I recently took a weekend trip to see some friends and have a chance to view some beautiful Japanese sand gardens. Fukuoka is the site of the very first Zen temple, Shofuku-ji was built 1195 by Yosai Eisai, it’s a quiet temple, housing the largest wooden Buddha in Japan (it was a very yellow gold, had bright red lips and blue hair, I have to say it was kind of a ringer for Marge Simpson…) whilst enjoying the temple I came across what appeared to by a cat nap party, no less then 7 cats stretched out in the early Autumn sun.
The nearby temple Joten-ji has a beautiful Zen sand garden. Initially I could only see the back of the garden as the viewing platform in the temple is off-limits to tourists, Zen gardens (like most traditional Japanese gardens) are carefully designed to be viewed for specific view points, so looking at one from behind is a bit like staring at the back of a picture. I decided to try and put my year of excruciating Japanese study to work and after taking a moment to think up my best Kei-go phrasing (Kei-go is the formal language you use when you want to be polite) I opened the beautiful sliding doors and asked if I might please be allowed to view the garden properly.
I was absolutely delighted when she not only told me I could, but also informed me that the only reason she was allowing it as because I spoke Japanese. Whilst I’m not celebrating this kind of thinking, which is not uncommon in Japan and I’m sure many other countries as well, it was a very happy moment for me, as this is exactly the kind of situation I have been working so hard for. I thanked her profusely and happily walked into the hushed interior of the building to the sun soaked wooden decking in front of the garden. I was the only person there and I spent a very happy (and I must admit a bit smug) hour there viewing the garden and sketching.
The next day I headed to Komyozen-ji in Dazaifu to view the larger Zen Garden which includes beautiful soft moss along side the well known swirling white sand or gravel patterns. This one is fully open to the public for the bargain price of £1.16, and is viewed from a lovely old temple.
I’m actually not as crazy about Zen gardens as I am about a lot of other aspects of Japanese culture, but there’s no denying their beauty and originality. To me they seem like a super, super early installation art, they evoke, they are beautiful, site specific and totally untouchable. They are intended to portray the essence of nature, not by recreating its actually appearance but rather by suggesting its essential components, movements and compositions. They are intended as an aid to meditation, and though I didn’t really intend to do so I sort of found myself unconsciously slipping into such a state. During my research into meditation I’m always fascinated by the objects which have been designed to facilitate the process, the chanting bells, the correct cloths to wear etc. These items are created for a purpose which most people can not really describe or understand properly, but that some would say is as essential to true human happiness as love or health, I like that somehow.