Temples Of Japan

Zen Gardens of Japan

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Heian Era Style Garden at Nijo Castle (Kyoto City)

Gardens are very much an integral part of Japanese lifestyle.  Most homes in Japan have some kind of garden in the front and back yards.  These gardens have a unique Japanese style, unlike the western style gardens.  They are made of neatly trimmed shrubs, bonsais, azaleas, rocks and gravel.  Like many things Japanese, they make full use of every inch of the available space.  The Japanese tend to them and protect them vigorously.

Gardens are also a unique aspect of Temples of Japan.  This aspect is much more pronounced in the Temples of the Kansai region.

The concept of gardens as part of the Japanese lifestyle seem to have started in the Heian era.  This is when Kyoto city was declared as the Capital of Japan.  Famous Heian era gardens were created by the nobility and they tend to be large in size.  This Heian era garden style comprises of many trees, trimmed bushes, ponds (usually with a lot of fish), islets, stones of various shapes like turtles or cranes, small bridges, viewing pavilions and stone/concrete steps to walk across the ponds. 

This style that started in the Heian era is called "Tsukiyama Sensui-tei" in Japanese.  It also integrated the elements of the surrounding area into the garden.  Visitors can walk through the gardens and stand on the bridges/pavilions to enjoy the gardens.  The gardens at Heian Jingu Shrine and Kodaiji Temple are an example of this type of Gardens.  Even though there are certain elements of the Heian era style gardens that can be considered as unique to Japan, they were quite similar to western style gardens.
Heian Style Garden (Heian Jingu Shrine)

The design and the creation concept of these gardens started to change when the Buddhist monasteries started to build gardens in and around their living quarters.  Initially the concept followed the early Heian era style but at a smaller scale.  The requirements of the Monks were simple.  They needed the gardens to provide them with a place of contemplation and peacefulness.  There was no need to walk through the gardens.  So, the concept of walking through the gardens was gone.  The gardens of the monasteries had no walkways or bridges.  They still contained a lot of vegetation, rocks and water. 

Gardens in monasteries

But now they only provide with a visual appeal, so a veranda was built next to the Garden.  Monks sat on the veranda for preying, studying and preaching, while enjoying the tranquility of the gardens.  Moss filled gardens were introduced to improve the visual appeal across the garden.

Soon the temples also started to incorporate gardens in the precincts but they are usually separate from the Hondo or other worship halls.  They are usually associated with the Monk's living quarters.

Tea ceremonies, which are a very important aspect of Japanese Buddhism and lifestyle started to combine the ambiance of gardens with tea ceremonies. 

Tea ceremony room overlooking a garden (Nanzenji Temple)

Most of the time the gardens led the visitors to the tea ceremony halls.  Some tea ceremony halls are built overlooking a garden to enhance overall atmosphere.

Zen sect of Japanese Buddhism was introduced during the Kamakura period.  Zen faith simplified all the previous Japanese Buddhist faiths and preaches that Nirvana can be achieved by simply practicing meditation. 

Karesansui style Zen Garden

This aspect of the Zen meditation also changed the design of the gardens.  The zen followers wanted to further simplify the gardens to reflect the simplicity of their faith itself.  Thus the "karesansui" or "dry rock landscape" type garden style was born.  Karesansui style only uses rocks and gravel to design their gardens.  There are absolutely no vegetation or water seen anywhere.  But do not let this simplicity fool you.  This type of garden stimulates viewers imagination and interpretations. 

Shakkei (Borrowed Scenary) Garden

Other concepts into karesansui were introduced, such as "Shakkei".  Shakkei means "borrowed scenary".  It recreated the famous mountain ranges in Japan in the gardens and sometimes this style utilized a real mountain range as a backdrop to the garden.  The dry landscape rock garden in Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto city is a world famous example of a karesansui style zen garden.

Nowadays the gardens in Temples are a unique visual treat to the foreign visitors to Japan.  I have visited many gardens during my trips to these Temples.  I would like to list as many temple gardens as possible in my website for the enjoyment of my readers, so please keep coming back as I will add more and more gardens to this website.

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And one more reminder, I would like to refer to all the Temple gardens that I present here as "Zen Gardens", even though a Zen garden is a unique style of garden by itself.  I do that because these gardens provide me with a moment of "Zen".  I hope they do the same to you too.

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