Needless to say, we were very eager to start our tour of gardens as soon as we arrived in Kyoto. After depositing our bags in the rather festive hotel, we hurried off to catch the bus to our first stop. There was a slight drizzling rain, but it didn’t dampen our mood! We discussed viewing gardens in the rain, and although we agreed it’s not always the best weather for photos, for me it brings a certain sense of calm and peace to view a garden in the rain. Perhaps this is because I’ve grown up in a very rainy part of the world… However, I think it creates an evocative palette: mosses glow a supernatural-green and the leaves gleam jewel-red.
Our first temple, as you can see in our Google map here: Kyoto garden tour 2015, was in the relatively large complex of Ninna-ji. It is a World Heritage Site which encompasses the Kon-do (main hall) re-constructed in the 17th century (Keicho period) as part of the then Imperial Palace, the famous five story pagoda, the huge Nio-mon gate of the Heian period, and several other buildings. We visited only the gardens surrounding the Shinden (a type of architecture renowned in the Heian period), in the south west of the complex. You can read a little more here: Ninna-ji.
For me, these were introductory gardens for the style of karesansui, especially in the Nantei (South Garden). However, in the Hokutei (North Garden) the sand is juxtaposed against a large pond running around one corner, allowing space, and a feeling of time for reflection. I also noticed the borrowed scenery (shakkei – 借景) of the Ninna-ji pagoda contrasted against the more hum
ble (but no less beautiful) thatched roof of the small teahouse, Hitotei, just behind the pond. Such a contrast only served to enhance the two equally poignant buildings. The sand used in this garden is a pale shirakawa-suna, one of the most common types for spreading, which is enhanced by the glassy-green of the pond in the background.
This was an intriguing and thoughtful garden to begin our tour on, and
I was already feeling impressed and excited to see more. However, my favourite garden of the day was yet to come…
It came next in the form of Toji-in, whose garden is traditionally credited to Musō Soseki (the most famous monk of the late thirteenth to mid fourteenth centuries, also known as ‘national zen teacher’). You are invited to walk first around the back of the Main Hall past a gravel garden running the length of it. However, along the way the eastern garden gives glimpses of a much more intriguing design, and you find yourself rushing past the gravel to investigate.
Around the worn nightingale floorboards (uguisu-bari – an ancient design method that allowed intruders to be heard), lies a garden that is extremely rich in both textures and colours, despite its relatively small size. It is a true feast for the eyes and soul. I am innately attracted to detail, it is something that I cannot refuse, and such a garden, with so many niches, left me a little speechless. Studying the garden from the Shoin building, I was compelled to don outdoor slippers and delve into it – whilst wishing I that the matcha on offer was Alice in Wonderland’s shrinking potion, so that I might explore between the low bushes and rocks. It felt as if there was magic lurking there, beyond the human eye. Perhaps Musō was more a wizard than a monk.
As always, trees and wood captivate me. In this garden, the leaves were a spectra of soft jade pine, vivid mossy green, gold-tinged yellow, warm crimson and fiery orange. Colours to truly warm the heart. However, I could not help but notice a number of twists, knots and hollows within the tree trunks and branches themselves. My heart cried out with joy at the traditional practice of allowing and encouraging these magnificent beings to grow as their will decides. Musō appears to have perfected the arrangement and balance between the curiosity of miniature carefully shaped bushes, and the flowing tree trunks allowed to develop with their own spirit.
The garden also incorporates many pale-grey low stones of varying shapes and angles, which create a striking contrast to the surrounding vegetation. Although often unnoticed, they are colonized by many a lichen species (which can be seen just by bending down to look at the various patterns and colours on the surface of the rock). This lichen complements that of the thickly lichen-coated tree trunks, helping these two elements of stone and wood come together in the composition of the garden. I cannot say whether such occurrences are explicitly planned in designing traditional Japanese gardens, but I feel it is likely that Musō (with such a profound reputation) was aware and appreciative of the complimentary effect of the lichen upon mineral and bark.
At the lowest level of the garden are the ponds. The eastern pond is shaped to resemble the Chinese character for ‘mind’, or – as more commonly known in Japanese gardens – ‘heart’: 心 – xin, and has a small island within it.
This used to be the foundation for the captivating Pavilion of Wonderful Sounds (Myō’on-kaku), which sadly no longer remains, except for the stones on which it used to sit. On the west side of the garden, another pond known as Fuyōchi flows in the shape of a lotus flower. This also has a small island, packed with an equal diversity of plant and stone forms, which further enhance the overall view of the garden.
The glossy surfaces of the pools give life to the thought behind their shapes – providing space to pause and reflect between the endless intrigue of land-based textures.
The small waterfall in the eastern pool creates soft ripples which lend a certain peace and timelessness to the garden, undercutting its innate myriad of curiosities. Needless to say, we were loath to leave this garden of awe.
After a warming lunch of soba noodle soup, we squeezed in three more temples within the Daitoku-ji complex. These consisted of Ōbai-in, Korin-in and Koto-in. The latter two comprised mainly of dry karesansui and small lawns of moss. Korin-in’s garden represents the paradise of old Caina, a Chinese township. Both had beautifully fiery maple trees, of which Koto-in had a long entrance path covered in the fallen glowing leaves, contrasted against bright mossy greens upon the floor and thatched entrance roof to part of the complex. The garden here is a work of elegant simplicity, to be enjoyed alongside the autumn foliage.
Unfortunately in Ōbai-in, photographs are prohibited. There are two main gardens that are again remarkably different. One incorporates gravel, stones and moss (Hato-tei), whilst the second (Jikicho-tei) is made of mossy lawns, a stream and a pond in the shape of a gourd. The lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi apparently had a great liking of this curvaceous vegetable shape! I noticed it is a motif can also be found around other temples and on some house / restaurant entrances in Kyoto. A delicate bridge arches over the voluptuous pond, partially hidden through a verdant screen of plants, which line the waters edge. Beyond the bridge stands a hefty stone in both weight and presence, known as ‘Fudō-Sanzonseki’. It is flanked by two smaller stones, which help to focus your attention. This style represents Acala (Sanskrit for ‘immovable’, and in Japanese, Fudō-myōō / 不動明王): a diety whom protects the living, and aids those seeking it, to achieve enlightenment. Beneath fizzy yellows and cerise-oranges of maples, and upon the lime-umber of moss, the dark stone really does command your eye.
A fantastic start to our Kyoto tour, it was sad to have already finished
one day –however we were eager to see and contemplate more beauty and Buddhist thought during the second day, and besides, the delicious Kyoto dinner of nabe (hot pot) was waiting…
Support our Work on Patreon
klick for more info