Zen and the art of Japanese gardens

Michael Raffety

May 8, 2009

If I ever can afford a trip to Japan I would skip the big cities and bright lights and tour gardens, especially Zen gardens. Called karesansui gardens, Zen gardens are basically dry rock gardens. The main feature is raked sand or gravel with an arrangement of natural stones and perhaps some moss around the stones.

The sand or gravel and rocks represent lakes or ocean or ponds and islands or even boats.

Zen gardens are so named because they are often associated with Zen Buddhist temples and they are a physical expression of the Zen Buddhist concept of cosmic beauty. Intertwined with this is the Japanese love of nature and their efforts to reproduce it in the controlled environment of a garden.

Besides the karesansui gardens, there are two other basic Japanese garden types.

The tsukiyama garden gets its name from the artificial hills that are a key element of this garden type. It includes ponds and streams, bridges and paths designed to mimic natural scenery.

Chaniwa gardens are built for the tea ceremony and contain a tea house reached by stepping stones that lead to a stone basin of water where guests purify themselves before the tea ceremony.

So far the best U.S. example of all three gardens in one location is the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. That park also illustrates the changing nature of a Japanese garden as the plants are carefully trimmed and change appearance with the seasons and over time. Each time I go to the San Francisco Tea Garden I see something different and find a new element.

The best Zen garden I have seen so far is at the Huntington Gardens and Library in San Marino. I was so impressed with that karesansui garden that I designed my own Zen garden after it, albeit on a much smaller scale. I’ve made a few other plantings in it and will next add a stone bench for contemplation. For now my wife and I enjoy contemplating it from our breakfast nook window.

Outside the Zen garden I’ve added a tsukiyama garden that features a dry rock stream, paths, a bridge and plantings that include boxwood shrubs in a box and a small bamboo forest. I have a bag full of large black, smooth Mexican beach stones that will eventually be part of a stone basin with water recirculating through a bamboo dipper. I doubt I will build a teahouse. It wouldn’t be a fire safe structure near our open fields of grass.

When we were in Philadelphia two years ago we searched out a Japanese garden in Fairmont Park. We didn’t have a Google map and wound up taking a circuitous route from Drexel University through some unsavory neighborhoods. Not apartment buildings, but regular two-story houses and wide streets, but poorly kept up. After finally getting on the right boulevard we got to the garden. Half of it was taken up with a reproduction of a 16th century Japanese house and adjoining tea house. The house was a gift of the Japanese government to the Museum of Modern Art in 1954. It was then reassembled in Philadelphia, where it provides good views of what the horticultural garden calls an “ornamental” Japanese garden.  A nice touch was running a little brook between the house and the tea house. The garden seemed a disappointment, though. It just didn’t measure up to the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco or the large Japanese garden and tea house at the Huntington. There wasn’t even a path to go around the pond.

Last year when attending a family reunion in Portland, Ore., we took time to visit the Japanese Garden in Portland. It is a large garden — 5.5 acres and sits on top of a hill. From the parking lot you pass through a gate and climb a path to the top. That was more climbing than my 92-year-old mother could handle and we had a limited time to visit it, so we drove to the top where the main entrance is. The garden is a project of the Oregon Japanese Garden Society.  It was designed in 1963 by a Japanese professor and opened to the public in 1967. The Journal of Japanese Gardening ranked it second out of 300 public Japanese gardens outside of Japan (Anderson Japanese Garden in Rockford, Ill., is No. 1). It is a beautiful garden with a lot of different elements and different views. I especially liked the path down the hill to the Zen garden. It had a variety of steps and scenes along the way, including little water features that in November were colored with fallen leaves. The Zen garden, though, really seemed uninspired. The rocks were too similar and too small for such a large size.

The Portland garden is thematically divided into five elements. The path and steps down to the Zen garden are called the Natural Garden. The Sand and Stone (Zen) Garden is another.  On top is the Flat Garden, which, includes raked sand that winds among shrubs and trees. A pavilion hall provides a place to enjoy the view of this Flat Garden. The Strolling Pond Garden, also on top, includes a pond, wisteria harbor, a Moon Bridge and a zig zag bridge. The fifth element is the Tea Garden, complete with a tea house. Overall it is a well done and enchanting garden, despite its mediocre karesansui garden.

I hope to see the Rockford garden and other top 10 gardens in Long Beach, Seattle, Vancouver, B.C. I’ll have to see the No. 14 ranked garden in San Mateo first, though.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s