Komorebi & Karesansui

Kyoto (Gion, Kawaramachi, Nishiki Market) // Tenryuji-en // Kokedera // Jizo-in // Arashiyama Bamboo Grove //Okochi Sanso // Ryoanji // Toji-in // Myoshinji (Taizo-in etc) // Daitokuji (Zuiho-in, Daisen-in, Ryogen-in, Koto-in) // Yasaka Shrine & Maruyama Park // Chion-in // Shoren-in // International Manga Museum

I think I have Zen Blindness. As you may be able to tell from the list above, I visited a lot of gardens on the weekend. Somewhere around 14-16, depending on how you count it (a few of them were grouped together- sub temples in the same monastery complex- but they all have their own admission fee, so I’m counting them separately). I am NOT going to write about them all. I have neither the patience nor the adjectives; and you, I suspect, do not have the attention span. What person would? So instead, here are some vague ramblings about things I think are interesting (more accurately: things I can remember) followed by a crap-load of photos….

Mori-san had arranged for us to visit Kokedera (苔 koke= moss// 寺 dera = temple) on Saturday. This temple, properly known as Kōinzan Saihō-ji (洪隠山西芳寺), has a very ancient and very famous garden, particularly known for… Can you guess? 120 types of moss!  A temple was first constructed on the site in the Nara Period (729-749AD) but the garden was created in 1388 by Muso Kokushi/Muso Soseki, who is a very famous Japanese garden designer & monk. It is said that the original design didn’t contain any moss at all, only sand or gravel, but the moss appeared when the temple fell into disrepair during the Meiji era (1860-1912). You can’t go and visit Kokedera without first receiving permission by writing to the temple, and it’s only open once a day anyway, for 1.5 hours. When you attend your appointment, you can’t enter the garden until you have performed a task set by the monks. We attended a chanting meditation and then wrote our wishes on a piece of wood with an ink brush, so the monks could pray for us. I find the sound of monks chanting very overwhelming: partly because it is very loud and rhythmic but mostly because my western ear is not used the that type of sound. So, it was a fantastic experience, although not very meditative: we rushed in late- Mori-san missed his bus and we almost weren’t allowed in for waiting for him- and Matt was fidgeting all the way through… If you go, I recommend going with people who are punctual and can respectfully sit still!

Anyway, the garden is wonderful (see pictures) and has many of the lovely features that are ubiquitous in strolling gardens: reflective water, islands, bridges, lanterns and so on. Don’t worry, I’m not going to begin an essay on the key features of Japanese gardens, because I am waaaay too ignorant, and I haven’t finished reading The Long Awaited Japanese Garden Manual yet (top book, I highly recommend). I should point out though, in case you haven’t realised- that unlike in Europe, a vast number of (the best) Japanese gardens are attached to a temple. Obviously there are other kinds of gardens but gardening is an important part of Japanese Buddhist religious study and meditation; many of the country’s biggest innovations in garden history came from temples. The obvious examples are tea gardens and karesansui gardens.

Most of the gardens I visited in Kyoto this weekend were karesansui (枯山水 // dry rock) gardens. You can read an article that explains karesansui here, but the main factor is that they don’t have any water in them, using raked gravel and rocks (sometimes moss) to represent mountains, rivers, waterfalls, the sea etc.

My karesansui marathon was slightly deliberate- I reasoned that since it’s winter, I’m better off going to visit gardens that don’t have many (any) plants in them- but I didn’t intend to look at quite so many of the same style of garden. It’s actually very hard work looking at a karesansui garden: they are designed for meditation, not idle entertainment, so they require a huge amount of attention and thought relative to their usually diminutive size. In fact, I feel that viewing this style of garden has been an excellent lesson in how to look at things better…

Ryoanji was the first ‘purist’ karesansui garden I went to visit, and of course it is the most famous. I was really excited about going, but also a little apprehensive because I’ve seen loads of pictures of it before and I always thought it looked kind of… boring. This is a pretty heretical thing to say, since Ryoanji is considered a masterpiece amongst Japanese gardens- if not all gardens. So, what was it really like? Well, it was beautifully clear and sunny on Sunday morning, and I dragged my arse out of bed to get there before 9am so it would be less crowded- which it was (Japanese society is awake late into the night, but not early in the morning). The grounds are lovely and I really enjoyed viewing the reflections of the leaning pines over the lake on my way to the temple, but when I eventually went into the temple to the dry garden, my instant reaction was: “Oh. Is that it?” What a horticultural heretic! But I’m persistent, so I decided to sit and quietly view it for a while, like you’re supposed to- and do you know what? It is a masterpiece! Just not a loud, shouty one. At first, the garden felt very flat- almost 2D- but the longer I looked at it, the more I could see the textures of the ocean waves, the tension between the islands and mountains and the vast space inside such a neatly enclosed world. It probably helped that I was sitting in delicious, warm sun and that the birds were singing their hearts out; I’m not sure what my reaction would have been if it was raining! Unfortunately, I don’t think that all the people who walked onto the viewing terrace, took a selfie and walked on really appreciated it, which makes me a little sad. I refrained from shouting: “put your damn phone away!” but maybe next time…

I did vist a few non-karesansui gardens as well, my favourite being Toji-in. This isn’t a big tourist draw, but I highly recommend it. It’s a beautiful little garden and they do a great job of making your visit feel really special (my NT antennae were waving). You have to take your shoes off at the entrance and wear slippers to view the temple like normal, but they also give you a separate set of slippers for viewing the garden, which had the lovely effect of making me feel like I was walking around my own garden, especially as there were only a few other people there. Then, you can sit in the sun on the terrace and they bring you matcha tea and a cake whilst you view the pond. Gorgeous.

P.S. Mori-san taught me a new word, 木漏れ日 (komorebi), which means rays of sun that have filtered through the leaves of the trees. This is an important concept in japanese garden design, and as you know, makes everything look extra beautiful.



2 thoughts on “Komorebi & Karesansui

  1. I was horrified when you said you were going to be visiting so many gardens in such a short spell but I am so glad you managed to find a peaceful space at Ryoanji – you helped bring it to life for me. As a very lazy gardener I suspect I would be very happy sitting (or lying) there and just looking – so long as my meditation could help me block out the selfie brigade mentally. Of the photographs I particularly love the one taken from within the temple and the one with the feeling of stormy seas. A fascinating blog because you are writing about things that are new to me too. (Stuart)


    1. Thank you Stuart! It’s really good to hear that you’re enjoying my ramblings. My feelings about visiting so many gardens in such a short space of time are exactly the same as yours! However, needs must when there over 100 gardens in Kyoto and I have only a few weekends to see them in. I’m hope that taking lots of photos and writing notes will mean that I can carry on processing and learning from them after the fact. We’ll see!


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