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Karesansui Gardens - Japanese Encyclopedia

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The karesansui style of Japanese gardening is founded on Zen ideology, and uses rocks and sand to express nature and the universe. This article will discuss the fundamentals of karesansui gardens.

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Recreating A Natural Landscape Using Rocks and Sand: What Are Karesansui Gardens?


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If you’ve ever been to Kyoto’s Ryoanji Temple, perhaps you remember being transfixed by the sight of its beautiful garden.

There are fifteen rocks of varying sizes placed in Ryoanji’s white sand garden, and it is said that no matter where you sit, you will always be unable to see one of the rocks. When you go around and visit Japanese Zen temples, gardens of laid-out stones are a common sight; these sand and rock gardens, which express images of mountains and rivers without using water, are called karsansui.

Karesansui can also be called by other names like kasansui, furusansui and arasensui, but the contents and images expressed by the garden do not change.

Many concepts of karesansui exist, such as gardens of only rocks, or gardens which create a beautiful contrast between greenery and white rocks and sand. Going to several different temples and comparing their gardens can be an enjoyable experience.

Karesansui gardens express water surfaces and wave motions through sand patterns called samon. Some gardens also put bridges above the sand to simulate the flow of rivers.

A garden’s expression of nature also changes according to the sizes of the stones and grains of sand. Since the sand patterns are disrupted by rain or the landing of birds, they must be redrawn at regular intervals. Karesansui gardens require exceptionally delicate care.

How Did Karesansui Gardens Come About?

The history of creating waterless gardens in confined spaces dates back to the 11th century. Zen ideology was popular in the 14th century, when the samurai became powerful. As the white sand scattered in gardens symbolized purity, they became sites for rituals and ceremonies.

Before long, ceremonial venues moved indoors, and karesansui gardens were created to serve as spaces for contemplation and Zen meditation.

How Should You Spend Your Time in a Karesansui Garden?

Karesansui gardens are not meant for strolling, but for contemplation; they are made for visitors to focus their gaze on as they consider the meaning of space. The garden that occupies the area is not just a representation of mountains, rivers and nature; it expresses a Buddhist worldview about absolute minimalism.

Situate yourself in the garden and you will arrive at the Zen spiritual concept of nothingness. While Japan is overflowing with noise, the appeal of the karesansui garden lies in its place as a sanctuary to separate yourself from the chatter and quietly engage in self-reflection.

Karesansui Garden Types and Notable Gardens


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All together, there are six karesansui garden types. We’ll take a look at these six types and examine some notable temple gardens in each style.

1. Hiraniwa (Flat Garden)

The garden at Ryoanjiin Kyoto is an example of this style, which is constructed on flat land.

2.Jun-Hiraniwa (Semi-Flat Garden)

The gardens at Daitokuji Honbo Jotei in Kyoto and Fugenji Teien in Yamaguchi are examples of this style, which adds short mountains to the hiraniwa style.

3. Kareike (Dry Pond)

The garden at Nishi-Honganji Taimenjo in Kyoto is an example of this style, which uses arrangements of stones to create the appearance of a pond. The garden at Seiganji in Kyoto uses moss to represent the pond; when it rains, the water collects in the moss and it becomes an actual pond.

4. Karenagare (Dry Stream)

The gardens at Daisen-in Hojo Totei in Kyoto and Nansoji in Osaka are examples of this style, which express the movement of flowing water through sand patterns and small stones.

5. Tsukiyama (Artificial Hills)

This karesansui style makes use of inclines to express waterfalls and flowing water. You can see examples of this style at Tenryuji and Saihoji in Kyoto.

6. Unique Gardens

These gardens are either only made with white sand, or do not fall into any of the above categories. Some representative gardens are Kogetsudai, Ginshadan and Tokai-an Hojo Nantei in Kyoto.

Naturally, Kyoto has plenty of these karesansui gardens. Use this article as a hint guide and compare them for yourself!

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