The title of this article is a misnomer. There is no single “Japanese Garden.” First of all, every garden in Japan is perforce a Japanese garden. But that doesn’t make it a “Japanese Garden.” Japanese Gardens are born out of the combined influence of the two dominant faiths in Japan: Shinto and Buddhism – the former has a love for nature, while the latter has an ideal of paradise. In Japan, I found beautiful gardens surrounding both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. Specially in Kyoto, Japan’s ancient imperial capital and a city with over 2,000 shrines and temples, the gardens in the vicinity of which temples and shrines are built, are exquisite indeed. There are times when gardens are more beautiful than other times. This is because of the Japanese awareness of the seasons. Thus garden designers create a balance of shrubs and trees to portray a harmonious balance. Therefore, gardens are seen at their best mainly in the spring or the fall, when bursts of colors make their strongest impressions. Trees in the gardens are often chosen for their shape – both when they are in full bloom as well as when they are bare. In this manner they will maintain their glamor throughout the year – even in the cold of winter.
There are four types of Japanese Garden: Paradise Gardens, Dry-Landscape Gardens, Stroll Gardens and Tea Gardens.
My favorite Dry-Landscape garden is at Riyoanji Temple in Kyoto. This Zen-Buddhist sanctuary is home to what is arguable Japan’s most famous dry-landscape garden, made up of neatly combed grey stones and strategically placed rocks. The garden is an enticement to meditation. A place where simplicity is primary, where one can sit and contemplate silently in a minimalistic environment that encourages internal reflection. The dry-landscape is designed to be viewed from a single vantage point, as is the paradise garden. In both cases, features external to the garden itself are made to appear as if they are part of it. An intriguing sleight-of-garden, if you get my drift. I noticed that the garden wall at Riyoanji Temple is slightly higher in one place. However, when I viewed the garden from the appropriate vantage point, the garden wall looked perfectly level.
The huge garden around Riyoanji is a paradise garden. Made to represent the Buddhist ideal of paradise, it “adopts” the surrounding landscape and makes it appear as if part of the garden itself. It has a grand pond filled with floating lotus plants. Upon exiting the dry-landscape garden at Riyoanji, I found myself in a very peaceful state of mind, and the slow walk through the paradise garden on the outside was most relaxing.
The totally opposite extreme of the simplicity of Riyoanji is Kyoto’s Kinkakuji – a gilded Shinto shrine. No zen-Buddhist simplicity here. This is opulence at its most , well, opulent! The garden around this gilt spectacle is a stroll garden, combining a large pond with precisely placed rock and earth islands, a delicately arched bridge, finely trimmed bushes and the like. In the fall, this was one of the most beautil sights I saw in Japan. In summer it was beautifully green, but not quite spectacular.
Nearby, and along the route around this marvel of lavishness, there was a simple tea garden. It had a short rock-strewn path, low trimmed plants and it led to the tea house that used to be the favorite place of hospitality of the former resident of the gold-plated house. He liked to entertain his guests at elaborate tea ceremonies, in his tea house, in his tea garden.
If his home and gardens are anything to go by, his tea must have been delicious!
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