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Japanese Rock Gardens

Nanzenji Temple Rock Garden
Nanzenji Garden (Kyoto)
Japanese Rock Gardens (or Karesansui) are made from just two primary elements: rocks and a fine, light coloured gravel. Although they sometimes have a few living elements, these two humble materials are all that is needed to create a captivating display of form and tranquility. The rocks are commonly arranged in a rectangular frame of gravel which is carefully raked to produce various patterns. The meaning of these elements is ultimately up to the observer, but one interpretation is that the patterns represent waves in water, and the rocks islands.
Nanzenji Temple Rock Garden Nanzenji Temple Rock Garden Nanzenji Temple Rock Garden


"What's so special about the garden at Ryoanji?" I asked him, naming the famous rock and sand garden in Kyoto's most brochured and pamphleted Zen temple.
"The spaces between the rocks," he replied, with his mouth full of toothpaste.

-from Alan Booth's Looking for the Lost.

The rock garden at Ryoanji, the "Temple of the Peaceful Dragon", contains 15 rocks arranged in a 25 by 10 meter bed of white sand, flanked by clay walls and surrounded by an audience of colourful trees. Despite its simple appearance, this garden has prompted volumes of commentary on the aesthetic qualities that can be discovered upon closer inspection. It is a quintessential example of the minimalism found in Japanese art and culture; A few simple elements are combined together to create something much richer.

Ryoanji Temple Rock Garden
The garden at Ryoanji Temple (Kyoto).
Tactile Version for Blind People
A miniature version for blind people.

Toranoko Watashi

Toranoko Watashi (Leaping Tiger Garden)
Leaping Tiger Garden

Not all rock gardens follow the same format. This garden, situated in the grounds of Nanzenji temple in Kyoto, incorporates an area of mossy ground with trees and shrubs on one side. A popular interpretation of the garden is that the three large rocks represent tigers, and the three smaller ones their cubs preparing to cross a river. Hence it is known as 'Toranoko Watashi', or 'Leaping Tiger'. This interpretation is made more compelling by illustrations of tigers found in a nearby room, and by wave like patterns raked into the sand.

More Gardens

Here are some more scenes of gardens from around Kyoto. They are often intended to be viewed from certain vantage points, such that each one gives a particular portrait of the garden by providing its own form and composition. This idea is made more apparent when the view is framed, either by natural elements, or when viewed through the rectangular opening of screen doors in an adjacent building.

Kyoto Garden Scene Kyoto Garden Scene Kyoto Garden Scene

Zen Puzzle Garden

Play the game inspired by Japanese Rock Gardens!

Click here for the Zen Puzzle Garden homepage.


Wikipedia on Japanese Rock Gardens

Photographs of Japanese Rock Gardens

The 'Zen Garden' Term

Photographs of Japanese Gardens by William Corey

Architecture and Photographs of Ryoanji and other Temples

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This page was last updated: 2009-05-19