In Japan, as in many other cultures, the garden can be traced back to early urban settlements to a time when buildings, walls or windows began to visually and physically frame nature and selected forms became isolated from their natural context and enclosed. This area of "captured" nature, which included both flora and fauna, became the garden or "paradise." The concept of "garden as paradise" probably developed from the ancient Persian pairidaeza, meaning "enclosure," and the Greeks used a similar word, paradeisos, for grand animal parks. Early Chinese gardens attached to imperial palaces were likewise animal parks that served as hunting grounds for aristocrats. Walls enclosed the parks, and nature and the animals within the parks were carefully monitored and controlled.
Both native aesthetics and Chinese models influenced early garden development in Japan. Prior to the introduction of Buddhism in the sixth century, Shinto believers venerated unique or extraordinary forms of nature and held them to be the abodes of deities. Such forms might be unusual rock formations, striking mountain forms, ancient weathered trees, or waterfalls of rare shape or size. Their status as the homes of the native gods suggests that these rarities or "accidents" of nature were perceived as beautiful and sacred in early Japan.
During the ninth through twelfth centuries (the Heian period), courtiers followed Chinese models in constructing spacious pond-and-island parks adjacent to their residences. These garden parks were used for entertainment; courtiers strolled through them, traveled along their streams and ponds in small boats, and reveled in drinking and poetry parties within their tranquil surroundings.
Although these gardens looked like nature, they were in fact careful imitations of the outer forms of nature, with their naturally occurring materials all painstakingly chosen and constructed. These two examples suggest two different criteria at work in Japanese aesthetics-one that applied to natural beauty and one to man-made beauty. In nature, accidents are looked upon as praiseworthy, but the beauty of man-made objects lay in a perfection achieved through fixed rules.
Garden development in the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries (The Muromachi period) continued to emphasize the symbiotic relationship between man and nature, but developed in a manner vastly different from earlier stroll gardens. Whereas the early grand parks were viewed by moving through them, gardens of this period were designed on a smaller scale for viewing from static vantage points outside the garden proper. Sand and rocks came to replace the natural water and vegetation, transforming the waters of the Heian-period garden ponds into "dry" ponds of raked sand in the Muromachi period. Likewise, large rocks came to represent whole islands covered with "forests" comprised of moss. These gardens, while "of nature," are not "natural," suggesting that gardens underwent dramatic changes in design at this time.
One of the changes relates to their new purpose. During this period, many gardens were designed for Zen temples and used by monks for meditation, an endeavor that did not encourage interaction with nature but rather the contemplation of it from the outside. This karasansui (dry/withered-mountains-and-streams) style of garden has its roots in the Zen meditational technique of staring at a fixed pointed.