Nothing could be further from the typical image of a garden than a Japanese Zen garden, also known as a Japanese rock garden. The total lack of grass, greenery, or any growing matter in favour of rocks and gravel might not have instant aesthetic appeal to a Western gardener, but to the Japanese it has a much deeper appeal. However, these Zen rock gardens have been growing in popularity in the West.
Due to Shinto, the native Japanese religion that respects trees and mountains as sacred, gardens have always had a spiritual significance for the Japanese people. Rather than just being a place for recreation and to waste away the hours, a garden to a Japanese person is a place for the worship and respect of the earth. Even the seemingly mundane garden maintenance tasks such as weeding and sweeping leaves are seen as a therapeutic task and a way of showing respect and pride.
Zen rock gardens are the barest form of what can be called a garden. Consisting of large stones carefully spaced in a sea of perfectly raked gravel, Zen gardens are places for focus and meditation. The literal translation of their Japanese name – kare-sansui – is “withered landscapes”, and that gives some idea of the stark image created by a Zen garden.
However, Zen gardens are far from a sign of barren abandonment. Each rock has been carefully selected and position amongst the gravel that has itself been raked into a series of perfectly straight parallel lines. In fact, the only disturbances in the perfect lines of gravel are the circular ripples emanating from the rocks that sit like islands in the middle of the gravel lake.
One of the best places in Japan to see traditional Zen gardens is in Kyoto. Kyoto escaped bombing during the Second World War, so all the ancient temples and gardens remain as they have done for hundreds of years. Many of the monasteries have Zen rock gardens, as well as the more traditional green gardens. These Zen gardens are designed for meditation, and some have benches or a gallery where people can sit in silence and contemplate life.
In the West, Japanese Zen gardens are becoming increasingly popular. A Zen rock garden can be created in even the most barren environment, where trying to grow grass or foliage might be impossible. Even miniature desktop Zen gardens are becoming a popular way for weary executives to relieve their stress by raking tiny lines in the gravel. However, nothing can compare with sitting in the peace and tranquillity of a genuine Japanese Zen garden, staring out at the rocks and the sand and meditating on life.
If you want to design your own Japanese Zen garden, there are two main considerations to make.
Firstly, you need to carefully choose your rocks. Since the rocks are the focal point of a Zen garden, they need to be meaningful. Often, the rocks are used to represent people or animals, such as turtles, so it’s important that they capture the imagination of all who view them. As you look upon the rocks and meditate, they should almost take on a life of their own.
The second important consideration when creating a Zen garden is the gravel that you use. Obviously, you want the gravel to have a nice, uniform colour, but the size is actually the most important thing. Gravel that’s made up of stones that are too big will be difficult to rake, making that task more of a chore than a relaxing activity. On the other hand, whereas gravel that’s too fine might be really easy to rake, it’ll be harder to get the pattern to stay in it, as the fine stones are likely to keep falling back into your nicely raked grooves.
A general recommendation is silver-grey granite chips in a mixture of 6mm and 14mm stones, so that the smaller stones fill the gaps between the larger stones, and kind of lock them in place so the wind or heavy rain doesn’t move them about.
It’s also worth noting that for a Japanese Zen garden with a properly raked display, the experts recommend a layer of gravel at least 75mm thick.