• Charmaine Crasto

When a rock is not merely a rock: The Japanese rock gardens


Rock garden in Japan, Osaka

Japan, a country where nature and the aesthetic environment are cherished profoundly is home to the infamous ‘Rock Gardens’. Gravel, sand, rock and moss are the primary components of the Japanese rock gardens, put together in manners allegorically interpreting oceans, rivers, ponds and mountains with a stark aesthetic. While to the world they are the rock gardens, in Japan, the Kare-sansui is the local term used to address them, translating to dry mountains and water. The Japanese style of gardening is well-known and admired all over the world, furthermore gardens in Japan are usually maintained to what seems like perfection, making them common tourist attractions. However, it is the dry landscape of the rock gardens that surpasses all the others, due to its atypical ideological and physical elements as well as its religious significance.

While the Japanese rock gardens are a marvel in today’s times, their story of origin dates back to ancient historic phases of Japanese culture, particularly the Shinto religion which gives them their symbolic value. It all began with the prehistoric folklore that talked about big rocks and boulders as sites where the mighty spirits and gods dwelled, a common belief of the Shinto practices. The historic timeline also saw the eminence of rock gardens during the Nara Period, the Heian Period and the Kamakura Period as dry gardens along with pond gardens, and finally the Muromachi Period, where the kare-sansui style grew into independent gardens, gaining their own identity as the Japanese rock gardens. Zen Buddhism, a sect of Buddhist practice fixated on chastity, asperity, and calmness of the mind along with the Shinto religious practices are credited for the origination of the ideologies that lead to the establishment of the rock gardens as they are prominent features of Japanese temples maintained by monks even today.

So, when is a rock not a rock? A common question that arises as you admire the remarkable beauty and peculiar thought process that lead to the establishment of the rock gardens in Japan. One might think that the rock gardens are merely a spatial arrangement of rocks in varying shapes and sizes, creating a mysterious yet aesthetic landscape to marvel upon. But that's just not it! The rocks in the gardens take far greater meaning than just being rocks. Some of the most common and widely appreciated arrangements of rocks in these rock gardens are those mimicking water bodies and sandy landscapes.

Sand/gravel patterns in the rock gardens, Japan

When individual rocks are not the sole focus, they are usually arranged in symbolic patterns, like those mirroring water bodies. The first of which is referred to as a 'dry stream,' creates a sense of flowing water with gravel and larger stones. Then there is the 'dry waterfall,' where the color, texture, and striation patterns create an illusion of cascading water. Lastly, the 'dry pond,' where rocks are placed in a manner depicting a shoreline surrounding a stone island in the middle. The Japanese rock gardens created by the carefully arranged sand and gravel are the most remarkable out of the peculiar lot. While the usual gardens can withstand the changing seasons and last a lifetime, as they are just rocks in the end, the sandy landscapes are temporary and last a few weeks. The rocks depicting sand and gravel add texture to the garden along with an alluring display of light and shadow. However, the bigger picture behind these creations lies in understanding the art of meditation and concentration, a common Zen Buddhist practice.

Ryoanji Temple rock garden, Kyoto

The rock gardens are present all over Japan, each one diverse from the other, representing the culture of the area that lead to its being. However, the stone garden at Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto is the most acclaimed of all the gardens in Japan, having been given the designated status of a World Heritage Site in 1994 by UNESCO. This Zen Buddhist gem of over 500 years is open to tourists throughout the year, as it has been described by many to be spell binding and beautiful.

The key to decoding the symbolization of any rock garden in Japan or the rest of the world lies in how carefully you observe your surroundings. Try not to make the mistake of cruising the garden too quickly as it is surprising how much there is to catch sight and take note of. Thus, the rock gardens of Japan are a true depiction of the saying that goes, ‘look deeper into nature, and then you will understand everything better’.

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