When Westerners think of Japanese gardens, it is usually only one garden that comes to mind, an area of raked sand or crushed rock interspersed with a few large rocks and a scarcity of plants, or none at all. To Westerners, it is thought of as contemplative, mysterious, or unexplainable. The Dry (Karesansui) Garden (often erroneously called Zen) is a garden that does not fit the Westerner’s mind of a garden.
Its roots go back in Japanese history to before AD 500 when Shinto was the principal religion, animistic, where nature was revered and had sacred natural objects. The shrines were built with large gravel areas always on the south end of buildings and the gravel was considered sacred ground. Later, when Buddhism, along with Chinese culture, was introduced in 552, the two religions paralleled in growth, having separate yet interchangeable functions. Nara became the first capitol in 710 followed by Heian-kyo (Kyoto) in 794 from where the archipelago society began to consolidate. Here an aristocratic society developed around an emperor and developed independent of Chinese influence.. In time, the rulers began to neglect their hold son the land. An extravagant life focused on the arts resulted slowly in the lack of interest in the countryside outside of the urban sphere.
The military of the society saw waste, inefficiency, and opulent trappings as negative. Wresting power from the emperor, the military began a rule in 1155 that lasted almost 700 years. The beginning was called the Kamakura Period, followed by the Muromachi Period that together spanned 383 years. The military sought a more austere society. New Chinese ideas were imported along with a sect of Buddhism called Zen which preached self-restraint, frugality, and simplicity. There was a pronounced masculine tone to the age. This influenced all of the higher echelon of society and the fine and applied arts, including architecture and the gardens.
In contrast with the earlier expansive Heian gardens with ponds, the Dry Gardens developed in these two periods became tightly enclosed and introverted, suggesting but not containing water. Rocks and gravel became the dominant elements, sometimes depicting fantasies of landscape paradise interpreted from Chinese paintings or Japanese landscapes. Plants became incidental to the point where the most famous Dry Garden, the Ryoanji, contains 15 rocks, a little moss, and raked gravel in the area about the size of a tennis court. Another garden in Kyoto, about the same size, has only raked gravel.
These gardens have been associated mainly with Buddhist temples or warrior residences of the higher class. They were rarely built as meditation centers but were to illustrate philosophic ideas, not exclusively Zen. The daily maintenance of the gardens, especially by young priests, has been a more suitable discipline for meditation. Foremost, the gardens were works of religious art, some designed by priests but many designed by unknown lowest-class workers but with a broad knowledge and experience in garden construction.
Kare-san-sui (“dry-mountain-water”) is a garden for viewing only from a room, verandah, or walkway. It is not entered (suggesting the Shinto sacred ground influence) and framed by a high wall, fence, or vegetation. In the design, large areas are left empty (called “ma”) suggestive of brush paintings where “less is more” and the mind fills in the spaces. It also suggests vastness in a small space. More often, the gardens were rectangular in shape but free-form existed and became more popular in modern times after the 1600s.
The Dry Garden at Japan House is a free-form design which has in its shape a reflection of the contour of the ponds in the distance. The whole cannot be viewed at one time but must be seen from different locations along the walk. Thus, it suggests a body of water with islands and shoreline cliffs. At the back perimeter, viewed from the walk, a hedge is being sculptured to resemble a mountain range or string of connected hills. It serves to confine the gravel area as a view only from the walk or Japan House. Instead of a wall background, the viewer is allowed to incorporate the distant hill view on the east side of the Arboretum into the foreground scene (called “Shakkei”) expanding the scope of the garden.
The Dry Garden is pruned regularly and the stones are raked weekly to keep it looking neat and tidy for guests to enjoy.