Metaphor for life hidden in Japanese rock garden

The Yomiuri ShimbunMay 2, 2013 

The zen rock garden at Kyoto's Kodaiji temple.


KYOTO, Japan - It is said that a Japanese garden takes 100 years to complete, roughly the span of a human life. Reflecting the philosophies and cultures of their respective eras, gardens are a major attraction at temples in Kyoto as well as an object of devotion for countless landscape gardeners.

I recently visited master landscape gardener Yasuo Kitayama, who was constructing a stone waterfall at Kodaiji temple in Kyoto.

Kodaiji temple, which links to the mighty 16th-century warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, is best known for its beautiful Japanese gardens and classical wooden buildings, which are rare cultural assets.

Kitayama, 64, has been the caretaker of these gardens since 1987. An expert in laying out stones and building stone structures in gardens, he has worked not only for the temple but also other temples in the former ancient capital and on gardens overseas.

When I arrived at the temple with three companions, Kitayama was assembling materials with five assistants to construct a stone waterfall in the Hashintei dry garden at the temple.

On that day, a two-ton rock, which would serve as the main element of the waterfall, was brought into the temple. A crane lifted it so Kitayama could examine it. After deciding which part should be the front, he had it placed atop the garden's silver sand.

"To fix the two-ton rock stably, we'll need to bury a half-ton support stone in the ground beneath it," Kitayama said. Although the large rock appeared as if it had been placed casually, I learned that placing each stone required meticulous calculations and planning.

To construct the "takizoe ishi" - the support stones to which the water flows down - Kitayama examined stones of various sizes and made a few choice selections, then had them carried to various locations one by one. "Turn it a little to the right first, then place it" and "Dig over there" were typical instructions he gave on each stone orientation and depth beneath the ground.

After a two-hour process, about 10 stones had been placed like neatly handwritten notes on a musical staff. Although the stones had been collected from various locations, their composition and layout were so natural and sophisticated that it looked as if they had been in place for ages. The result was a marvelous stone waterfall.

"If I handle stones with a sincere desire to make them look nice, the stones will obey my mind's desires," Kitayama said. "Building a garden is similar to living a life."

Like newborn babies, newly built gardens require the utmost attention and care. After being nurtured, they gradually require less care, and after 30 years, they are considered mature. Therefore, the placement of the stones and location of newly planted trees had to take into consideration how the garden would look in 30 years or in 100 years, Kitayama said.

"Gardens also reflect a person's state of mind," he said. "So the older you get, the better you can appreciate them."

Japanese gardens have changed under the influence of the evolving philosophies and culture of each era.

In the Heian period (794-1192), gardens were constructed to look like the Buddhist vision of paradise due to the nobility's belief in the Western Pure Land.

In the Kamakura period (1192-1333) and the Nambokucho period (1336-1392), many gardens were built in the Zen style. In the Muromachi period (1336-1573) and the subsequent Momoyama period until 1600, gardens were designed for tea ceremony. In the Edo period (1603-1867), many gardens were established at buildings related to the Imperial family and at buildings for daimyo.

Kodaiji temple was founded in 1606 by Kita no Mandokoro, also known as Nene, to pray for the repose of the departed soul of her husband, Hideyoshi. Its Kaisando (founder's hall), sanctuary, teahouses and other structures are designated as important cultural properties. Its gardens were originally built in the early Edo period under the influence of Zen. The garden with ponds around Kaisando hall is said to have been built by Kobori Enshu (1579-1647), a master of tea ceremony as well as landscape gardening.

However, as the temple lacked a head priest for about 70 years, the premises became dilapidated until Kitayama and others began tending the gardens in 1987 to restore them to their original condition.

They also came up with the idea of illuminating the gardens at night, causing many famous temples to follow suit.

To give the impression that water is flowing down the stone waterfall, it will be illuminated at night by light-emitting diodes until May 6. For more information, call the temple at 075-561-9966.

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