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.
Overcast skies but no rain on my second solo day in Japan, so I took the JR Yokosuka line to Kamakura. It is very easy to get around — the automatic ticket machines and posted maps are fairly intuitive, but it does help to have a good orientation skills. A forty-five minute trip dropped me at Kita-Kamakura Station on a little side road lined with private residences. The numerous temples were located at the end of long narrow roads heading up into the surrounding hills. I only had time to visit six sites, plus lunch and a brief stop in a lacquer shop. I wish I’d had more time here — a wonderful place of temples, shrines, and gardens.
This gardener pruned a row of tree peonies down to a couple of strong buds on each stem. Using sign language, he told me that not only did it keep the plants from outgrowing their space, but also made for larger blossoms on the remaining framework. I will have to try this with some overgrown specimens.
Casual bonsai like this pot were popular everywhere. This arrangement of a maple, toad lily, and gemmiferous spikemoss (Selaginella moellendorffii) is a charming microcosm of natural woodland growth I observed. Coincidentally, I purchased a pot of this spikemoss at Arrowhead Alpines last summer for use in a container — I’m over-wintering it inside since it’s only hardy to zone 7. According to Phytozome, this member of the ancient family of lycophytes has the smallest genome of any plant reported, making it invaluable for understanding plant evolution. After 400 million years of perseverance, I hope it survives my basement.
The Hojo garden at Engaku-ji enclosed “Hyaku Kan-non,” a hundred sculptures of the goddess of mercy from the Edo period. Petitioners left offerings to accompany silent prayers.
Tradition says that these 750 year-old junipers at Kencho-ji were planted by founder Rankei Doryu (1213-78) from seed brought from China.
Natural springs trickled from the steep slopes surrounding the temple complexes.
Shimenawa (sacred ropes) mark an iwakura, an ancient rock seat of the gods.
Meigetsu-an, “Bright Moon Hermitage,” features a dry landscape garden with a background of karikoma, tightly clipped shrubs simulating verdant mountains. The rock arrangement represents Buddhist cosmology, with Shumisen, the world mountain, rising from the center of supporting stones.
Supplicants adorn the statues with red garments and leave tokens of loved ones as they pray for the well-being of both the living and the dead. A color traditionally signifying good fortune and protection from evil, red also decorates buildings, lanterns, and gates. A classic example is the Hachiman-gu Shrine (1063), dedicated to the god of war.