Gardens of Stone, Moss, Sand: 4 Moments of Zen in Kyoto

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Once, when the Buddha was asked to preach about a flower he was presented, he instead “gazed at it in silence,” according to the British garden designer Sophie Walker in her book “The Japanese Garden.” In this spiritual moment Zen Buddhism was born, inspiring the serene and eternal dry or rock gardens called karesansui.

Unlike a garden designed for strolling, which directs visitors along a defined path to take in scenic views and teahouses, a dry garden is viewed while seated on a veranda above, offering the heightened experience of traveling through it in the imagination, revealing its essence in meditation.

With rocks artfully placed along expanses of fine gravel raked by monks into ripples representing water, they are sources for contemplation, whether they refer to a specific landscape or are serenely abstract. Ryoan-ji, which dates to about 1500, is the supreme example of the latter among Kyoto temples, with its 15 low rocks in five clusters set in pools of moss within an enclosed rectangle of raked gravel. The puzzle is that only 14 are visible at any one time, no matter where you sit to view it.

Change in Kyoto, Japan’s major city of temple gardens, is a quiet evolution. But a tour of several dry gardens designed within the last century — and even within the last few years — demonstrates that the Zen tradition is timeless when it comes to landscape design, and that moments of contemplation are still possible, even as the crowds grow bigger.

Upon arrival at the Zen monastery complex Daitoku-ji, in northern Kyoto, I headed to Zuiho-in, one of its 22 subtemples. The temple was founded in 1319, and then in 1546, the powerful feudal lord Sorin Otomo dedicated it to his family. This was during the period of Spanish and Portuguese missionaries in Japan. Like others, Otomo converted to Christianity but remained inspired by Zen Buddhism.

I entered along angled walkways until I arrived at Zuiho-in’s temple veranda to view the main dry garden. Though the style may at first appear traditional, this garden was designed in the 1960s by Mirei Shigemori, a landscape architect whose training was in the Japanese cultural arts: conducting the tea ceremony, flower arranging, and landscape ink and wash painting. As the Western Modernist movement entered Japan, he adopted it in combination with traditional arts and became determined to revolutionize a garden aesthetic that had remained fixed for hundreds of years. He succeeded in designing more than 200 gardens in Japan and even worked with the Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi on a UNESCO garden, collecting stones in Japan that Noguchi set in the garden at the organization’s Paris headquarters.

In the Zuiho-in garden, the gravel swirls are raked into high peaks as if far out at sea, with a chain of jagged pointed rocks like islands leading to a mossy peninsula crested by a massive stone representing Mount Horai, where, according to Taoist mythology, the heroes called the Eight Immortals, who fought for justice, reside. Referring to Otomo’s Christianity, rocks in a second garden define a cross, and three rows of squarish stones embedded in sand elsewhere in the garden could be seen as Shigemori’s Modernist signature.

Across town, in the Higashiyama district, the Philosopher’s Walk is a pedestrian path along the picturesque Lake Biwa Canal. First opened in 1890, it is believed to be named for a Kyoto University philosophy professor who strolled there while meditating. As you walk along it, depending on the season, the swift current below carries brilliant autumnal leaves or delicate cherry blossoms shed from trees lining the banks.

Honen-in, one of several Buddhist temples along the Philosopher’s Walk, is particularly popular in autumn, with its grand staircase and entry gate framed by vast canopies of fiery red Japanese maple trees. Two large, rectangular white-sand mounds along the central path are periodically raked by monks into new designs; last fall, a maple leaf was outlined on one and a ginkgo leaf on the other against backgrounds of ridges.

The high priest, Kajita Shinsho, who lives there with his family, had a private courtyard with a veranda that needed a garden, and last March he engaged Marc Peter Keane, an American landscape architect now living in Kyoto, to design it. A graduate of Cornell University, Mr. Keane has lived in Japan for almost 20 years and specializes in Japanese garden design. Like Shigemori, he has immersed himself in Japanese culture. His home and studio are now permanently in Kyoto.

Only three old, gnarled camellia trees remained on the rectangular site, with blossoms in season ranging from dark rose to pale pink and white. Mr. Keane’s idea was to represent the constant flux of nature, exemplified for him by the carbon cycle — the process by which carbon travels from the air into organisms and back into air. His garden, titled “Empty River,” creates what he described as “a physical expression of this invisible cycle through a river of pure carbon charcoal.”

He traced by foot a narrow serpentine “river” that winds around the roots and trunks of the camellias, and with the short charcoal sticks he placed in the long groove, it cuts a strong black line through a blend of fine brown and white gravel. There are no rocks, only small stones framing the courtyard and plantings, with Andromeda ferns in the corners. Its starkness is its beauty, softened only when camellia petals are strewed across the gravel in April.

Mr. Keane compares this distillation of design and materials to a haiku, the Japanese three-lined poem. But like the gardens of old, it also expresses the Buddhist concept of emptiness.

At Tofuku-ji , a temple, in the city’s southeastern district, Shigemori designed the garden of the Hojo, the Abbot’s Hall, as early as 1939, using materials found on site. His avant-garde vocabulary of straight lines and grids may have seemed sensational then, but it is beloved now for its harmonious vitality.

From the first veranda, you overlook the southern garden, with clusters of mostly jagged vertical rocks and ripples of raked gravel radiating out, terminating at the far end with five mossy mounds like sacred mountains in the sea. In the western garden, squarely trimmed azaleas alternate with square fields of white gravel, reflecting ancient land-division customs. Azaleas in Japan are closely clipped, so these bloom in gorgeous flat surfaces of deep pink.

Next, a vast checkerboard field of leftover square paving stones embedded in a carpet of moss seems to dwindle off to infinity in the northern garden. And finally, to the east, a pattern of stone pillar foundations recreates the Big Dipper constellation, with gravel raked in concentric circles around each pillar to emphasize its individuality.

Mr. Keane’s 2022 Ukifune Garden (Drifting Boat Garden) is an allegorical interpretation of the chapter by the same name from “The Tale of Genji,” Murasaki Shikibu’s 11th-century novel about Prince Hikaru or “Shining” Genji, and his tempestuous romantic and political life at court.

Mr. Keane designed it as the Zen courtyard garden of the Genji Kyoto hotel, opened in April 2022, on the banks of the Kamo River, near where Genji builds his own grand estate and gardens in the book. Designed by the American architect Geoffrey P. Moussas, who also lives in Kyoto, the hotel’s plan incorporates the indoor-outdoor characteristics of Kyoto’s old merchant houses.

Mr. Keane was inspired by the “Genji” scene in which one of two powerful dignitaries vying for the favor of Ukifune, a woman of 22, travels through a snowstorm and absconds with her by boat on the Uji River. As they pass the Isle of Orange Trees, she recites a poem in which she likens herself to the drifting boat: “The enduring hue of the Isle of Orange Trees may well never change,/ yet there is no knowing now where the drifting boat is bound.”

Mr. Keane consulted with John Carpenter, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s curator of Japanese art, who told him of the late-16th-century “Genji” screen painting by Tosa Mitsuyoshi in the museum’s collection illustrating this famous scene. A copy of the panel now hangs in Kyoto next to the garden.

Mr. Keane installed a swerving “river” with gray river stones set ingeniously on edge rather than flat, giving the flow a greater sense of direction. The garden is set between two wings of the hotel, and the “water” appears to tumble down like a waterfall from one building into the next with a wide, flat steel bridge above, a viewing platform bringing the design to life. The banks on either side are densely planted with maple trees, lady palms, ferns and ground-cover moss. And a boat-shaped stone carries a large patch of moss, which Mr. Keane interprets as Earth drifting through the galaxy.

The gardens at Zuiho-in and the Tofuku-ji Abbot’s Hall garden require tickets. The entrance fee at both is 400 Japanese yen for adults (about $2.65) and 300 yen for children (about $2).

General admission to Honen-in is free, except for during the spring and fall opening weeks, which usually fall during the first week of April and the third week of November and cost 500 yen for spring and 800 yen for fall. The Empty River garden can be visited during those weeks.

The Genji Kyoto hotel garden is free to visit.

If you get hungry while touring gardens, Izusen, a restaurant in the Daiji-in subtemple of the Daitoku-ji monastery complex, offers multiple local specialties in set menus beautifully presented in mostly lacquered red bowls, which nest when empty. Open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. by reservation; 4,370 to 8,050 yen. It is near Zuiho-in.

Also by reservation, Yudofu Kisaki, a restaurant between the entrance to Honen-in and the Philosopher’s Walk, has vegetarian and tofu specialties. Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., last order at 6 p.m.; 4,370 to 8,050 yen.

For a companionable book to read on your tour, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Yasunari Kawabata’s post-World War II novel “The Rainbow” is newly available in English. Several chapters take place in Kyoto, and it can feel as though you are traveling together, often in the same gardens. Kawabata’s knowledge of plants was formidable, and the simplicity of his descriptions both natural and direct: “On the lawn in front of the gate, in the shadows of the pine trees, dandelions and lotuses were in bloom. A double-flowered camellia had blossomed in front of the bamboo fence.”


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