The Gardens of Kyoto

13 Jul

It’s been quite a while since the last post…and for very good reason:  we’ve been far too busy experiencing this place and all it has to offer to even digest, let alone write about it.  Kyoto itself has over 2000 temples, each with its own garden.  There’s a wide range of sizes, forms, and themes to these spaces, and we’ve been getting only a sampling of them through our program – though we visit an average of one a day.

The gardens serve as inspiration for our designs, the source of much botanical curiosity, and the subjects of our watercolor landscape paintings.  Each one has its own specific feeling, and its own special and historic treasures.  Yet they all share a similar language:  of materials – stone, trees, moss, water;  as well as of design – a litany of principles that we all repeat daily like the monks chanting the Heart Sutra.  Landscape Time, Hide and Reveal, Borrowed Landscape, a Sequence of Unfolding Landscape Experiences….

While no photo can truly do these places justice, we all still try like hell.  I’ll give you a few attempts from some of my favorite gardens, starting with Ryoanji, widely considered one of the most beautiful gardens in the world.  A masterpiece of stone arrangement:

RyoanjiAnother beauty was the Katsura Detached Villa – a retreat for the imperial family in which the designer masterfully manipulated vegetation and landform to create long, dramatic views:

KatsuraShugakuin is (yet another) retreat for the imperial family which was built in the hills NE of Kyoto.  The garden incorporates actual productive rice terraces as part of the scenery of the garden, farmers and all.  This garden is all about shakkei, or borrowed landscape, and thus the government chose to purchase and preserve the surrounding pastoral landscape.  Inspiring to see such a recognition of the beauty of agriculture:

ShugakuinSaihoji, or the Moss Garden, was perhaps the lushest, greenest place I’ve ever experienced.  There are 120 species of moss thriving here, covering nearly every surface in a thick emerald carpet.  Meticulously weeded, strikingly beautiful:

SaihojiAnother spectacular use of moss occurs in Tofukuji.  Designed by Shigemori Mirei in 1939, it is a refreshing update on the Zen garden.  Using the same language and material, but creating a new kind of space with a more striking geometry.  It gives you the sense that this style does not have to be preserved as in a museum, but is a living art form that can change with the times:

I am totally amazed and humbled to have the opportunity to experience these gardens.  There’s nothing else like them in the world.


One Response to “The Gardens of Kyoto”

  1. janjohnsen May 27, 2014 at 4:30 am #

    Ethan – I agree! in my book Heaven is a Garden I write about how walking through the gardens of Kyoto changed my direction in life. I featured your photo on my FB page today ( May 27) and linked to your website:

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