Isuien is located in Nara, several miles to the southeast of Kyoto and the site of the capital for several decades prior to 794. The garden lies just southwest of the great Todaiji temple and is actually two separate gardens. The small lower or western garden is built around a pond with two islands representing the crane and turtle, the classic symbols of longevity. It was built in the early Edo period around the 1670's by Kiyosumi Michikiyo, a wealthy textile merchant who managed to escape the sumptuary laws.
Momentos of Kiyosumi's trade make an appearance in the larger, eastern garden built by Tojiro Seki, another Nara merchant in the early 1890's. This so-called rear or upper garden was probably designed by Horitoku, a garden architect patronized by the Ura Senke school of Tea. Another retainer of the Ura Senke school, the carpenter, Kimura Seibei, was commissioned to build Hyoshintei, the pavilion on the west side of the pond.
The pond in the eastern garden inscribes the Chinese character for "water" and contains a small island, reached by the millstones mentioned above. The basic layout is a stroll garden with some artificial hills, three-tiered waterfall and minimal rockwork, much being replaced by topiaried azaleas as was common throughout the Meiji period.
This garden is another excellent example of scenery external to the garden being capture alive. The shakkei here, intended for a viewer near the Hyoshintei pavilion captures the three hills of Nara, Wakakusa, Kasuga and Mikusa, which are foregrounded by the upper part of the South Gate of Todaiji. The capture is effected by the nearby woods of Himuro Shrine, framing the view and trimming out the intervening ground plane.
The two larger gardens on east and west are separated by a much more modestly scaled tea garden with two pavilions at either end connected by a path of stepping stones.
Itoh Teiji. Space and Illusion. Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1973, p. 43.
Mori Osamu. Teien Shohakka. Tokyo: Tokyo-do, 1993, p. 319-320.
Nietschke, Gunter. Japanese Gardens: Right angle and natural form. Cologne: Taschen, 1993, p. 220-221.
Ryoanji Temple, Kyoto
Only in the cloister
Could such a garden thrive, a soil where nature
Flowers in spiritual dryness,
Drawing an interior nurture
From sand and rock.
Where the labyrinth of illusion
No longer entangles the senses
Enmeshing vision in delusive lusters;
Where the lust of the eyes is silenced
And desire of forms, and names of forms,
Move to no visible end.
Those who planted here
Sowed no ephemeral seed
For the seasonal tempests to scatter,
But the silent root that ripens in detachment,
Flowers in renunciation.
Gardeners of eternity,
Those who planted here
Framed the garden in the image of a desert
And the desert in the image of a sea --
Then shrunk the seas to the mind's salt and, tasting,
Dissolved all thought away.
On these rocks no water breaks. Without attrition
Tides and currents in this ocean rest and revolve
In a void of sound, vortex of sand; perpetual
Circles enmesh and paralyzed sea and air:
The effigy of time and measure
Purged of time and measure
Becalmed on this dead sea of being
No wave moves, no wind of desire
Flexes the indolent sail.
But focussing its single eye
On dreamless immobility
The gulf like a burnished mirror
Regards the empty void.
In this dead sea of vision the surges
Merge without movement; the tides
Indifferent to flood and ebb
Freeze in a flux of haste.
The seagull without motion
Broods on the changeless waste,
Then sinks, his feathers frozen,
In a sand ocean.
Frail caravels who sail
This subtle gulf, morte mer,
Who stir with urgent keel
The fossil waters of the Great Mirage,
Or steer by lodestone to delusive ports:
In this calm beyond stasis, dead calm,
No compass points to the land,
No magnet of attachment
Guides the helmsman's hand
Through fifteen naked rocks in raked and rhythmic sand.
Here is no sea for the admirals,
The whalers, the merchants of cargoes --
Those finite venturers for the temporal haven.
These depths are destination,
And naufrage sweeter than harbor.
Shipwreck is haven on this inland sea.