There’s a mystery at the heart of Ryoan-ji in Kyoto. No matter how long you stare at this famous Zen garden, you won’t see all 15 of its rocks from any single vantage point. The only way to see them all is to look inward.
Created in the 15th century, the garden—roughly 30 feet wide by 80 feet long—consists of 15 irregularly shaped rocks of varying sizes set in a bed of river stones that is meticulously raked by monks each morning. The garden is enclosed on three sides by a weathered earthen wall. On the fourth side is a wide wooden verandah, where visitors stand or sit, and stare.
You can’t absorb Ryoan-ji on a ten-minute walk-through, and that’s its secret. To understand it, you have to stop and sit with it, for hours if you wish. Then you really see it. You see how the river stones are arranged in exquisitely straight lines and then in rippling circles around the rocks, the two shapes somehow seamlessly merging; how the glazed wall that surrounds the garden is rough and textured, like a piece of priceless pottery; how the garden’s design subtly embraces the cherry, maple, cedar, and pine trees beyond the wall; how the garden itself expresses and reflects the tranquil tension between sky and stone, petal and pebble.
And even then, you won’t see all 15 of its rocks at once. In order to apprehend the garden in its entirety, you have to find the fifteenth rock in your mind. You have to absorb the scene so completely that the distinction between the garden outside and the garden inside disappears. In this way, the garden becomes a part of you—and you become a part of the garden.
A universe of moss
The Zen garden is one of Japan’s cultural icons. While there is no precise definition, traditionally we think of the Zen garden as a spare, somewhat abstract arrangement of rocks, gravel, and minimal greenery, meant to embody serenity and inspire reflection. These gardens are an embodiment of the philosophy and practice of Zen Buddhism.
Another beloved Kyoto landmark epitomizes a lusher variation of the Zen garden, closer in design and atmosphere to what the Japanese call a strolling garden. This is the garden at the Zen temple called Saiho-ji. There are two gardens at Saiho-ji: a sparse, Ryoan-ji-like karesansui, or dry landscape garden, on an upper level; and a more expansive garden on the lower level, which includes cedar, pine, maple, and bamboo trees, miniature bridges, winding waters, and some 120 varieties of moss.
When you walk through the garden at Saiho-ji, your pace slows, your heart quiets, your mind freshens. You stop and stare at a four-inch-square patch of moss and realize what a universe of hues and textures it holds. You lose yourself in contemplation of rippling brown-green-blue reflections of bough, bridge, and sky, or the gnarled arc of a venerable cedar, its sanctity symbolized by the shimenawa straw rope the monks have placed around it.
You breathe in more deeply, focus more clearly; your senses become acutely attuned to the crunch of your soles on the rock-paved path, the earthy scent of sun-warmed moss, the springy caress of a cushioned mound, the rustle of breeze-blown leaves and shoosh-shoosh-shoosh of the gardener’s bamboo broom.
Where to find your Zen
Whether in Kyoto or taking a 360-degree, virtual stroll on the city’s Zen landscapes—wandering through a Zen garden immerses us in a world of serenity, beauty, and grace, lifts our minds and souls to a gentler place, and reminds us that whatever our situation, wherever we may be, taking the time to stop, breathe deeply, and truly see can bestow a precious, and renewing, tranquility.
Intrinsically appealing and healing, the Zen garden speaks to something deep inside all of us: the need for quiet, contemplation, calm. Happily, you don’t have to travel to Japan to experience these gifts; garden designers around the world have utilized Zen principles and practices to create adaptations in their own homelands. Countries with especially notable Japanese gardens include Scotland, New Zealand, India, Canada, Australia, and the United States.
Here are five blissful Zen gardens in the U.S.
Portland Japanese Garden, Portland, OR
This magnificent space, designed in the 1960s by Professor Takuma Tono of Tokyo Agricultural University, features eight kinds of Japanese gardens, including a Ryoan-ji-style karesansui sand and stone garden and a Saiho-ji-style strolling pond garden.
Bloedel Reserve, Bainbridge Island, WA
Home to the largest public moss garden in the United States, with more than 40 species of moss and lichen, the Bloedel Reserve’s Moss Garden casts the same mossy magic as Kyoto’s Saiho-ji.
Fort Worth Botanic Garden, Fort Worth, TX
Opened in 1973, the Fort Worth Japanese Garden is a spectacular 7.5-acre strolling garden, highlighted by cherry trees, maples, magnolias, and bamboo, as well as bridges and ponds enlivened by some 1,200 colorful koi fish.
Morikami Museum, Delray Beach, FL
Designed by Hoichi Kurisu, the Morikami Museum’s George D. and Harriet W. Cornell Japanese Garden is a living textbook: Its six gardens exemplify six different ages and aesthetics of Japanese garden design, including examples of both the early and the late karesansui style.
Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, Grand Rapids, MI
Opened in 2015, the Richard & Helen DeVos Japanese Garden includes an exquisite karesansui rock and sand garden, as well as a strolling garden with a traditional teahouse.
Don George, a National Geographic Travel editor at large, is the author of the acclaimed anthology The Way of Wanderlust: The Best Travel Writing of Don George. Follow him on Twitter.