Kyoto treasures ~ Zen Rock Gardens


Nothing quite says Kyoto better than the city’s famed Japanese rock gardens. Often referred to as Zen gardens, the rock gardens offer a scaled down version of a landscape, through carefully composed arrangements of rocks, water features, moss, pruned trees and gravel or sand that is artfully raked, to represent ripples in water.

Rock Gardens

Initially found in Zen Buddhist temples, over time, the concept of the peaceful meditative landscape became a design feature and even the smallest of homes, often feature tiny rock gardens, a wink at the grander rock gardens of Kyoto. There centuries of commentary about the nature and proper design for rock gardens that could fill pages, but a bit too dense for our purpose here. The specific placement of rocks, the placement of trees, the pattern of raking, all these features of a rock garden have deep philosophical meaning.

One succinct explanation given is that rock gardens were intended to replicate the intimate essence of nature and to serve as an aid to Zen meditation.

It is hard to capture in photos the feeling of calm and serenity one gets while absorbing the environment at Ryoan-ji temple’s rock garden. We visit multiple rock gardens in Kyoto, but this one, in its simplicity, and spaciousness, is the one which has stayed with us. Fifteen rocks, carefully selected and placed to create a Zen harmony, with the perfectly raked stones and enclosed by aged red clay walls surrounded by tall cypress trees. We gaze upon this rock garden at the end of the day during dusk, when the soft light all around serves to enhance the tranquility.

Beautifully captured in pen and ink, Ryoan-Ji’s rock garden depicted as visual support for a poem, dating back three centuries.

We sit here timelessly, just as many have for the past 500 years.

Many different theories have been put forward about what the Ryoan-ji garden is supposed to represent, from islands in a stream to swimming baby tigers to the peaks of mountains rising above the clouds to theories about secrets of geometry or of the rules of equilibrium of odd numbers.

Ryoan-ji temple itself has a heralded history, with historical references to the temple dating back to the 15th century. This temple, built around 1450 was itself built on the land of a famous Japanese warlord, head of the Fujiwara clan, who ruled this area for centuries.

All Zen gardens were designed such that they are oriented for best viewing and meditative experiences from a specific view point. These are typically large tatami-floored wooden buildings that served as an oasis of calm away from everything beyond the garden’s walls. The tatami rooms below are the viewing/meditation spot for the Ryoan Ji rock garden.

The screens that divide the sequence of tatami rooms depict nature scenes in neutral tones . (Today, one can see into the viewing rooms, but access is restricted in order to preserve the pristine condition of the centuries old rooms.)

Kanji is an age old Japanese alphabet of about 3,000 Chinese characters and an art form that allows the calligrapher to tell a story through the words, and at the same time to reflect his/her own style through a unique “penmanship” of these kanji characters.

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