Nanzen ji is one of the most iconic zen temples in Japan, so say thank you to our mentors for welcoming us and teaching us within such distinguished surroundings.  The emperor Kameyama dedicated what was his palace to become a zen temple in 1291.  It has had a hard history from its peak in the late 14th century as the most influential of zen temples.  Much was lost during the battle of onin no ran 1467-1477.  It was reconstructed under the peace formed from the Tokugawa’s absolute power during the 17th century.  Then in the late 19th it suffered during haibutsu-kishaku, the persecution of buddhism.

Nanzen ji has many gardens.The daihojo teien was designed bu koburi enshu in the early edo period.  It’s tiger shaped stones have given it fame.  The shakkei, borrowed landscape from the dainichi mountain, forms the backdrop to the karesansui garden and its minimalism.

The rokudou-tei garden was built in 1967 by katou-zouen.  It expresses the rokudou of buddhism, the circulation of human life through 6 worlds: tenkai (heaven), ningen-kai (earth), shura no sekai (anger), chikshou-kai (slavery), gaki-kai (hunger), and jigoku-kai (hell).  Fragility of the human heart is the theme.

Nanzenin garden is said to be designed by the emperor Kameyama himself.  It is a typical chisen-kaiyuu-shiki style, a pond strolling garden.  The garden is constructed of 2 ponds and a mountain slope.  The upper pond is sogan-ike, shaped liked a dragon.  The lower pond, shinji-ike, has islands in the form of the kanji kokoro, or heart.  Materials used were gathered from across the country: the cherry trees from yoshino, the maples from tatsuta, and the reeds from namba.  The emperor is buried in the rear of the scene.

The shukouen garden was designed in the late 19th century by the tea master, Yabunouchi.  The curves of the streams are combined with beautiful maples whose branches naturally associate with these scenes.  The traditional roji stone arrangements produce tranquility.


in spring maples and azaleas are pruned.  Pines may also be pruned, but usually the evergreen maintenance is undertaken in summer.  Pine trees are hand picked in autumn, leaving between 10 and 15 needles on each branch.  This technique is known as ha-mushiri.  Eda oroshi is the term given to the removal of dead branches during the winter of pine trees, cedars, and cypresses, simulating the natural pruning from the mountain winds. Kangoe is the term for the feeding of trees, and this takes the form of a winter mulch, particularly important for the flowering trees.

Mosses can be trimmed in the spring if the growth is too vigorous, and weeded or cut moss can be transplanted to where it is required.  There are many types of moss cultivated in Japan.  The main types in and around Nanzen ji are sugi goke, hosoba shiraga goke (narrow leaf white haired), manjuu goke , kobano chouchin goke (small leafed lantern moss, and hinoki goke (cypress moss).  These have associations which work harmoniously.  The knowledge of natural associations and man made associations, and the horticultural skills invested in the nurturing of moss are very specialist.

FIrstly we had a tour of Nanzen ji which developed our knowledge of the history of the place.  The architecture in Nanzen ji is arranged in a straight line, so one must pass through each building to reach the gardens at summit.  Interestingly the gate to the temples is only opened for the emperor.  The buildings have links to historic chinese ceremonial buildings.  New dwellings were created for each new emporer, creating distinct imperial (Gosho) architecture that was spread among many locations.  White sand and the greenness of leaves are symbols of purity in Zen.  Nanzen ji was much larger historically, and incorporated many gardens and temples in the vicinity.

We were shown the aqueduct system that feeds many of the gardens in series, fed from Lake Biwa 20km away We worked on 2 projects whilst at Nanzen ji.  It is the product of investment in Kyoto after its capital status was usurped by Tokyo, originally intended for hydroelectric power generation, to develop kyoto as an industrial base.  However, the designs were inefficient compared with European technologies and became redundant.  The aquaduct is a strange contrast with the traditional Japanese architecture, being built of brick following european design.  The unexpected juxtaposition I felt jarring, much like the citizens at the time who campaigned to remove it.  However, its inclusion now makes Nanzen ji even more unique, and people were drawn to it in a playful manner when i visited.  I think it was more shocking for me as an aquaduct was a memorable bit of architecture from when i was a young lad, and many memories flooded back.

The water supply is used for the surrounding gardens, but also for a gravity fed sprinkler system in the event of fire at the imperial palace in Kyoto.  Around Nanzen ji there is also a system of canals, built by a 28 year old Japanese architect for logistics around the city.  The canals are connecting by a light gauge railway, and this infrastructure was used to transport the stones for the building of the famous Murin an and Tairyo Sanso gardens.

It was interesting seeing archive photographs and drawings of the site, and seeing the surrounding area.  The management of the areas differ at times due to a patchwork of different ownership.  Nanzen ji has seen much destruction in its time, from wars and fighting to fires and recently flooding that took cars with it.

We worked in a part of the narutaki garden, which was a 6 or 7 year old project of the company and our sensei.  The waterfall directs the flow of the gardens and its connected parts through a sacred zen story (kusen) concerning 9 mountains and 8 oceans.  During our work I learnt a lot.  Understanding the most important design features of a space are the keys to its successful maintenance.

Here the first part was the definition of where the moss met the gravel.   Our sensei taught us to understand the life of the garden, that it is not static.  The lines change in response to the plants’ spirits.  The feeling Japanese gardeners have for the garden has been a fundamental lesson throughout.  Feelings and reasoning are used together to decide which self seeded plants are kept.  The image of the garden’s aesthetic is paramount and must be focussed upon when working.  Again another recurring lesson learnt from our time in Japan.

It is the same with pruning.  An ideal image is formed in the mind of the gardener and the plant is pruned accordingly.  Here, we wanted to draw attention to the new growth at the base to symbolise new life.  We wanted to draw attention to the beauty of the stems, so shoots growing to obscure this were removed.  The future growth was considered so some young shoots were kept.  The way the air will move through the plant, the way light will shine through, the distribution of flowers, and the places where the plant is viewed from was considered carefully.  Our sensei taught us the subjectivity of pruning, and the fact that people will differ in opinion.  Having freedom in choice liberates the plant’s character.  Discussion is important between gardeners, but fundamentally every cut must be able to be justified.

Structure, character, and balance from careful pruning is a very important part of Japanese horticulture it seems to me.  Although some of the principles are based subjectively on emotions and feelings that are inexplicable, I think this heightens the understanding of the plants and their care.  I think gardening is about romantic notions, Shinto has much to share in this regard, as do many English gardens.  We have so much in common, and much to share it seems.

Following this work we were able to have a go raking the gravel in one of the karesansui gardens.  Having come as a visitor and walked by these patterns contemplating, this felt very bizarre, and very enjoyable.  Thank you for sharing this wonderful place with us.



  1. Andrew Millington

    Sounds like you’re having a wonderful experience Matt – looking forward to catching up and hearing all the stories when you get back home. Enjoy the rest of your globetrotting!

  2. Andrew Millington

    Hi Matt – sounds like you’re having a wonderful experience, looking forward to hearing all the stories when you get back home! Enjoy! Andrew

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