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Japanese Rock Gardens

A Japanese rock garden is also called a dry garden, or "karesansui" in Japanese. Typically made of only stones and gravel or sand, these gardens are often found at temples in Japan. These "waterless stream" gardens are simple, yet profound to gaze upon.

Often associated with Zen Buddhism, these gardens are made for contemplation. Many, in fact, are meant to be gazed upon while being seated in one spot to get the full impact of the design.

There is some controversy on the meanings behind Japanese rock gardens.

Some say that the gravel or sand represents the ocean. This is substantiated by the ripples that are raked into the surface, reminiscent of waves of water. The rocks in this theme represent the islands of Japan.

Another theory is that the rocks represent two tigers and their cubs trying to cross a river.

A third theory is that the rocks form a portion of the kanji for "heart" or "mind."

Whatever the meaning lies behind the dry garden, there is a peacefulness to be found there, even without plants. With only two elements, stones and fine gravel, these gardens convey tranquility and artistic form.

Like most Japanese gardens, rock gardens are enclosed. You may notice a fence in the background, while the front is edged with either wood or grass. This seals the garden away from the rest of the world, creating a microcosm of nature.

To appreciate the rock garden, like any other Japanese garden, one is encouraged to become one with the garden to truly appreciate it.

As you gaze upon a Japanese rock garden, you should be able to form your own opinions and revelations. What do you see? Islands in the sea? A lake? A shoreline? Just rocks? The point is to get you to contemplate things without the stresses of everyday life and help you think outside the box.

Japanese Rock Garden Designs

When designing a Japanese rock garden, many rules are taken into account that pertain to the stones chosen.

There are five basic stone types that are utilized in a Japanese rock garden. Combined in many different ways, they are not only the focal points of the rock garden, but the bones of a standard Japanese garden.

Soul Stone or Low Vertical Stone

(Reishoseki in Japanese) This stone has a wide base and a tapered top. This is a favorite type of stone to use in the landscape, and it makes a striking appearance in the rock garden.

Body Stone, or Tall Vertical Stone

Taidoseki in Japanese) is a tall upright stone. It often is used to symbolize a person or a god. The base of this stone is only very slightly larger than the top. This stone must be placed carefully, as it is usually the tallest stone in the garden. It is usually placed toward the back of the rock garden, rather than the front where it would disrupt the flow of the garden.

Heart Stone or Flat Stone

(Shintaiseki in Japanese) is often used as a central harmonizing element. It is flat like a stepping stone. It also balances the tall stones with the horizontal lines of water and earth.

Branching or Arching Stone

(Shigyoseki in Japanese) is the most difficult stone to select. The top of this stone should be wider than the base. If the top is too much larger, the rock looks unstable. This stone is useful in design because it ties together the horizontal and the vertical elements.

Ox or Reclining Stone

(Kikyakuseki in Japanese). While this stone is higher than the flat stone, it is lower than the branching stone. This stone is usually placed in the foreground to unify the other stones.

Once these stones are placed on the gravel, a rake is used to design the gravel into ripples. Some form straight lines while others form circles around a larger stone or group of stones. The designs put into the gravel are as integral to the overall Japanese rock garden design as the selection of the focal stones.

Alan Booth, author of "Looking for the Lost: Journeys Through a Vanishing Japan (Kodansha Globe)," says in this book: "What's so special about the garden at Ryoanji?" I asked him, naming the famous rock and sand garden in Kyoto's most brochured and pamphleted Zen temple.

"The spaces between the rocks," he replied, with his mouth full of toothpaste." This explanation is very true for Japanese gardens, and especially so in their rock gardens. The spaces speak even more eloquently than the focal points.

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