One of the prototypical karesansui dry gardens that works extraordinarily well in a very confined space. However, this garden is often very crowded and can take on a rather commercial tone.
Daisenin Teien is one of the most celebrated gardens in Japan. It was constructed in 1509 on the grounds of the Zen temple, Daitokuji, and was completed with the main hall in 1513. The narrow garden surrounds the main hall on all four sides, encircled by a karesansui dry stream. The stream 'flows' clockwise from northeast to southwest. (Gunter Nitschke points out this is in line with Heian period geomantic principles.) Many karesansui elements are in this garden including: a Mount Horai 'mountain', crane and turtle islands, stone bridges, and a dry waterfall. The garden is not significant for its elements, however, but rather for the spectacular way in which the Sung landscape painting tradition is turned into three-dimensional form.
Karl Hennig's analysis concludes that the turtle and crane islands are the earliest part of the garden and were probably constructed by the sub-temple's founder, Kogaku Shuko (1464-1548). He was likely assisted by the , the outcaste riverbank people that were the real garden makers of the time. The landscape painter, Soami, may also have been influential, though it is unclear what role he played. It is certain that he painted several of the screens in the hall itself.
The garden's layout is a clear metaphor for the human path through life. The 'river' of life begins in the northeast with the clipped camellia of Mount Horai, the land of the immortals. It plunges through the narrow rapids of youth, broadening to emerge into adulthood. The rocks in the stream course represent the trials and tribulations that bring maturity. By the time one reaches the famous stone 'treasure boat' (originally belonged to Ashikaga Yoshimasa, but was only added in summer of 1959 when the archives revealed one used to exist at this location) in the east garden one has gained the wealth of experience. The small turtle swimming against the stream at once represents the classic symbol of good fortune and the futility of swimming against the flow of time. The south garden is the vast white gravel void at the end of life with two gravel cones the only barriers to reaching the lone Bodhi tree (under which the Buddha realized satori) at the far corner. For the Zen monk the garden must also represent the trials of meditating on the paradoxical koans of the Rinzai Zen tradition.
Gunter Nitschke adds an art historical significance to the garden by pointing out that Daisenin is the first example of the exuberant themes of the Chinese Horai myth being united with the austere karesansui garden. As with Ryoanji, natural forms are viewed from the vantage of the main hall, but the strictly frontal, 'painted' nature of Ryoanji's composition is activated in Daisenin. One must journey 'through' the garden while never truly entering it. In this way, a static painterly approach is united with a more active landscape and architectural approach to produce something very fresh.
It should be noted that there are two other small gardens but on the west and northwest but they are of little significance. Try to visit this garden early in the day. It's membership in the tourist circuit and the aspirations of its head priest, Soen Ozeki, have created a rather commercial, even circus-like atmosphere. That being said, despite the incredible volume of tourist traffic through the garden, it remains remarkably well-maintained and this is a tribute to Soen's management of the site.
Bring, Mitchell and Wayemburgh, Josse. Japanese Gardens. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981, pp 67-68.
Do not seek to emulate the old masters. Seek what they sought.