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Gardens of stone, moss, sand: 4 moments of Zen in Kyoto

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                                Ripple patterns in the gravel at Tofuku-ji in Kyoto, Japan.
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Ripple patterns in the gravel at Tofuku-ji in Kyoto, Japan.

NEW YORK TIMES
                                The entrance to Honen-in in Kyoto, Japan.
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The entrance to Honen-in in Kyoto, Japan.

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                                At Tofuku-ji, the first veranda overlooks the southern garden with clusters of mostly jagged vertical rocks with ripples of raked gravel radiating out, in Kyoto, Japan.
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NEW YORK TIMES

At Tofuku-ji, the first veranda overlooks the southern garden with clusters of mostly jagged vertical rocks with ripples of raked gravel radiating out, in Kyoto, Japan.

NEW YORK TIMES
                                A dry garden at Zuiho-in in Kyoto, Japan.
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A dry garden at Zuiho-in in Kyoto, Japan.

NEW YORK TIMES
                                Ripple patterns in the gravel at Tofuku-ji in Kyoto, Japan.
NEW YORK TIMES
                                The entrance to Honen-in in Kyoto, Japan.
NEW YORK TIMES
                                At Tofuku-ji, the first veranda overlooks the southern garden with clusters of mostly jagged vertical rocks with ripples of raked gravel radiating out, in Kyoto, Japan.
NEW YORK TIMES
                                A dry garden at Zuiho-in in Kyoto, Japan.

Once, when the Buddha was asked to preach about a flower he was presented, he instead “gazed at it in silence,” according to British garden designer Sophie Walker in her book “The Japanese Garden.” In this spiritual moment, Zen Buddhism was born, inspiring the serene and eternal dry or rock gardens called karesansui.

Unlike a garden designed for strolling, which directs visitors along a defined path to take in scenic views and teahouses, a dry garden is viewed while seated on a veranda above, offering the heightened experience of traveling through it in the imagination, revealing its essence in meditation.

With rocks artfully placed along expanses of fine gravel raked by monks into ripples representing water, they are sources for contemplation. Ryoan-ji, which dates to about 1500, is the supreme example of the abstract garden among Kyoto temples, with its 15 low rocks in five clusters set in pools of moss within an enclosed rectangle of raked gravel. The puzzle is that only 14 are visible at any one time, no matter where you sit to view it.

Change in Kyoto, Japan’s major city of temple gardens, is a quiet evolution. But a tour of several dry gardens designed within the past century — and even within the past few years — demonstrates that the Zen tradition is timeless when it comes to landscape design, and that moments of contemplation are still possible, even as the crowds grow bigger.

Zuiho-in

Upon arrival at the Zen monastery complex Daitoku-ji, in northern Kyoto, I headed to Zuiho-in, one of its 22 subtemples. The temple was founded in 1319, and then in 1546, powerful feudal lord Sorin Otomo dedicated it to his family. This was during the period of Spanish and Portuguese missionaries in Japan. Like others, Otomo converted to Christianity but remained inspired by Zen Buddhism.

I entered along angled walkways until I arrived at Zuiho-in’s temple veranda to view the main dry garden. Although the style may at first appear traditional, this garden was designed in the 1960s by Mirei Shigemori, a landscape architect whose training was in the Japanese cultural arts: conducting the tea ceremony, flower arranging, and landscape ink and wash painting. As the Western modernist movement entered Japan, he adopted it in combination with traditional arts and became determined to revolutionize a garden aesthetic that had remained fixed for hundreds of years. He succeeded in designing more than 200 gardens in Japan and even worked with the Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi on a UNESCO garden, collecting stones in Japan that Noguchi set in the garden at the organization’s Paris headquarters.

In the Zuiho-in garden, the gravel swirls are raked into high peaks as if far out at sea, with a chain of jagged pointed rocks like islands leading to a mossy peninsula crested by a massive stone representing Mount Horai, where, according to Taoist mythology, the heroes called the Eight Immortals, who fought for justice, reside. Referring to Otomo’s Christianity, rocks in a second garden define a cross, and three rows of squarish stones embedded in sand elsewhere in the garden could be seen as Shigemori’s modernist signature.

Honen-in

Across town, in the Higashiyama district, the Philosopher’s Walk is a pedestrian path along the picturesque Lake Biwa Canal. First opened in 1890, it is believed to be named for a Kyoto University philosophy professor who strolled there while meditating. As you walk along it, depending on the season, the swift current below carries brilliant fall leaves or delicate cherry blossoms shed from trees lining the banks.

Honen-in, one of several Buddhist temples along the Philosopher’s Walk, is particularly popular in fall, with its grand staircase and entry gate framed by vast canopies of fiery-red Japanese maple trees. Two large, rectangular white-sand mounds along the central path are periodically raked by monks into new designs; last fall, a maple leaf was outlined on one and a ginkgo leaf on the other against backgrounds of ridges.

The high priest, Kajita Shinsho, who lives there with his family, had a private courtyard with a veranda that needed a garden, and in March 2023, he engaged Marc Peter Keane, an American landscape architect now living in Kyoto, to design it. Keane has lived in Japan for almost 20 years and specializes in Japanese garden design. Like Shigemori, he has immersed himself in Japanese culture. His home and studio are now permanently in Kyoto.

Only three old, gnarled camellia trees remained on the rectangular site, with blossoms in season ranging from dark rose to pale pink and white. Keane’s idea was to represent the constant flux of nature, exemplified for him by the carbon cycle — the process by which carbon travels from the air into organisms and back into the air. His garden, titled “Empty River,” creates what he described as “a physical expression of this invisible cycle through a river of pure carbon charcoal.”

Tofuku-ji

At Tofuku-ji, a temple, in the city’s southeastern district, Shigemori designed the garden of the Hojo, the Abbot’s Hall, as early as 1939, using materials found on site. His avant-garde vocabulary of straight lines and grids may have seemed sensational then, but it is beloved now for its harmonious vitality.

From the first veranda, you overlook the southern garden, with clusters of mostly jagged vertical rocks and ripples of raked gravel radiating out, terminating at the far end with five mossy mounds like sacred mountains in the sea. In the western garden, squarely trimmed azaleas alternate with square fields of white gravel, reflecting ancient land-division customs.

Next, a vast checkerboard field of leftover square paving stones embedded in a carpet of moss seems to dwindle off to infinity in the northern garden. And finally, to the east, a pattern of stone pillar foundations recreates the Big Dipper constellation, with gravel raked in concentric circles around each pillar to emphasize its individuality.

Ukifune Garden

Keane’s 2022 Ukifune Garden (Drifting Boat Garden) is an allegorical interpretation of the chapter by the same name from “The Tale of Genji,” Murasaki Shikibu’s 11th-century novel about Prince Hikaru (which means “Shining”) Genji, and his tempestuous romantic and political life at court.

Keane designed it as the Zen courtyard garden of the Genji Kyoto hotel, opened in April 2022, on the banks of the Kamo River, near where Genji builds his own grand estate and gardens in the book. Designed by American architect Geoffrey Moussas, who also lives in Kyoto, the hotel’s plan incorporates the indoor-outdoor characteristics of Kyoto’s old merchant houses.

Keane was inspired by the “Genji” scene in which one of two powerful dignitaries vying for the favor of Ukifune, a woman of 22, travels through a snowstorm and absconds with her by boat on the Uji River.

Keane installed a swerving “river” with gray river stones set ingeniously on edge rather than flat, giving the flow a greater sense of direction. The garden is set between two wings of the hotel, and the “water” appears to tumble down like a waterfall from one building into the next with a wide, flat steel bridge above, a viewing platform bringing the design to life. The banks on either side are densely planted with maple trees, lady palms, ferns and ground-cover moss. And a boat-shaped stone carries a large patch of moss, which Keane interprets as Earth drifting through the galaxy.

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