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.


Myoshinji Temple – my home in Kyoto

25 Jun Buddha Hall Students

At the close of my first week in Kyoto, I’m starting to settle into the rhythm of things around here.  Basically it’s just about perfect.

The temple of Daishen-in within the Myoshin-ji temple complex has been gracious enough to house a group of University of Oregon students for a solid month, every summer for the past 15 years.  I like to imagine that they’ve set this up to test their own Zen-ness.

Here’s a shot of the main ingawa:

Main Ingawa

We get up every morning around 6am and drink tea, listen to the head monk chanting the Heart Sutra, and prepare ourselves for the day.  Then we usually have a fairly fully scheduled, yet flexible day.  Our teachers take us to visit other temples, tour around the city’s nooks and crannies and greenspaces, and usually somewhere in the day is several hours of watercolor painting.  We have wonderful instructors:  Satoko Motouji (a well-known artist working in Oregon and Italy), Daisuke Yoshimura (a landscape architect in Colorado), and Ron Lovinger (faculty at UO and founder of this program).  They teach us so much, and we are progressing rapidly every day.  Later I’ll try to post some of my work so far.

At the end of the day, we come back to a scene of elegant simplicity.  We cook some food (or eat out at amazing little shops!), take a bath, and retire to our futons on the tatami mats.  I really prefer this floor-based lifestyle, it is so much easier.

Tatami Floor

But, let’s be perfectly honest…our Western lifestyle takes some adapting!  Here’s what it looked like when my roommate and I first moved in:

Ohayo gozaimasu Tokyo

19 Jun

Run for the Money

Here I find myself in the heart of one of the biggest and fastest cities on the planet.  Tokyo is a seemingly endless expanse of high-rise buildings and bright lights, with a large population dressed and ready for business.  Granted I’m staying near the very center of this metropolis in the Kanda District where people rush from place to place, eat in tiny restaurants while standing up, and some even sleep – if at all – in little capsules in the wall.  Last night just for the experience I stayed in a Capsule Inn, the very model of hotel efficiency:

Capsule Wall

Basically, there are common facilities like showers and bathrooms (complete with all the disposable amenities you could dream of) and what you rent out is a little capsule room – stacked up and just big enough to lie down in.  The floor of the capsule is a bed, and it has a little TV and radio for your plugged-in enjoyment.  These places are made for businessmen who work late and miss the train home, or just need a place to catch a few winks near their workplace.  It was actually quite comfortable, though not for the claustrophobic.

The interesting thing I’ve noticed here is the way that such a hustle-bustle, work-oriented business culture can coexist with a very traditional, ancient society.  You can be walking along rubbernecking at all the skyscrapers, feeling like you’re in downtown Manhattan, when you stumble across a tiny little Shinto shrine nestled amongst the glass and steel.

Nestled Shrine

It really makes you appreciate the adaptability of this culture, and provides a striking example of just how far a society can evolve.

It is an honor to be here.

I’ve come to Japan as part of a summer-long trip – partly a program through the University of Oregon to study the zen gardens of Kyoto, partly intending to study the methods of Natural Farming as developed by Masanobu Fukuoka, by seeking out its current practitioners and experiencing life on their farms.  I’m just in Tokyo for a couple days en route to Kyoto, where I’ll be for the next 5 weeks visiting gardens, designing for the city of Kyoto, and learning the art of watercolor.  Then things will be a bit more free-form – some farm travel, hiking of ancient mountain pilgrimage trails, perhaps studying a little ikebana at a traditional art school.  I’m incredibly excited to have such an opportunity as this – this culture has so much to teach! – and I plan to make the most of it.  Check back if you’re interested, as this is what I’ll be posting about for the next couple of months.

Smiley Sign