The most famous garden in Japan is probably the Rock Garden (c. 1500) at Ryoanji Temple, Kyoto. Often baffling foreign visitors, the space defies both simple answers and photography. Expansive temple grounds feature elements of a traditional Paradise garden with a man-made pond, islands, and meandering paths.
A view over Kyoyochi pond.
The way to the main temple passes antiquities nestled into the landscape, creating a contemplative mood.
A worn flight of steps slows the approach to Kuri, the main building of the temple and the entrance to the Rock Garden.
This is the layout in miniature, consisting only of white sand and fifteen rocks seated in slowly accreted cushions of moss. Attributed to Tokuho Zenketsu, the space is considered to be the quintessential expression of Zen art, a physical embodiment of the seven spiritual characteristics of Zen according to philosopher Hisamatsu.
The scholarly work referenced above is a definitive text on Japanese Gardens –now out of print. It offers comprehensive and profound analysis that informed my experience of Japanese design and aesthetics. A modern text with beautiful photographs that I would recommend is Japanese Stone Gardens by Stephen Mansfield.
Finally, a view of the east end of the garden. Measuring 25 m wide and 10 m deep, wide angle lenses warp the space, failing to capture an accurate image. Rhythmically arranged in groups of seven-five-three across the raked sand, the rocks rise like ancient islands. But direct symbolic interpretations are both unintended and irrelevant to the composition according to Zen principles. The rich color patterning the south wall is created by ancient linseed oil leaching from the clay, adding an unpredictable, wabi-sabi character material. Below, a view of the west end of the garden. This truly is a space that needs to be experienced in person to understand the ambiance created by such humble materials.
The sense of reverence generated by the landscape is almost palpable. Visitors for the most part are quiet and thoughtful, scrupulously respecting the integrity of the space. There are no barriers between guests and gravel, all observe from a narrow wooden platform stretching across the north end of the temple. I sat here with Dr. Armitage discussing the “meaning” of what lay before us, when he dropped his brochure onto the precisely raked gravel….fortunately, I was able to lean out a retrieve it before a monk came along to scold.
A group of fellow Garden Vistas travelers, Bill, Alison, Shigeto, and Gloria, enjoy the view.
Kites and Kimonos, an obscure children’s book published in 1936, describes a fictional family in pre-war Tokyo. I remember reading it around age 8, and in spite of the pedantic text, I was enchanted by its description of a culture so different from my own. A lifelong interest in Japanese culture took root. While studying Japanese art and traditional textiles in college, I purchased the same book for a quarter at the library’s discard sale. Now, thirty years later, it rests beside the keyboard as I reflect upon my recent trip to Japan. Zen philosophy offers that “every step of the journey is the journey.” From the first page of Kites and Kimonos to landing at Narita Airport on October 27, 2010, the route was long and full of unexpected detours, making the destination more valued as a result.
The final impetus for this trip comes from a professional project. Currently, I am engaged in a long term plan to renovate the grounds surrounding the Palmer House in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian masterpiece. Inspired by their travels, Billy and Mary Palmer’s garden reflected a Japanese sensibility. Unfortunately, the property became overgrown over the past decade and threatened by invasive species. Although some details of the garden have disappeared, the majestic trees and layout remain. My time in Japan focused on visiting gardens, experiencing the spaces with an eye to restoring the Palmer House garden’s Japanese aesthetic.