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Japan's gardens of repose offer solace in pandemic times

These well-designed spaces can leave us feeling restored and reinvigorated

A completely natural backdrop to the garden of Tesso-en in Gujo Hachiman. (Photo by Stephen Mansfield)

KYOTO, Japan -- The Japanese word shinrinyoku (forest bathing) refers to a kind of spiritual refreshment and mental cleansing experienced through immersion in nature, in the wilderness of a wood.

The concept sits neatly beside a number of other Japanese self-healing approaches that function as paths to well-being, among them mindfulness and ikigai, denoting the discovery of a cherished reason for being. Many of these ideas repackage concepts that have been around for millennia, practiced in ancient times by Japanese monks, hermits, poets, spiritual seekers and the philosophically inclined.

To be effective, of course, ideas need to be tried and tested. Anyone who has attempted to forest bathe in a Japanese wood in spring or summer will know they are a bit different from, say, an English glade, where you can safely lay down in a bed of bluebells, close your eyes, and be transported into a pleasant dream state. Japanese forests in the spring and summer are the habitat of poisonous snakes, mosquitoes, wild boar, and, if you are really unlucky, bears.

A tamer, but immensely satisfying alternative to nature in the raw is to visit Japanese gardens -- creations I never tire of, despite having visited more than 500. And if there was ever a time to seek out the reenergizing benefits of gardens, it is now, in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether in person, online, or through the pages of illustrated books, the inspiring presence of gardens can help us get through both this protracted emergency and the stress and anxiety that assail us in our daily lives.

Leaving neurosis at the garden gate, I am often struck by the changes to my state of being triggered by extended exposure to these exquisite works of organic art. In a Japanese garden I feel an almost immediate sense of well-being as I compose, or banish, my thoughts, enjoying the sensation of entering into an alignment with nature and my inner self. These gardens have their own currents and energy flows, which have healing and regenerative functions. According to Zen, human energy and power is at its optimum when we attain a condition of composed calm and equipoise.

Top: Enjoy a relaxing bowl of powdered green tea at Jonangu in Kyoto. Bottom: The deeper, more naturalistic section of To-in, a temple garden, resembles an earthly paradise. (Photos by Stephen Mansfield)

At a more cerebral level, stone gardens (often referred to by non-Japanese as Zen gardens) can act as tools for meditation, cleansing and purging the mind. This is good news for those troubled by the pre-pandemic phenomenon of over-tourism, which in cities such as Amsterdam and Barcelona prompted residents to protest at the saturation of their home turf. Japan has not been immune to this counter-trend, and of all garden cities in the country, Kyoto has been the most visitor-inundated.

Finding gardens in Kyoto that are not on direct bus or train routes is one way of beating the crowds, as I found out when tracking down Nishimura-ke, located in the quiet residential district of Shake-machi, close to Kamigamo Shrine. The residence, originally built for Shinto priests serving at a nearby shrine, is a modest affair, approached along a stone path.

Visitors ring a bell at the entrance, which summons the keeper of the house -- an aged gentleman who will guide them into a spacious room facing the garden. Dense trees on the borders act as sound barriers, creating a serene environment for quiet introspection or reflection. On my last visit, I was the only visitor.

Top: The silhouette of a plum tree cast over the paper window of an ancient teahouse. Bottom: The Nishimura-ke garden, the perfect place to shed those anxieties. (Photos by Stephen Mansfield) 

The Rinzai Zen sect temple of Zuiganzan Enkouji was relocated to its present site in northeast Kyoto in 1667. The first thing that catches the eye on entering the grounds is the Honryutei, a modernist dry landscape garden, completed in 2013. The garden was created "in the spirit of Buddhism," according to its designer, Tsubo Keikan, who is also the temple's head priest. An older, wooded garden lies beyond this striking but strangely little-visited site.

Hakusasonso (white sand villa), a garden and former residence of the nihonga-style artist Hashimoto Kansetsu, is a little-visited garden just five minutes from Ginkaku-ji, the immensely popular, and crowded, silver temple. Designed partly around a lotus pond, the site is said to be the largest artist residence in Kyoto. Among the restful thatched arbors and tea ceremony houses are several stone ornaments and works of art, including lanterns, pagodas, pillars and Buddha statues, lending the grounds a sacred air.

The pond and hill garden of Toji-in, dating back to 1341, is a fine example of a sequestered garden reflecting Kyoto's refined aesthetics and special sense of beauty. Composed around a heart-shaped pond, the garden's design directs the visitor's gaze up a steep, azalea-planted slope to a prototypical Kyoto style teahouse. Deeper into a more naturalistic area, replete with fragrant olive, camellia and Japanese maple, we are reminded that the Persian origin of the word garden denotes paradise.

Top: Kyoto’s Hakusasonso garden contains a number of time-saturated Buddhist statues and carvings. Bottom: A tranquil autumn scene at Zuiganzan Enkouji, a temple garden in northwest Kyoto. (Photos by Stephen Mansfield)

It is a pleasant 10-minute walk from Toji-in through a quiet residential area to Myoshinji, a temple complex where garden enthusiasts can enjoy two simple but outstanding tea gardens: Daiho-in and Keishun-in. In these wonderfully serene environments, the creative deployment of limited space is remarkable.

Feeling more like a hermitage than a temple, the dense surrounding trees at Daiho-in, and its rich beds of moss, create the sensation of being in a forest setting. As powdered green tea and a small sweet are served, visitors sitting on tatami (reed mats) facing the garden experience a sensation of peace descending. Keishun-in offers a similar experience.

At a welcome remove from Kyoto's well-established viewing routes, the dry landscape garden at Shodenji temple is part of the city, but feels a world apart. A gently rising path leads through a cedar wood where the air is filtered and fresh -- a reminder that the Japanese word sorin (dense forest) is synonymous in traditional literature with a Zen temple.

Top: Keishun-in, a Kyoto tea garden, is a study in graduated greenery. Bottom: Unsullied by electric wires or buildings, nature and emptiness at Shodenji. (Photos by Stephen Mansfield)

Instead of stones, its main garden, a karesansui (dry landscape) design, consists of 15 azalea bushes arranged in a 7-5-3 pattern, reflecting the Taoist fondness for odd numbers. Best of all, perhaps, is the view, an uncluttered perspective taking in distant Mount Hiei. Interestingly, this was the musician David Bowie's favorite Kyoto garden, a spot he repaired to frequently in search of repose.

Visiting gardens like these is enough to make you want to design one of your own. There is a Chinese saying that goes, "Life begins on the day you start a garden." Mark Hovane, an Australian who has lived in Kyoto for more than 30 years and has designed courtyard gardens, would doubtless agree with that sentiment. Hovane runs Kyoto Garden Experience, a company catering to individuals and small groups with a serious interest in Japanese landscape art and horticulture.

Hovane, who opts for smaller, more sequestered gardens that contain representative Japanese design elements and aesthetics, says the planned elements within a Japanese garden are "specifically designed to cultivate nuanced awareness and receptivity." What he calls sophisticated spatial modulation is achieved with the application of "ma," a technique that translates as "interval and void within both time and space."

Top: You can almost feel your pulse rate slow on entering Kyoto’s Daiho-in. Bottom: The Kennin-ji temple garden is right in the middle of busy Kyoto, but could be light years away. (Photos by Stephen Mansfield)

The division between occupied and blank space enables the viewer "to be drawn into an atmosphere of contemplative introspection." For urbanites, "overwhelmed by a dopamine-driven, technologically crowded environment," gardens can help us to "reconnect to our true selves," he says, as long as "we remember to mediate these spaces directly and remember to turn off the Wi-Fi."

The flow of organic time within a Japanese garden is quite different from the coursing of work or social time. The deceleration that takes place produces a state of well-being that makes us calm but aware, relaxed but mindful, tranquil but alert. We have to return to daily life eventually, of course, but by bringing us into an alignment with the energy flows of nature and our inner selves, by promoting calm and equipoise, the chances are that contact with Japanese gardens will leave us feeling newly restored and reinvigorated.

Stephen Mansfield is the author of three garden books, including "Japan's Master Gardens: Lessons in Space & Environment."

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