Ryoan-ji. Koto-in. Ginkaku-ji. Sesshu-in. Isabel Griffiths takes you on a tour of the intricacies of Japanese Zen Gardens.

    Kyoto landscape, Japan.

    I finally arrived in Kyoto – by gliding in on the bullet train – and was finally to have the chance to experience for myself the spaces of the city’s famous Zen temple gardens. Shortly after I arrived I was greeted by another friendly face from home, this time Steve Terry, lecturer at Writtle School of Design, whose visit to Kyoto just overlapped with mine. I was very happy to benefit from his knowledge of Japanese culture and design as we visited Chisaku-in and Kiyomizu-dera temple gardens.

    Every day in Kyoto brought a new surprise, something unexpected and wonderful, and to be honest it was quite hard to take everything in. At Koto-in I literally gasped in amazement when I saw the vivid pink foliage framed through the hojo building, and in the illuminated forest of bamboo at Kodai-ji at night I was taken aback by an enormous face appearing in the dark sky beyond – which turned out to be a huge statue of the head of the Bodhisattva Kannon on the adjacent plot of land, and it nearly gave me a heart attack. I found certain places so beautiful that I wanted to stay there forever; they seemed as if they’d always been there and always would be. As for the rock garden at Ryoan-ji, it really is a conundrum. It’s so simple, yet seems to have something of everything – its rocks contain so many different forms, so many different textures and colours, despite on first sight seeming like the monochromatic landscape paintings that no doubt influenced its design; each rock has its own character. The composition’s held together by the space between the rocks (ma), creating interesting relationships; it’s perfectly balanced. It’s fascinating. I tried to draw it, but found it didn’t want to fit on the page. I filled a whole sketch book, but knew I could fill a million more and I’d still want to keep on trying. But as well as it being its own world of infinite interpretation, it also drew my attention sharply to the reality of the world beyond its walls – the fall of a leaf onto the whiteness of the gravel, the sound of a gardener beyond the walls, raking, and immediately adjacent to the famous dry garden is a lush green garden of moss and gnarled roots, such a vivid contrast. I found it very difficult to leave.

    My main study interests were to investigate the ways in which space is arranged in Japanese gardens to depict vast landscapes in small spaces, as well as to find out about the use and importance of moss. I visited really a lot of temples, with stroll gardens, tea gardens and karesansui dry rock gardens, and was able to see the effect of various design techniques.

    Huge landscapes are represented by using miniaturisation, with many gardens containing literary allusions, religious symbolism or references to actual landscapes from elsewhere in China or Japan, such as the Amanohashidate peninsula recreated at the Katsura Imperial Villa. Azaleas are often pruned into pebble forms resembling hills, and rocks can symbolise real mountains such as Mount Hiei, or the famous mountain of Buddhist mythology, Mount Horai, for example at Ryogen-in.  With the gardens designed as an aid to meditation, visitors are also encouraged to find their own meanings. The most elaborate representation I came across was at Daisen-in, with its dry waterfall of raked gravel flowing down from Mount Horai, meeting along its journey rocks said to depict among other things a sleeping cow, a tiger’s head and a treasure boat, these symbolic elements representing stages in the journey of life. I saw rocks depicting cranes and tortoises, symbolising longevity, in many other gardens as well as this one, and a dragon at Ryogin-an, but a lot was also lost on me.  At the tiny Totekiko garden at Ryogen-in, thought to be the smallest Japanese rock garden, an explanation was given in English: the simple design of rings raked around central rocks tells us that the harder you throw a stone into the water, the larger the ripples you create.
    Another technique for making spaces seem larger is that of shakkei – ‘borrowed landscape’. This means composing the garden in such a way that elements beyond its limit can be incorporated in its design, making it appear to stretch further than it actually does. The best example I saw of this was during an excursion to Nara, at the delightful Isuien garden, where trees frame the famous gate of Todaiji temple and the curving hills beyond.

    I also noticed that in many gardens you’re taken on quite a journey through what is otherwise a relatively small space. For example, the paths to both Koto-in and Ginkaku-ji turn you twice before you even reach the entrance. Miegakure, meaning ‘hide and reveal’, is a device used to enhance the experience of stroll gardens, screening and opening up new views when you least expect them. Creating winding paths of stepping stones is just one way of doing this – you’re forced to concentrate on your footing, but when you finally look up, a surprising new scene is revealed. A great example of this is around the islands and inlets of the Katsura Imperial Villa.

    Garden elements are arranged asymmetrically and usually in odd numbers, giving an organic, natural feel to compositions and with perfect proportions and balance, very simple configurations in courtyard gardens can give the impression of constituting a whole world. Vegetation is thinned by pruning, creating more space between elements (ma) and also allowing it to flow through them, like the white space in a Chinese Song period painting which allows the whole composition to breathe. I saw bamboo so young and delicately spaced it seemed like ink drawings in the air, as well as pines pruned to almost caricatures of themselves. In the temples, space also flows elegantly between outside and in, and views are directed through: the architecture and landscape are totally inter-reliant. Without the dark frames of the wooden buildings through which to view them, without the choreographed sequence of movement through the rooms and the openings of the sliding doors, the gardens would have little impact. And equally without the gardens, the buildings would have little meaning either. These are beautiful, elegant, clever spaces from which we can learn a lot.

    It’s easy to see the similarities between landscape scenes painted on the screen doors of temple hojo buildings and the compositions presented in their dry gardens. Throughout history, painters also designed gardens, for example Soami at Ryogen-in and Sesshu at Sesshu-in, yet these scenes are anything but two-dimensional. But then again you can’t fully experience them 3-dimensionally – you can’t enter these spaces. They’re 2-D scenes with 3-D form experienced from a distance in the 4-D real-landscape-world – but there are so many more dimensions to them than that…  the sound of the wind through leaves of bamboo that sounds like distant rain… the time that passes as you sit there and watch shadows move across the gravel, but also all the possible stories that these rocks could tell… and then oops, your pencil slips from your fingers at Ryoan-ji and tumbles over the edge onto the tiles below, and has to be retrieved by the amused lady from the gift shop.

    So which were my favourites? Ryoan-ji. Koto-in. Ginkaku-ji. And Sesshu-in because I just felt at home. Oh, and the moss garden at Sanzen-in in Ohara. Not forgetting Saiho-ji, the Moss Temple, for which I had to obtain permission to visit in advance and copy out a sutra in calligraphy before entering the garden. I’d read that certain gardens were famous for their moss, but what I hadn’t realised was that they all contain moss as a basic element. I asked everyone I met whether moss has a special meaning, why it’s so important to Japanese gardens. And the answer I was given: because it’s comforting. It gives us a good feeling. And it does, it’s like an enchanting, cushioned land of bright green, just waiting to catch falling red maple leaves, with which of course it creates a wonderful contrast. With so many different species, there’s a lot you can do when designing with it, and I began to collect images of different aesthetic effects created by different combinations.  But it was clear that it needs a lot of care, and not all species are welcome – Ginkaku-ji has a display of the VIPS, as it calls them, as well as the baddies. It was difficult to get information about the cultivation of the moss at temples – the ones I’d written to had not replied, and on further enquiry in person seemed to want the mystery to remain just that. Gardeners however were keen to talk about the cultivation of the moss, so I was very grateful when I was with someone who could translate, and managed to get some basic information about care in different gardens in this way. I observed it being raked at Ginkaku-ji and saw some over-enthusiastic moss being delicately removed – with tweezers! – when I visited Kennin-ji with another friend who taught me a lot, Motoko, on my last afternoon.

    This was a lovely end to my trip, which all in all was a wonderfully enriching and quite overwhelming experience that’s given me a lot of inspiration for the future. I’m extremely grateful to the Landscape Institute for making it possible – Thank you!

    – About the author: Isabel Griffiths is one of three Student Travel Awards 2014 recipients. Find out more about the Student Travel Awards in the Student section.


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