Mimi really likes Japanese gardens, and has studied them extensively, and has written a couple books about them. (We even found said books for sale at various bookstores in Japan because we were traveling with fame!) And so we got to see lots of gardens—big impressive ones, and little hidden corner ones; gardens full of rocks; gardens full of moss. There’s much more variety to Japanese gardens than I had ever been aware of.
Some gardens are meant to be viewed, either from a tea house, or from a sitting deck. Some are meant to be walked around and experienced. And the garden designers have lots of ways to hide and expose views as you (or just your eyes) move through the space. For instance, if you’re walking up a hillside in a garden, your eyes are likely on your feet so that you don’t stumble. And then, when you top the rise, you suddenly look out a viewpoint that you were unaware of just a moment before. It was always there, but hidden from your gaze. These Zen moments are everywhere in the gardens. The viewing garden Ryoan-ji features fifteen rocks arranged in a field of raked gravel. It’s impossible to see all fifteen rocks at once no matter where you sit on the viewing deck. The idea is that often life isn’t revealed all at once—it unfolds and grows as you change perspective.
It’s hard for me now to pick a favorite garden of the tour, because they were all so different. I enjoyed the viewing gardens because they made me think. But the strolling gardens sang to my heart. One of the first we visited was designed by Shunmyo Masuno at the Samukawa Shrine. It’s a little off the beaten path, and you need an appointment to visit. The garden features beautiful stone work, and a large tea house perched over a still pond. It was still and quiet, and being the only people there was delightful in this often crowded country.
As we were leaving the garden, we stopped to use the restrooms. You’ve probably heard stories about Japanese toilets. I promise they are all true. The toilets at the Samukawa gardens were singing Ave Maria as we approached, which sent strains of music floating through the air. It was kindof pleasant, until you realized that you were in the vicinity of a singing toilet. Throughout the trip we encountered multitudes of automatic functions I’d never dreamed of, and tons of instructional signs with varying degrees of ambiguity. My favorite: Please use a toilet finely.
(How many blog posts have you encountered that juxtapose beautiful gardens and helpful toilets?)