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[Japanese Gardens] How to Appreciate the Wabi-Sabi Aesthetic of “Karesansui” Rock Gardens

So, you're interested in karesansui (Japanese rock gardens or dry landscape gardens) but aren't quite sure about the style or the point of appreciating them. Well, this article will give a simple introduction to the basics of karesansui so that you can learn why they are so fascinating and how to properly appreciate them.

About Karesansui

Karesansui is a style of Japanese garden that is meant to represent landscapes of mountains and rivers by using only rocks, sand, and plants, and without using water. Sekitei (rock garden) is a style of karesansui that uses only rocks and sand without plants. The spirit of wabi-sabi, which is to discover beauty by minimizing that which is wasteful and silently exercising one's ingenuity, is present in both styles.
The history of karesansui dates back to the 11th century. At the time, karesansui were a part of other gardens, but in the 14th century when Zen thought was favored, they began to be created as separate gardens. Even now, they can be seen at Zen* Buddhist temples and elsewhere.

*Zen is a sect of Buddhism which focuses on reaching enlightenment through zazen (seated meditation).

Fundamental Knowledge for Enjoying Karesansui

The Conceptual World Represented by the Placement and Combination of Rocks and Sand

The essence of karesansui is 'finding something in nothing.' They were built so that one could watch and pass the time while contemplating the meaning of the space. At a glance, it's just a garden of rocks and sand, but there is meaning in their placement and combination. It is a representation of the conceptual world. In addition to various natural landscapes such as mountains and valleys, the ocean and islands floating in it, you will notice the Buddhist view of the world and of the universe in these gardens.
As they are designed so that they can be appreciated from indoors, it is best to sit and quietly view when you visit. As there are also places for contemplation and zazen, it is recommended to spend some time here where it is silent to look inward.

What Do the Rocks and Sand Express?

Karesansui are expressions of abstractness and strong spirituality, and each person will interpret them differently. If you know beforehand about the mitate (selection)* pattern, you can appreciate the garden more deeply.
For example, the wave patterns drawn in the sand with a bamboo rake represent water flowing. Depending on how the pattern is applied, stormy seas or gentle ripples on rivers or seas are represented.
Another essential element of the garden's composition is the arrangement of stones in the garden, which imitate the likeness of isolated deep mountain valleys where hermits and Buddha live. Rocks shaped like boats are also distributed in the sand, and represent boats headed toward the mountain valleys. When there are stone arrangements depicting waterfalls, vertically striped stones are placed representing the flowing and falling of water, and the swirling water at the bottom of the waterfall is represented by laying out round stones with the corners smoothed.

*The choice of rocks and sand etc. to represent a replica of the natural landscape.

Now It's Time to Appreciate an Actual Karesansui

Ryoanji Temple Hojo Garden (Kyoto)

Ryoanji Temple's Hojo Garden comes to mind when talking about world famous karesansui gardens. This is a rock garden that is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and was even visited by the Queen of England. It is a rectangular space about 25m wide by 10m long which emanates tranquility. 15 rocks of varying size are spread out on the surface of the white sand. It is a very enigmatic garden, as its creator as well as the garden plan and meaning behind the placement of the rocks are all a mystery. No matter which corner of the garden you stand in, one stone will always be hidden from view. You can try to interpret the meaning of this for yourself when you visit this garden.

Entrance fee: adult/high school student 500 yen, elementary/middle school student 300 yen

Ryoanji Temple Hojo Garden (Kyoto)

13 Ryoanji Goryoshita-cho, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto

Daitokuji Zuiho-in Temple (Kyoto)

Zuiho-in Temple, the small temple within the grounds of the main Daitokuji Temple was founded in 1535 by the daimyo (feudal lord) Otomo Sorin. At Zuiho-in there are two karesansui gardens, both of which were designed in 1961 by Shigemori Mirei to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of the sect's founder Tesshu Sokyu. The south garden, Dokuza-tei, represents Zen, while the north garden, Kanmin-tei, is associated with Sorin, who converted to Christianity in the later years of his life. In the south garden you will notice the dynamic white sand representing stormy seas. It depicts Mt. Penglai, the legendary island paradise in Chinese mythology (known as Horaisan in Japanese), towering over the peninsula and waves incessantly crashing onto the shore. In contrast, the north garden's linear gravel waves express stillness and silence. The arrangement of stones forms a cross, so it is also known as the "garden of the cross."

Entrance fee: regular 400 yen, elementary/middle school students 300 yen

Daitokuji Zuiho-in Temple (Kyoto)

81 Murasakino Daitokuji-cho, Kita-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto

If you use this article as a guide to deepen your understanding, you should be able to more fully enjoy karesansui gardens. There are many other locations with karesansui aside from the ones introduced here, so be sure to try visiting one if you can!

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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