Zen and the art of dry gardens. Take a tour - it refreshes the soul

The springtime show of cherry blossom is cause for celebration in Japan, says Patricia Cleveland-Peck. It's also the best time to visit the country's beautiful and powerfully symbolic open spaces

A rectangular bed of gravel raked into wave patterns might not be everyone's idea of a garden. This, however, is Japan, and I am standing in a garden in Kyoto called The Ocean of Nothingness. It's not quite nothing. The bed has been adorned with two gravel cones. But that's it.

A rectangular bed of gravel raked into wave patterns might not be everyone's idea of a garden. This, however, is Japan, and I am standing in a garden in Kyoto called The Ocean of Nothingness. It's not quite nothing. The bed has been adorned with two gravel cones. But that's it.

Symbolism in Japanese gardens is paramount, and Kyoto is renowned for having some of the most powerfully symbolic gardens in Japan, and some of the most beautiful. By no means all are as lacking in natural features as the gravel garden I came across in the extensive temple complex of Daitoku-ji. For centuries, cherry blossom has been celebrated in Japan, and so spring is the time to make a garden visit to Japan.

I joined only three other people on one of the informal tours that World Spirit organises twice a year. Accommodation is arranged in advance but you make your own way to your hotel, where you meet your guides - Robert, who is English, and Keiko, who is Japanese - and sort out what you want to see. Keiko also undertakes the complex admission procedures required in advance by some gardens and temples. World Spirit aims to give its guests a glimpse of the Japan most tourists don't see and to this end the company's chosen hotel is centrally situated with small but efficient rooms, and caters for a mostly Japanese clientele. Meals are taken at neighbourhood cafés and if the group is as small as ours, public transport is used for the visits.

The first garden anyone wants to see in Kyoto is the Zen dry garden, Ryoan-ji. It is a Unesco World Heritage Site, created in the 15th century, and one of the best known gardens in Japan, so I had expected crowds, but wisely Robert had got us up early so that we would arrive before the tour buses. In the cool of the morning we had the 15 world-famous stones almost to ourselves. What are they? Tiger Cubs? Peaks of consciousness? Who knows? But contemplating them does seem to refresh the spirit.

This garden, a 30m by 10m rectangle contained within earthen walls - and like many of the smaller gardens designed to be viewed from a veranda - is part of a bigger estate with decorative buildings and a large pond. It was here, as we strolled beneath the cherry trees, that we were able to appreciate the loveliness of the Japanese spring. We marvelled at the intensely disciplined techniques used by the gardeners at work around us. Trees are pruned severely, branches are twisted and tied into shape and a limited palette of flowers is employed - only those with symbolic or allusive elements being really valued.

The importance of symbolism in the garden was apparent the next day when we visited Daitoku-ji. Here several more dry gardens express mankind's relationship with nature, its place in the universe and even paradise. Daisen-in, my favourite, is a three-dimensional version of the monochrome paintings of the Sung period. In these gardens real water, plants and hills have been replaced by abstractions, creating for us Westerners an entirely fresh concept of the garden.

The celebrated moss garden, Saiho-ji, could not be more different. Nearly all the gardens are attached to shrines or temples, and the admission fee for this one is 10 times higher than at other gardens. Before being allowed to see the garden we had to kneel at low desks and trace sutras with ink sticks for half an hour while a monk chanted. The experience put me in the mood for this extraordinary place - a pond surrounded by a garden containing 120 varieties of moss with a rock-work garden depicting our imperfect world. It is an accidental masterpiece, the moss having developed all over the shady site during the 700-year-old Saiho-ji temple's long period of neglect. The silent, misty garden has a strange, somewhat troubling atmosphere - as if one were inside a cocoon.

Kyoto is known not only for its proliferation of wonderful gardens but also for its geishas. In the Gion and Pontocho districts these proud, kimono-clad beauties can sometimes be seen clattering past on their wooden getas, and there are still prestigious ochaya or teahouses at which they entertain - and which no tourist could enter.

Our April visit, however, meant we could attend one of the seasonal shows put on by the maiko, or apprentice geishas. Before the performance the maiko prepare and serve a ceremonial tea to the audience in an ante-room. Guests sit on the floor, sip the green tea, nibble a sweetmeat and then wrap the plate in the napkin and keep it. The performance itself is a glorious extravaganza of song and dance with stunning costumes and sets. We had inside information, as Keiko lives in the Gion and several of her friends were in the show. She pointed out a slim solo dancer and to our disbelief told us that she was over 70 years old. "Once a geisha, always a geisha," Keiko said.

Kyoto is a big modern city built on a grid system, which makes it easy to get around,clean and very safe. Large department stores and modern boutiques abound but it is more fun to explore the tiny alleys of the old town where traditional wooden houses known as machiya can still be found. Many are now craft shops and it is worth venturing inside if only to see the exquisite little courtyard gardens contained within.

One old house which is open to the public is Nijo-ji'nya, formerly an inn frequented by war lords. Accompanied by Keiko, because an interpreter is essential, I was astonished to find the interior of this ordinary looking house fitted with trap-doors, escape hatches, false walls, spy holes, and confusing dead ends - all so that plotters within could be warned of spies and effect an easy escape.

One could stay weeks in Kyoto without exhausting its cultural attractions. A night in a traditional Japanese inn, Ryokan Hiiragiya, was a memorable experience: bathing in a deep cedar bath, enjoying my own little garden as dusk fell, sampling a meal in which each of the 13 courses was a minor work of art before sleeping on the floor on a futon.

The Garden of the Moon at Joju-in is also very special. Impeccably clipped azalea bushes, impressive rocks and old trees surround a pond, but the small garden, which is half way up a hillside, incorporatesall the surrounding landscape into an exquisite picture. The garden is so named because its beauty is apparently at its height in autumn when the moon shines through maples and is reflected in the water.

Just one more reason to return to Kyoto.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Osaka's Kansai airport is the closest to Kyoto. Blossom season is an expensive time to fly; expect to pay around £465 return flying from London Heathrow via Frankfurt with Lufthansa through Trailfinders (020-7938 3939). Jalpak (020-7462 5555; www.jalpak.co.uk) offers direct flights from London Heathrow from around £670 return.

Where to stay

The author travelled as a guest of World Spirit (0161-928 5768; www.worldspirit.org.uk), whose next escorted blossom itineraries are on 1-11 and 11-21 April. There are foliage-viewing tours on 1-11 and 11-21 November. Single occupancy costs £845-£915; double rooms start at £720 per person. The price includes transfers, accommodation, transport in Kyoto, temple, garden and guide fees. Double rooms and two meals at the Hiiragiya Ryokan (00 81 75 221 1136; www.hiiragiya.co.jp), Kyoto, start at Y30,000 (£150) per person per night.

Further information

Contact JNTO, Japan National Tourist Organisation (020-7734 6870; www.seejapan.co.uk).

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