One's first impression of this garden is its size. It is about 4.5 acres in extent (about the same as the Golden Pavilion) and the darkness of the forest, water and shadows make it seem larger yet. It is fundamentally a stroll garden and though it is now known for the moss that covers every surface (giving it the alternative Kokedera appellation) it was not originally constructed as a moss garden.
There has been a temple on this southwest Kyoto site since the eighth century. It was reconstructed in 1339 by the Zen priest and noted garden designer, Muso Kokushi who had taken over the temple in 1334 and turned it into a Zen monaster. For him, meditation in the garden was the best means by which one might experience Buddha mind.
While several structures populated the temple complex after Kokushi reconstruciton campaign, the fifteenth century Onin Wars destroyed all of them. Today all that remains is the recently built Founder's Hall and two tea houses, one of which is Shonantei.
Several reconstructions obscure the form built by Kokushi and while we know this is the earliest extent example of a kare-sansui garden, it is unclear if it represents a prototype of a new Zen garden or the continuation of an existing Heian garden type. Nonetheless, we do know that substantial work had already been done on the garden prior to Kokushi's arrival. The pond around which it is designed is typical of the Jodo Buddhism Paradise garden common in the Heian period. In these site, the garden is considered a material representation of the paradise one will enjoy if brought into the land of the Amida Buddha. The shape of the large pond has seen several transformations. It now has several islands. The islands are connected by bridges anchored to rock formations. Among the hillier portiions of the garden are its three most noted rock compositions. They include a kame-shima or Turtle Island formation floating in a bed of moss, the zazen-seki or meditation stone, and an extraordinary kare-taki. The latter composition is a series of stepped rocks that evoke a cascade of water, though none appears.
If you are planning on visiting the garden, you will have to plan ahead as it is no longer open to the public due to the damage being done by the heavy foot traffic of tourists. You will need to write the temple ahead of time to obtain permission to visit.
Marc Treib reports that the best time to see the moss is from May to June, but that the Japanese Maples here are quite spectacular in the autumn as well.
Location: Kyoto, Ukyo-ku, Matsuo, Kamigatani-cho Time Period: 1339 Designer(s): Muso Kokushi
Bring, Mitchell and Wayemburgh, Josse. Japanese Gardens. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981, pp 13-24.
Kuck, Loraine. The World of the Japanese Garden. Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1968, pp 105-112.
Nitschke, Gunter. Japanese Gardens: Right Angle and Natural Form. translated by Karen Williams, Cologne, Germany: Benedikt Taschen, pp 68-76.
Osamu Mori. Teien. Tokyo: Tokyodo Shuppan, 1993, p 198-199.
Treib, Marc and Ron Herman. A Guide to the Gardens of Kyoto. Tokyo: Shufunomoto, 1980, pp 107-109.
A Pair of Stones
Two chunks of gray-green stone,
their shapes grotesque and unsightly,
wholly unfit for practical uses --
ordinary people despise them, leave them untouched.
Formed in the time of primal chaos,
they took their place at the mouth of Lake Taihu,
ten thousand ages resting by the lakeshore,
in one morning coming into my hands!
Pole-bearers have brought them to my prefectural office
where I wash and scrub away mud and stains.
The hollows are black, deeply scarred in mist,
crevices green with the rich hue of moss.
Aged dragons coiled to form their feet,
old swords stuck in for the crown,
I suddenly wonder if they didn't plummet from Heaven,
so different from anything in this human realm!
One will do to prop up my lute,
one to be a reservoir for my wine.
The tip of one shoots up several yards,
the other has a hollow, will hold a gallon of liquid!
My five-stringed instrument leaning on the left one,
my single wine cup set on the right,
I'll dip from the hollowed cask and it will never go dry,
though drunkenness long since has toppled me over.
Every person has something he loves,
and things all yearn for a companion.
More and more I fear that gatherings of the young
no longer will welcome a white-haired gentleman.
I turn my head, ask this pair of stones
if they'd consent to keep an old man company.
And though the stones are powerless to speak,
they agree that we three should be friends.