Japanese gardens are not beautiful by accident. Every detail is carefully considered, every plant and rock precisely placed. And the result is often stunning.
It was in Kyoto that I really came to appreciate the nuances of Japanese garden design. Gardens in Japan fall into two distinct categories: those that are to be experienced by walking around them, and those that are simply viewed from a building or veranda.
The former are usually called ‘strolling gardens’, Kaiyu-shiki teien. They incorporate a variety of elements, almost always including water in the shape of a ‘pond and island garden’. This is the oldest type of garden found in Japan. The islands in the pond are considered sacred spaces, representing heaven; they often have bridges linking them to the banks of the pond.
Gardens intended to be viewed from a veranda include ‘dry landscape gardens’, Karesansui. Sand or gravel is raked in a variety of ways to cover the ground, representing the ocean; Karesansui means ‘dry mountain water’. These gardens are particularly associated with Zen temples.
Another form of garden designed to be looked at rather than entered is the courtyard garden, Tsubo-niwa. These are usually very small, tucked between or even within buildings. You can see some examples of these in my post about the merchant houses of Takayama. Here I want to focus on the gardens we visited in Kyoto which illustrate many of the above styles.
Tenryu-ji in Arashiyama is one of the most important Zen temples in Kyoto and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was built in 1339 by the ruling shogun Ashikaga Takauji, who dedicated it to his predecessor, the Emperor Go-Daigo. These two were formerly allies but Takauji turned against the emperor in his struggle for supremacy over Japan. By building the temple, Takauji intended to appease the former emperor’s spirits. Many of the temple buildings were repeatedly lost in fires and wars over the centuries; and most of the current halls date from the relatively recent Meiji Period (1868-1912).
The main reason we came to Tenryu-ji was to see its gardens, which was just as well, as at the time of our visit its main halls were being renovated and it wasn’t possible to go inside. But in any case, the gardens are considered the main draw here. They are designated as a Special Place of Scenic Beauty, and were among the loveliest we saw in Japan, I thought.
Unlike the buildings they have survived unchanged through the centuries. At their heart, immediately in front of one of the main buildings, is a beautiful pond, Sogen Pond. Various rocks are artfully placed in and around the water to look completely natural, in a technique known as Ishigumi, literally ‘arranged rocks’; and large carp swim in the water. Paths meander among the trees past a number of little shrines and sculptures which are dotted around. This style of garden is known as a Chisen-kaiyu-shiki or pond-stroll garden, which sums it up perfectly.
The forested Mount Arashiyama and Mount Kameyama to the west form an attractive background to the garden. This is an excellent example of the Japanese garden design technique, Shakkei, usually translated as ‘borrowed scenery’. In this, the garden is designed in such a way that the surrounding scenery provides a background that complements and enhances the ambiance. Thus, the garden can be placed near an old forest or in front of an important landmark, such as a temple or a castle. But most frequently the garden designers used nearby hills or mountains, as here at Tenryu-ji.
The Zen style of garden dates from a period in Japanese history when interest in Zen Buddhism was at its height, in the late 14th-16th centuries. At this time gardens became smaller, simpler and more minimalist; but most retained many of the same elements as before, including ponds, islands, bridges and waterfalls. However, an extremely minimalist version emerged, the Karesansui dry garden. This uses nothing but rocks, gravel and sand to represent all the elements of the landscape. This example at Ryoan-ji is one of the most famous in the country.
It is rectangular in shape, enclosed by a clay wall. Arranged within it are fifteen stones of different sizes, composed in five groups: one group of five stones, two groups of three, and two groups of two stones. These stones are surrounded by white gravel which is carefully raked each day by the monks. The only vegetation is some moss surrounding each group of stones. The garden is intended to be viewed from a seated position on the veranda of the hojo, the pavilion that serves as the residence of the head priest.
At first glance it may seem random, though elegant in its design. But everything is very deliberate. The stones are placed in such a way that it is impossible to see the entire composition at once from the veranda. They are also arranged so that when looking at the garden from any angle (other than from above) only fourteen are visible at a time. Tradition holds that only through attaining enlightenment could a person view all fifteen.
And the wall too is part of the design. The clay has been mixed with rapeseed oil to give these brown and rust-coloured tones. This is intended to set off the whiteness of the gravel by absorbing light, and to create a neutral background that focuses attention on the stones.
It isn’t known who designed this garden, and although there are many theories, no one can say for sure what it is intended to represent. Some say it is an abstraction of a tiger and her cubs crossing a river; but that appears to refer to an earlier version of the garden that had only nine stones. Some say these are small islands in the ocean, or mountain peaks emerging through a sea of cloud. Others have suggested that the arrangement of the rocks relates to the Japanese character for ‘heart’; or that there is some hidden geometry behind them. It is probably best to simply accept that they are as they are because someone wanted them to look exactly like this, rather than minimise their potential impact by straining to find an unintended meaning.
On the far side of the pavilion (that is, away from the garden) the building is surrounded by trees and moss. Here there is a famous stone washbasin known as Tsukubai, dating from the 17th century. It bears a simple four-character Zen inscription: ‘I learn only to be contented’.
The pond garden
Although Ryoan-ji Temple is best known for its Zen dry garden, there is much more to it than that. It has a pretty pond garden which is also well worth exploring, its lush greenery all the more refreshing as a contrast to the white gravel and bare rocks of the former. This is Kyoyochi Pond, built in the 12th century when this site still served as an aristocrat’s villa. There are large carp, white ducks and pink water lilies. The path around the pond leads past the small stone bridge that will take you on to the islet with a little torii gate and shrine, and past a large stone Buddha statue.
Kinkaku-ji is best known for its pavilion, known as the Golden Pavilion. Some sights are so much talked about and so often visited that you wonder if they can really be that wonderful. The Golden Pavilion is one such sight – and yes, it really is that wonderful.
Like many of Kyoto’s temples, this was originally the site of a private villa; but it was converted to a Zen temple at the very start of the 15th century by the son of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, as a memorial to his father. Most of the buildings were lost in the Onin War later the same century, apart from the pavilion which survived. But in 1950 it too was lost, burned down by a novice monk, who tried to commit suicide as a result of what he had done. It was rebuilt in 1955 and that is the building we see today, a close copy of the original.
You can’t go inside the pavilion, only admire from outside, although a display panel does show some photos of the interior. It is unusual in that each floor has a different style.
The top floor is a Zen meditation hall, built in Karayo style or Zen temple style. It is called Kukkyo-cho and its interior walls are also gilded. The middle floor is a hall dedicated to Kannon Bodhisattva; it is built in Buke-zukuri, the style of the samurai house and is called Cho-on-do. It holds a seated statue of the Kannon surrounded by statues of the Four Heavenly Kings; although this is not on view to the public.
The lower, unpainted floor is a more secular space, designed for admiring the landscape. It is named Ho-sui-in and is Shinden-zukuri, or palace style. The building is topped with a wonderful golden phoenix.
The strolling garden
After viewing the Golden Temple of Kinkaku-ji from most sides, the path led us around the rest of the gardens. These have retained their original design from the days of Yoshimitsu, the Shogun who first built the temple on this spot. They are landscaped in a very natural way, with a variety of trees, bamboo, mosses and a stream, in the ‘strolling garden’ style.
There is a lot of symbolism in the garden, with the rocks, bridges and plants arranged in particular ways to represent famous places in Chinese and Japanese literature. The largest of the islets in the pond represents the islands that constitute Japan itself, while four rocks which form a straight line in the pond near the pavilion are said to represent sailboats anchored at night, bound for the Isle of Eternal Life of Chinese mythology.
Here and there in the grounds we came across statues and sculptures. The one in my photo stands on an island in another small pond, An-min-taku. It is called Hakuja-no-tsuka (the Mound in Memory of the White Snake). This pond is said to never dry up.
And a pond that never dries up is as good a place as any to finish our tour of Kyoto gardens, posted in response to Amy’s Lens-Artists Challenge theme of Gardens.
As a final image I want to share an effect created from a photo of berries taken in Tenryu-ji gardens. I learned how to make these twirls from John Steiner aka Photo by Johnbo, thanks to his interview with Marsha. I love the effect and can see myself getting a bit addicted and over-using it, but for now I’ll restrain myself to a single image!
I visited Kyoto in 2013