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).

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: International Project Coordinator / Account Coordinator

    Circa £26,500 DOE: Guru Careers: An International Project Coordinator / Accoun...

    Guru Careers: Plumber / Maintenance Operator

    £25k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Plumber / Mainten...

    Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

    £14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

    Recruitment Genius: Network Executive - Adrenalin Sports - OTE £21,000

    £19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you looking for an exciting...

    Day In a Page

    Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

    Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

    After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
    The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
    10 best sun creams for kids

    10 best sun creams for kids

    Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
    Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

    Tate Sensorium

    New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
    Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

    Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

    He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
    Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

    Remember Ashton Agar?

    The No 11 that nearly toppled England
    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks