of a mountain or a mountain range. Or maybe you look out over a lake, a pond or a stream or across a meadow. Then again, on the opposite end of the gardening spectrum, do you live in an urban area where the line of sight from your little piece of paradise features a city skyline or the architecture of a standout skyscraper?

If you are fortunate enough to have a view that speaks to you, there’s an ancient technique you can use to make that distant landscape a part of your garden. It’s called shakkei.

"The literal meaning of shakkei is 'borrowed scenery' or 'borrowed landscape,'" said Ayse Pogue, the senior horticulturist for the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden. "This is a technique where distant views are incorporated into the garden setting and become part of the design.

"Basically, when the designer captures this landscape and makes it part of the design, it remains alive, as when before it was captured. That means what is being captured is not something that is going to be easily changed." Mount Fuji is an example of a borrowed landscape feature that Japanese designers frame in Tokyo gardens, she said.

The history of shakkei

Shakkei is an ancient concept that was used in Japan long before anyone gave it a name. Bringing distant landscapes into gardens, for example, was practiced in Japanese gardens as early as the Heian period (794-1185 A.D.) when the Japanese court moved the country's capital to what is now Kyoto. It was also practiced during the Muromachi period from 1336-1558, Pogue said.

The Chinese appear to be the first to have given the term a name, calling it shakkei. In Japan, Japanese garden designers in Kyoto, appropriately enough, seem to have essentially borrowed the term from the Chinese, calling it ikedori, which Pogue said means "capturing alive." The timing of when the Japanese began using the term ikedori is not clear. Pogue points out that in "Space and illusion in the Japanese Garden" (Weatherhill, 1973) the author Teiji Itoh writes that “We do not know when the gardeners of Kyoto began to speak of the Shakkei concept as ikedori, or capturing alive.” As the practice of using borrowed scenery continued in succeeding generations, it became this whole concept of shakkei gardening, she said.

Some of the best examples of shakkei gardening are in Japan's imperial capital of Kyoto, explained Pogue, who won a scholarship to study Japanese gardens last fall at the Japanese Garden Intensive Seminar offered by the Research Center for Japanese Garden Art & Historical Heritage. Spending two weeks in Kyoto, Pogue visited gardens and temples that featured shakkei design, several of which she described as "impressive and transformative" in a blog about the trip.

"The gardens for the rich and the ruling classes were all up in the foothills where you have wonderful views of the mountains and the landscape is gorgeous," she said in explaining the history of Kyoto's gardens. In the city, as it grew, it was different. "Kyoto was an expanding city, the population was growing and the size of these gardens and the available views began to shrink because of all the buildings. So, it fell onto the gardeners to make the best of the views that remained. By carefully designing these gardens they tried to shut out the surrounding buildings and let in the views that were still beautiful. They also tried in that way to make the gardens not only look larger but make them feel like they were in the country because of the views of the mountains and waterfalls and things like that."

Four basic elements of shakkei design

Senganen Garden in Japan emphasizes Sakurajima as part of its landscape. The very top of Sakurajima, an active volcano, is visible as part of Senganen Garden's design. (Photo: Kimon Berlin/flickr)

The shakkei concept of letting views into the garden to give the garden a natural continuity with distant landscapes, while screening out undesirable views, has four essential elements, Pogue said.

First, this type of technique can be used in a lot of gardens, she said. "It could be a stone and gravel garden or it could be a natural landscape garden or a stroll garden like the one we have at the Chicago Botanic Garden."

Second is the borrowed scenery, what the designer is trying to capture alive. "The most common features are mountains, hills, waterfalls, lakes, and forests," Pogue said. In Kyoto where the technique originated in Japan, it is usually Mount Hiei, although there are many other hills commonly framed through vantage points in various gardens.

Several gardens in Kyoto that offer stunning views of Mount Hiei include the Entsuji temple gardens, which Pogue called "one of the best examples of the shakkei technique," and the zen rock garden at the Shoden-ji Temple in the city's northern mountains.

Another garden in the very southern part of Japan that also uses shakkei is Senganen Garden. It has a borrowed view of Kagoshima Bay and Sakurajima (above), one of Japan's most active volcanoes, which sits in the middle of the bay.

In Tokyo, Mount Fuji is the favorite landscape to "capture alive." It is 96 miles from Tokyo, but many gardens use Mount Fuji as the back drop and incorporate it into the garden, Pogue said. In the United States, Pogue said that on clear days the Portland Japanese Garden offers beautiful views of Mount Hood, which she likens to the view of Mount Fuji in Tokyo. "It is beautiful and amazing and absolutely a part of that garden." Closer to home, she said the view of the Chicago Botanic Garden's Waterfall Garden from the Malott Japanese Garden is an example of shakkei design.

But, she added, don't think you can only use a mountain or hillside as your borrowed scenery. "You can also use marine landscapes, lakes, woods, forests and other natural elements."

Mount Fuji from the Kawaguchiko Music Forest Mount Fuji, framed here at the Kawaguchiko Music Forest in Kawaguchi, is a popular bit of natural landscape to borrow. (Photo: Cliffano Subagio/flickr)

Man-made objects can also become the focal point of borrowed scenery. "For example," Pogue said, "there is a garden in Kyoto called Shinshin-an that incorporates the view of the triple gate and the bell tower of the Nanzen-ji temple." Like mountains and hillsides, the framed view meets the critical shakkei criteria that the borrowed scenery must "always be there."

A third aspect of the shakkei concept is mikiri, said Pogue, explaining that in Japanese this means trimming. "This is basically how the gardener limits the borrowed landscape to the features that he or she wants to show in the garden and to conceal or limit the features that are not necessary or are undesirable. The designer kind of carefully screens the views they don't want to be part of the garden design and opens the views they want to bring in from the distant landscape. In Japan, they use clay walls, usually with tiles on top or on the edges, or a natural elevation such as a hill in the garden itself. This way the designer is precisely controlling what the viewer should see."

A fourth element that is very important is the linking of the borrowed scenery with the foreground of the garden. "There is the scenery in the distance and the garden itself, but they somehow have to be tied together so there is a continuity," Pogue said. "The designer does that by placing intermediary objects in the garden. These could be an arrangement of rocks, trees or an architectural element such as a stone lantern to guide the eye towards wherever the designer wants it to go. Or, it could be a building. When this is done carefully, artfully, craft-fully the distant scenery is brought closer and the garden becomes one integrated vista."

How to apply this technique to a home garden

A path of colorful hydrangea leads to a rural house It may not be a natural part of the landscape, but your house can be an easy focal point for your garden. (Photo: Theo Snijder/Shutterstock)

So, how does a home gardener apply this ancient Asian technique to a 21st century American landscape? "The first thing I would say is to look at a lot of pictures," said Pogue. "That's because this is very conceptual. Sometimes it can be hard to understand what it means and it can be confusing. But when you look at these pictures and you see the top of Mount Fuji and you're viewing it in between the trunks of trees carefully placed in the garden, it makes a lot sense.

If someone wanted to apply this in their own garden, Pogue said a feature they might want to highlight would be a group of trees or even a single tree in a neighboring yard. They could do this she suggested by using plant materials or hardscapes as a frame.

"If you look at the pictures, you will often see that there will be a short wall and then behind it this amazing majestic mountain," she said. Or, instead of a wall, you could use a hedge. Be aware, though, that the Japanese do not use hedges like Western gardeners.

"In Japan they usually use two or three different kinds of plants in a hedge," said Pogue. That's because the Japanese believe if you just use one plant that it absorbs your eye, she explained. "But, if you mix several plants, the hedge doesn't absorb your eye as much because there are different textures in it, and your eye will go beyond the hedge and look at the view beyond."

And that, after all is the intent — as much now in suburban or rural America as in ancient Japan.

Recommended reading

Pogue recommends these books for those who want to know more about shakkei garden design:

  • "Space and illusion in the Japanese Garden" by Teiji Itoh
  • "Creating Japanese Gardens" by Philip Cave
  • "A Japanese Touch for Your Garden" by Kiyoshi Seike, Masanobu Kudo and David H. Engel