Learning About Japanese Zen Gardens

It is said that Kyoto is the center of Zen Buddhism in Japan, so the most sublime Zen temples are there. Japanese Zen gardens or karesansui, which means dry landscape gardens, are created by Buddhist monks to help with their meditation. Therefore, it is only fitting that Japanese gardens give people tranquility and peace of mind.

I first came to Japan in March 2015. And to celebrate my 3rd anniversary being here, I wanted to do something different and try something new. I sought to learn more about Japanese culture, history, and religion.

My mom and I went on a tour in Nanzen-ji Temple. Inside it is the Konchi-in temple. I didn’t know then, but it has one of the finest Zen gardens in Kyoto. Before the tour, I didn’t expect to learn much. I just wanted to bring my mom to see some beautiful scenery. When we were there, I was surprised to learn that Japanese rock gardens are full of symbolisms. You can sit there, look at the garden and let your imagination run wild with meanings and interpretations of everything. The rock and tree formations, landscape designs, and the temple’s interior designs all have meanings. Overall, I see Japanese gardens as beautiful and aesthetically pleasing. However, I didn’t know that every detail in the garden has cultural, religious, and historical representations.

Okay, here are some of the things I understood and remember based on my notes and the pictures I took.

This is the gate to the main temple. Most of the trees here are maple trees. So, imagine this place in autumn, primarily brown, orange, and red. I went in spring, by the way. There were cherry blossom trees, hence equally splendid. ❤️

And this is the way to the garden.

Rock formations

Rock formations in Zen gardens are sublime. They are very intricate and full of representations. You might notice that there is always the biggest rock, usually at the center. It represents the Buddha or the Supreme being or maybe the most superior in the picture. Surrounding it are the worshippers, children, or followers. I can actually imagine the smaller stones as people kneeling down and praying.

This formation is about a tiger story. The mother tiger (biggest rock) watching her children (smaller rocks) play.

Rocks also represent mountains, hills, and islands.

Sand or gravel

Japanese rock gardens are also called karesansui, meaning dry landscape gardens. The sand or gravel represents water. The monks carefully rake them every day to have that illusion of a wave or flowing water.

Trees

Konchi-in temple is the best example of a shakkei, meaning borrowed scenery. The garden gives you a two-dimensional scene, all thanks to the trees and hills in the background. The trees appear perfectly aligned, from the tallest ones to the shortest, flowing towards the rock formations. It is like the garden is extended even to the hills outside the temple. Our tour guide said that even the cut of the trees has meaning, and not just anyone can do it. In important places like this, only well-trained and informed gardeners can. And it takes them hours to trim the leaves of just one tree!

The rock formation in the picture is called, Tsurukame no Niwa, which means Crane and Tortoise Garden. It’s what Konchi-in Temple is known for.

Moss

In Japan, moss is considered an essential element. It grows in most Japanese gardens and imperial palaces, giving a rich green carpet look. They said moss represents tranquility. There is one beautiful moss garden at Konchi-in temple. The place was peaceful and quiet. You won’t see many people there, so it really gives off a tranquil vibe.

( Wait, forgive me, but I’m going to go a little off-topic. I’m a One Piece fan, so I can’t hold the fascination in. The nationality of Roronoa Zoro is Japanese. He has green hair and is teased by Sanji as Moss-head. Now I don’t think it’s a coincidence.)

Stone pagoda


In Japanese Zen gardens, you will see at least one stone pagoda. It represents human existence because it is something man-made. So when you look at the garden, there is heaven (rock formations that represent the Supreme Being), nature (represented by the trees, sand, and so on), and humans (stone pagoda).

Paths


Paths in Japanese gardens can mean a lot of things. They are also well-thought-out because they influence the visitors’ garden experience. Their designs, shapes, and alignments serve a different purpose.

Wide, even and formal pathways are usually entrances to temples.

Beautiful stoned uneven pathways often lead people to significant parts of the temple or essential objects.

In the next picture, the pathway leads to a 300-year-old painting at the door. It’s a road painting similar to the pathway. This symbolizes reality as the extension of the painting or vice versa.

These circular stone pathways run through the moss garden and to the tea garden. They are called tobi-ishi or skipping stones. They are 6 cm higher than the ground and are 3 or 5 cm away from each other. Since moss is vital to Japanese gardens, you can’t step on them and potentially damage them. Walk on the stones instead, but you have to be careful. I’d like to assume that tea masters would like visitors to slow down and maybe do a little meditation on the way to the tea garden.

There is a reservations-only tea room in Konchi-in Temple, also known as Hasso-seki. We were only able to see it, but I get why it is exclusive. Though I haven’t seen many tearooms yet, I’d say that this is one of the best. It has a view of the garden with a waterfall. Someday, I’d like to go to a tea ceremony with scenery as beautiful as this.

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