Zen Gardens in Japan and How to Create your Own

Zen Gardens in Japan and How to Create your Own

By CarolUpdated Oct. 19, 2021

Zen Buddhism is an important part of Japanese culture, and Zen gardens are known all around the world to be a symbol of Japan. Strolling and relaxing in a Zen garden is a wonderful, unique experience, a way to appreciate the masterful art that it takes to create one.

Be sure to fully appreciate every single detail, to observe the gardens from every perspective. And, once at home, you can try to create your own Zen garden! It may not be a masterpiece, but it will be a start.

Keep reading our guide and learn more about Zen gardens in Japan.

Highlights

  • The concept of rock gardens was imported from China and it was greatly developed thanks to Zen Buddhism.
  • Setting the rocks in the right way is the most important aspect when creating a rock garden.
  • Recreating a natural landscape in a harmonious way is the core of Zen gardens.
  • Kyoto has some of the best Zen gardens of the whole country.
  • Be sure not to miss the gardens found at the temples of Ryoan-ji, Tenryu-ji and Saiho-ji.
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Japanese Zen Gardens

The first rock gardens appeared in Japan during the Heian period (794-1185). At the beginning, they were mostly copied from Chinese ones, and their composition was largely formalized by the first manual of Japanese gardens, Sakuteiki.

The Muromachi period (1336-1573) was characterized by a flourishing of Japanese culture (both the noh theater and the Japanese tea ceremony were born during this period). This period also saw the introduction of Zen Buddhism and, during the 14th and the 15th century, this contributed to the development of Zen gardens, designed to stimulate meditation.

The composition of stones began to represent landscapes that seemed to be suspended in time, as exceptionally represented in the garden of Saihō-ji Temple in Kyoto, built by Musō Kokushi, a Zen master who loved to build gardens. To him are also attributed the Silver Pavilion and the “Temple of the Celestial Dragon” (“Tenryū-ji” in Japanese).

But maybe the most famous of all Zen gardens in Kyoto is Ryōan-ji, built in the 15th century, maybe the first abstract Zen garden. Water and vegetation decreased, and there is only some grouping of rocks. However, through the centuries, the gardens have been meant to be observed from just one point within the monastery.

Finally, during the Edo period, the large promenade garden became the principle style, with Zen gardens continuing to exist at Zen temples.

Guidelines in Creating a Rock Garden

A Zen garden cannot exist without the careful selection and positioning of the rocks. Traditionally, creating a garden is done by setting rocks (ishi wo tateru koto, “the act of setting stones upright”). There are several manuals describing the rules to follow when choosing and placing the stones. They can be placed in a vertical, low vertical, arching, reclining, or flat manner.

The Zen garden is a representation of a natural landscape; there are different places to recreate, and different rocks to recreate them with. For example, to create “mountains”, usually the gardener should use igneous volcanic rocks, rugged rocks with sharp edges. Sedimentary rocks, usually smooth, are used to create rivers or seashores.

When placing rocks, the emphasis must be laid upon the harmony of the composition. Rocks should be placed with their best side showing, and most rocks should be placed horizontally. They are seldom placed in straight lines or symmetrical ways. The most common arrangement is made up of three rocks, usually a tall rock surrounded by two smaller rocks, symbolizing the Buddha and his attendants.

Another important rule to follow is to choose rocks that vary in color, shape and size, and avoid rocks with bright colors that might distract the viewer. Usually, rocks are placed in a seemingly random way, so to add spontaneity to the garden.

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Symbolism in Rocks

Rocks can symbolize mountains (especially Horai, house of the Eight Immortals of the Buddhist mythology), boats, or living beings, like carps or turtles. During the Heian period, the rocks sometimes had a political message.

The easiest symbolism that can be read in many Zen gardens is the journey on the river of life. But some gardens, like Ryoan-ji, are hard to interpret. Here are just some of the possibilities: an island in a stream, a group of swimming tigers, the peak of a mountain rising above clouds. Some historian stated that the value of the garden doesn’t reside in reproducing natural beauty, but in its abstract composition that incites meditation.

Create Your Own Japanese Rock Garden

If you are fascinated by Zen gardens and wish to create your own, then read on! Even if it can be extremely difficult to master the art of Japanese gardens, creating a small, private one can be fun and relaxing.

First of all, you have to decide on the dimensions of your garden – choose them carefully. Use four wooden boards and a stable surface to build a container that will be the base in which you will place the sand. Glue the pieces together and line the bottom of the container with impermeable material (for example plastic). Being clean is extremely important in the Zen tradition.

Now you can fill the container with sand (or gravel). Once it is ready, you can start placing the stones. Try to place the larger stones in groups of three, in straight lines or symmetrical patterns. If possible, try to stick to dark stones: brightly colored ones will distract the viewer. Two things you have to keep in mind when composing your garden: simplicity and balance.

To embellish the final composition, draw patterns on the sand using a rake.

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Best Zen Gardens in Kyoto

Kyoto is particularly famous for its Zen gardens, and we have chosen a handful of must-visit ones. Of course, no list could be complete without the garden at the Ryoan-ji Temple, the most popular garden of the city (and maybe of the whole country). Another important garden is the one to be found inside the Golden Pavillion. You will be delighted by the mixture of styles.

Tenryu-ji Temple and Saiho-ji Temple host two amazing gardens, that have been designated “Special Space of Scenic Beauty” and share a similar pattern. The garden at Tenryu-ji Temple is particularly fascinating, being framed by the Arashiyama mountains.

Ryoan-ji Temple

It is best to visit the most popular Zen garden in Kyoto in the morning (especially on Mondays), when it is quiet and there are not as many tourists. The temple housing the garden is located near the Golden Pavilion, in the northwest of Kyoto.

Ryoan-ji is unique. There are 15 rocks floating in a sea of pure white sand, and its meaning is stills a mystery. The garden is quite small (25 meters from east to west), and it is often heavily crowded, so choose your visiting time carefully.

Tofuku-ji Temple

This garden was designed during the last war by Shigemori Mirei, and it is often quiet and peaceful, especially outside the fall foliage season.

Ginkaku-ji Temple

Maybe this is one of the best traditional landscape gardens in Japan.  It used to be the stroll garden of the Shogun. It was designed by Soami, a famous landscape artist, and is a mix of various styles (for example dry sand garden and moss garden).

The dry garden is known as the “Sea of Silver Sand” and features a massive representation of the Mount Fuji, done with sand. On the other hand, the moss garden represents many islands, bridges and plants. You can stroll around the garden following a circular route.

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Tenryu-ji Temple

You will find Tenryu-ji Temple in Arashiyama, on the western outskirts of Kyoto. Its garden is amazing, and the distant Arashiyama mountains greatly contribute to the unique scenery. The famous Sogen Pond is surrounded by a circular promenade, and the whole garden has been designed as a “Special Place of Scenic Beauty” in Japan.

We suggest you visit it during the cherry tree season (March), or in fall, to admire the foliage and its beautiful colors.

Saiho-ji Temple

The Saiho-ji Temple – known also as the “Moss Temple” – is a marvelous example of a moss-covered garden, and one of the most celebrated gardens of the whole country. Like the garden at the Tenryu-ji Temple, this one has also been designated as a “Special Place of Scenic Beauty”.

It has a circular promenade surrounding the main pond, named Golden Pond, and there are three tea houses to relax and meditate. This garden truly is a gateway to another world, a world of nature and beauty.

Travel to Japan with Asia Highlights

Pacing and meditating in a Japanese Zen garden will give you the peace of mind you are looking for. So why not visit Japan. Let Asia Highlights help you along the process: we will take care of all the hassles, and you will just have to stroll and ponder and relax.

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