Category Archives: Gardens

Azaleas at Myoman-ji Temple

Azaleas, (called very prettily tsutsuji in Japanese), are blooming all over Kyoto right now, but we won’t be able to enjoy them for much longer.  If you get a chance I recommend going to see the display of azaleas at the entrance to Myomanji in northern Kyoto. Here are some pictures I took there last year.
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The grounds here are quiet and pleasant but the most striking thing about them is the Busshari Daito – a great concrete tower modeled after the  Bodh Gaya in India.

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Here are some more pictures from around the grounds.

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This temple belongs to the Nichiren sect of Buddhism, and was originally built in 1383. Formerly it stood at Teramachi Nijo but was moved to its present location in 1968

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The grounds are free to enter, but there is a fee (300 yen) to visit the main buildings and the inner garden. The garden is called Yuki-no-niwa, or snow garden, so I imagine it must look spectacular in winter. However, it looked very fine when dressed in spring green too. The viewing room is a good spot to rest and be at peace.

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There is also a small museum room in the temple which houses a bell of legendary ill-repute, known as Anchin Kiyohime no Kane. The story goes that sometime in the 9th century, a monk named Anchin was travelling through Wakayama on a pilgrimage. One night he stayed at an inn on the way, and had a liaison with the inn-keeper’s daughter, Kiyohime. Anchin promised the girl he would return, but his promises were false and the scorned maid, consumed by anger, was transformed into a giant snake. She pursued Anchin to a temple where he hid himself under a bell – but to no avail! The giant serpent wound itself about the bell and then created a scorching heat that burned Anchin alive. The serpent then threw herself in a river and died also… From then on the bell was associated with disaster and misfortune whenever it was rung… In 1585 it was brought to Kyoto, and since then the monks of Myoman-ji hold a ceremony each year to bring peace to the souls of Anchin and Kiyohime… This is apparently quite a well-known tale, and has been the inspiration of both Noh dramas and Kyogen comedies. Terrible behaviour for a monk though, eh?

Myoman-ji (妙満寺) is a five minute walk from Kino station on the Eiden line. This is the tenth stop and takes about 15 minutes when going north from Demachiyanagi. Here is a MAP. Check Jorudan for train times.

The grounds are open from 6.00 am until 5.00 pm and the main building and garden are open from 9.00 am till 4.00 pm.

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Kerria at Matsuo Taisha

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After the cherry blossoms fall, successive waves of spring flowers vie for our attentions. At Matsuo Taisha bright gold kerria, known as “yamabuki” in Japanese, are in full bloom right now.

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We went to see them last year, but for some reason I never got around to posting the pictures – until now.

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Matsuo Taisha, (formally called Matsu-no-O Taisha), is said to have been founded in 701 AD, thus predating Kyoto itself and may even be the oldest of Kyoto’s shrines (though a few shrines make this claim).

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The yamabuki or kerria, are certainly lovely. Yamabuki is sometimes translated as “Japanese yellow rose”, but I find this misleading. They bear no relation to roses, and don’t resemble them in the slightest. Besides kerria is quite a pretty name, don’t you think?

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Entry to the outer grounds of the shrine is free. This is where the kerria is (in massive quantities).

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There is also an inner garden which you have to pay to get into, but I wouldn’t bother. It is rather disappointing. This is what the inner garden looks like at its best.

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But basically it is quite an ugly and haphazard assortment of rocks quite lacking in any sense of grace or aesthetic design.

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What is worse, there is very little sense of care about this garden. The whole place seems very sloppily presented with working tools left lying around the place, and walkways that look like this.

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A rather oddly designed walkway. Watch your head!

There seemed to be a lot of plastic wire and piping lying around too, with sections of the garden separated by sloppily tacked together sheets of plywood.

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Just some of the random stuff left lying around the inner garden of Matsuo Taisha.

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On my way in to the shrine I spotted some patriotic posters preaching national pride. The one on the left says “I’m so glad I am Japanese!” and the one on the right reads “Let’s raise the Hi-no-Maru!”. The Hi-no-Maru is of course Japan’s national flag.

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It seemed very telling that those who speak loudest of love of country and national pride, cannot properly tend to their own patch of garden. Really, where is the pride in that?

Stick to the outer grounds of the shrine if you visit Matsuo Taisha.

Stick to the outer grounds of the shrine if you visit Matsuo Taisha.

I enjoyed Matsuo Taisha for the kerria. They are very much worth seeing. Give the inner garden a miss though. I found that rather depressing.

This shrine sits right by Matsuo station which is easily reached on the Hankyu line. From Kawaramachi station it takes about 16 minutes with one change at Katsura. Check Jorudan for details. Here is a map of the location.

You can read more about the history of Matsuo Taisha on John Dougill’s very excellent Green Shinto blog.

Omuro Sakura at Ninna-ji Temple

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This year’s cherry blossom season was basically a washout, with many hanami parties cancelled because of the incessant rain. Ninna-ji Temple in western Kyoto, has a special variety of cherry blossom that blooms later than most, but when it was at its best last week, the rain was still coming down. Mewby and I resolved to defy the weather and visit the temple anyway. At least, I thought, the rain will keep the bulk of tourists away. We’ll probably have the place to ourselves. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Even in the rain, Ninna-ji Temple is very popular.


Perhaps it is because Ninna-ji is on UNESCO’s World Heritage list as one of the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto”? It is certainly ancient. Ninna-ji Temple was first built in 888.

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Like many Kyoto temples though, the original buildings of Ninna-ji were long ago destroyed by fire. In Ninna-ji’s case the temple was destroyed during the conflict of the Ōnin War in 1467. The majority of the current buildings date from a 17th century restoration.

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Most striking of all must be the five storied pagoda…

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But the grounds are extensive and there is much to see here.

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The Kyōzō (経蔵) or sutra repository had a sign outside describing many treasured wall paintings and Buddhist statuary, yet the building itself was completely locked up. There was however a tiny hole in the wooden walls through which we took a little peak and saw…

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The main attraction though was Ninna-ji’s famous orchard of 200 dwarf cherry trees. These date from the early Edo period, so people have been enjoying cherry blossoms here for about 400 years!

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This orchard was designated as a national scenic beauty spot in 1924.

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Even in the rain, cherry blossoms can gladden the heart!

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We enjoyed our trip to Ninna-ji and will certainly go again – but hopefully in better weather!

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You can find out more about Ninna-ji Temple at their multi-lingual website here: It is also possible to stay at Ninna-ji overnight. You can find out about that here:


Getting to Ninna-ji is little complicated but much of the route is quite scenic and pleasant.

To get to Ninna-ji from Kyoto station, take the JR subway to Karasuma-Oike Station and change to the Tozai line. Go as far as Uzumasa-Tenjingawa/Randen-Tenjingawa (it has two names), and then change to the Keifuku Dentetsu-Arashiyama line. Take that line as far as Katabiranotsuji and then take the Keifuku Dentetsu-Kitano Line as far as Omuro-Ninna-ji. That’s three changes over 46 minutes for 610 yen.

To get to Ninna-ji from the town center take the Hankyu line from Kawaramachi to Sai, then change to the Keifuku Dentetsu-Arashiyama line. Take that line as far as Katabiranotsuji and then take the Keifuku Dentetsu-Kitano Line as far as Omuro-Ninna-ji. That’s two changes over 45 minutes for 360 yen.

Check for details of train times at:

Gion Walking on Inside Kyoto

Walking in Gion, my latest article for Chris Rowthorn’s Inside Kyoto, is now available online. For this piece I took a daytime tour of Gion’s main sites and historical landmarks, taking in some craft and antique shops and sweet shops on the way. I spent a long time on Hanami-koji, trying to get a decent shot of the Ichiriki Chaya unobscured by face-masked pedestrians and tourists with selfie sticks. This was the final result of my persistence.

The Ichiriki Chaya

The Ichiriki Chaya

My favorite spot though is away from the busy streets and in Kennin-ji, Kyoto’s oldest Zen temple. This temple complex is pretty big, but doesn’t get so crowded, and you get a real sense of peace from the raked stone gardens. Here are a couple of pictures from Kennin-ji that I didn’t have space for in my article.

Kennin-ji... As I passed a monk was chanting sutras in this little sanctuary.

Kennin-ji… As I passed a monk was chanting sutras in this little sanctuary.

The Toyobo tea house (1587) has resided at various locations around Kyoto but now  is situated at the back of Kennin-ji gardens across some stepping stones. You have to put some slippers on to reach it.

The Toyobo tea house (1587) has resided at various locations around Kyoto but now is situated at the back of Kennin-ji gardens across some stepping stones. You have to put some slippers on to reach it.

You can read the article here: Walking in Gion

See also:
Kyoto Samurai
Toka Ebisu

Kyoto Botanical Gardens by Izumi Texidor Hirai

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Image © Izumi Texidor Hirai

The Asahi Shimbun recently ran a story about Kyoto Botanical Gardens. Researchers there are planning to build a greenhouse for endangered species. Not only will the greenhouse be used for preservation but it will also serve an educational purpose as visitors will be able to observe the plants and the work involved in keeping them alive.

The garden’s botanists also anticipate using the new facility to collaborate with universities and research organizations in reintroducing plants that are extinct in the wild back into their natural habitats.

“When people hear the term ‘endangered species,’ most of them tend to focus on animals,” said Junichi Nagasawa, the director of the garden. “But we want visitors to understand the rarity of endangered plants and how they are influenced significantly by changes in their environment.

An important reminder that the Botanical Gardens are not just a pleasant center of recreation but a locus of serious scientific endeavor! You can read the full story here: Kyoto garden to build greenhouse where visitors can observe endangered species

This story also reminded me that I have been meaning to post a special excerpt from Deep Kyoto: Walks by Izumi Texidor Hirai. In her walk through the Botanical Gardens Izumi weaves personal recollection with finely observed details of life in the gardens as they pass through the four seasons.  January has already passed now, but we are still very much in the early and wintry part of the year. Let today’s excerpt from Izumi’s walk serve as a happy reminder of all the special seasonal joys that the year ahead has in store.


The Botanical Gardens

The Rose Garden is my favourite part, like stepping into an English garden. A couple of tables shaded under tall trees, roses blooming in every colour I can imagine, grass and gravel under my feet, and then Mount Hiei quietly standing there at the end. Before I notice it, my steps have become smaller and slower. My eyes want to look at all those roses, every single one of them, and my lungs want to breathe in as much of their aroma as they can. In full bloom, this garden is spectacular and many people gather here to take quick photos or to slowly sketch their favourite bloom. However, I quite like it around November, on a cool, rainy day. I like the smell of wet earth and the rain drops on the flowers and on the leaves, and I like to see Mount Hiei mysteriously surrounded by grey clouds. I like that there is no one around and all I can hear is the continuous whispering of rain. I wonder if it sounds the same down here amongst the roses, as up there, at the top of Mount Hiei. In the spring, I will sometimes sit at one of the tables under the big pine trees and read or study. It is one of those special places where time stops as people come and go.

Now I have had my fill of roses, I want to explore the rest of the place, so I stand up, leave the Rose Garden behind and head north. Depending on the time of year, I will see camellias, or irises coming out of a lotus pond, or big hydrangeas if it is June. The lotus pond has an interesting bridge that often reminds me of classic Japanese novels. It is not a straight bridge or even a typical slightly elevated bridge, it goes right and left, and then right and left again, making you understand that the point is not to go from here to the other side, but to walk slowly and look around, maybe even stop a couple of times and enjoy a certain spot. When I get off the bridge, I start walking freely, no longer really having any direction in mind. All that zig-zagging. Wherever I go, I am always shaded by big old trees that must have seen a hundred years go by. There are more than twelve thousand species of plants and trees in these gardens, and birds live in some of these trees. I have often seen bird watchers with the latest cameras, moving silently in groups and taking fast snaps. Like modern ninjas.

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Image © Izumi Texidor Hirai

Then the sound of bamboo makes me slow down again. It is not a big forest, like the famous bamboo forests that people visit in other parts of Kyoto, yet still bamboo has this way of standing there, strong yet soft, that always transmits depth. At least it always makes me have deep thoughts. I think of how graceful the bamboo shoots look, but how strongly rooted they are to the earth, and how fast they separate from it, to grow higher and higher, while their roots go deeper and deeper, in a constant yet invisible effort to live. And then there is that sound. The wind finding its way through the shoots and the leaves. And the shoots and the leaves moving together with the wind, being flexible, but never bending, always going back to their straightness. It makes me think of how I want to be.

Still half lost inside my green thoughts, I continue my stroll. If I go north, I will see a big fountain that makes kids happy during the summer months, and just next to it, an area with all sorts of seasonal flowers. I like walking in there, not only because of the colours and all the flowers I never knew existed, but also to feel the effort that someone put into that seasonal garden. This is something that I have always admired in Kyoto, the effort people put into their tiny entrances, filling them with small pots neatly cared for. These minuscule urban gardens make such a big difference. A small effort will surely always make a difference.


Text and photographs by Izumi Texidor Hirai. To read the rest of this story, download our book here: Deep Kyoto:Walks.

DeepKyoto-cover-0423-finalAbout Deep Kyoto: Walks

Deep Kyoto: Walks is an independently produced anthology of meditative strolls, rambles, hikes and ambles around Japan’s ancient capital. All of the writers and artists involved in this project have lived and worked in Kyoto for many years and know it intimately. The book is in part a literary tribute to the city that they love and in part a tribute to the art of walking for its own sake.

About Izumi Texidor Hirai

photoIzumi Texidor-Hirai is half Japanese and half British, but born and raised in Barcelona. She first came to Japan in 1998 to study at Tokyo University. After many travels she returned to Japan to work for FIFA during the 2002 Japan/Korea World Cup. She decided to stay on after the event and moved to Kyoto, where her family have roots. Izumi had always admired kimono and took this chance to go to a kimono school, where she trained to become a kimono teacher. This course led her to the world of cha-no-yu (tea ceremony) which has since become her passion. Izumi is currently working towards a degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine, studying QiGong with a sensei in the Imperial Palace grounds, wearing kimono most days and continues to be very passionate about cha-no-yu.


To learn more about Deep Kyoto: Walks please check the following links:
About the Book

Deep Nara #3 – The Rose Garden at Ryōsen-ji

Just outside Nara City proper is the temple of Ryōsen-ji. Founded in the 8th century by Indian monk Bodhisena, this temple has a long history and many cultural treasures. But I’m not going to write about those today. Today I’m going to show you the rose garden.

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This rose garden was made in 1957, as a living prayer for world peace.



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There are over 200 blooms to view here. Many of them also have a heady scent.

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We spent a pleasant time here, savoring the many fragrances and the varied velvet blooms.

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I love roses. And I loved this garden.

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There is also a cafe at one end of the garden where you can try some rose flavored tea or coffee.

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I asked for cream with my coffee, but the good lady instructed me that it would detract too much from that unique rosey taste. A drop of cream would have been a mercy though. That coffee was nasty.

A bitter cup indeed.

A bitter cup indeed.

The roses are at their best in the spring (from mid-May to mid-June) and autumn (from mid-October to early November).

To get to Ryōsen-ji take the Kintetsu Nara line from Nara station and get off at Tomio (富雄). From there you will have to take a bus or taxi. Here is a MAP.

I will post more pictures from the temple itself at a later date…

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See also: Deep Nara #1 – Kojiki Exhibition
Deep Nara #2 – Cafe & Restaurant Bambuno

Cherry Blossom at Yoshiminedera

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About a week ago, when the sakura was still blooming, we visited Yoshiminedera (善峯寺). This is a mountain temple to the west of Kyoto, and because it is a mountain temple, the air is cooler and the sakura blooms a little later than in the city.

IMG_5642 (Medium)This is the sanmon entrance. It’s huge. Here you pay your 500 yen entry fee. It’s totally worth it.
IMG_5648 (Medium)Beyond the entrance are some steps leading up to the main hall.
IMG_5649 (Medium)There’s something very special about the atmosphere at Yoshimine Temple, something that I can’t really put into words, but I felt it most keenly when I entered the main hall above. I am not religious, but I definitely felt something spiritual there, a very deep sense of peace and calm. This is not something I have felt in many other temples, but I remember feeling something similar in the air when visiting Mount Koya a couple of years ago… Also the Buddhist art and statuary here, in particular the representations of the Kannon-sama, the spirit of Mercy, struck me as particularly beautiful.
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You aren’t allowed to take pictures inside the main hall (which is a good thing really), so my pictures of the temple grounds will have to suffice. Neither words nor pictures though, can convey how lovely a spot this is. I really enjoyed our visit here.

IMG_5770 (Medium)Yoshiminedera is also famous for the Yūryu no matsu (遊龍の松) or “Playful Dragon Pine”. This 600 year old tree has been trained to grow horizontally and extends for 37 meters…
IMG_5774 (Medium)At one end of it is a massive weeping cherry tree, and that too is stunning to behold.
IMG_5782 (Medium)This cherry tree actually grows out of a maple tree which you can see in the next picture.
IMG_5784 (Medium)Beside these trees is a fan shaped stone with a poem that reads:


in spring, blossom
in fall, coloured maple
these entwined trees
would celebrate
this world’s joy!

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Be prepared to have your breath taken away when you turn this next corner.

IMG_5656 (Medium)From here on, our path was graced with compassionate clouds of cherry blossom and heavenly views. Enjoy the pictures, and if you would like to visit this temple yourself someday, check the travel information at the end of this post.
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Getting there: To get to Yoshimindera we first took the JR line from Kyoto station to Mukōmachi (向日町) and then took a bus. The bus takes twenty minutes and costs 350 yen. You can also take the Hankyu line to nearby Higashi Mukō and catch the bus from there, but I would recommend Mukōmachi. Because it’s the first stop you have a better chance of getting a seat for that twenty minute journey!  Buses depart for  Yoshiminedera at 35 minutes past the hour from Mukōmachi and at 42 minutes past the hour from Higashi Mukō. Be sure to time your train journey (you can check the schedule on Jorudan), so that you don’t have to wait an hour for the next bus! Also, the last bus back is at 15.24, so be sure to go early enough. There’s a lot to see in the grounds of Yoshimine Temple, so you will need at least a couple of hours there to fully enjoy it. The temple itself is open from 8:00~17:00, so you could always get a taxi back if you wanted to stay later, but that would probably cost you a couple of thousand yen.

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See also:
Cherry Blossoms at Hirano Shrine
Cherry Blossoms at Heian Jingu

Hydrangeas at Mimurotoji Temple

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Here are some pictures from Mimurotoji Temple, in Uji which we visited last weekend. We were both very impressed with the expansive and very lovely gardens here. And the hydrangeas in all their many splendoured colours and varieties were amazing. These flowers are on display until July 15th (Monday) so there is still time to see them and the opening hours are 8:30 – 16.30. There were a lot of people there last Sunday but it didn’t feel crowded at all.

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How to get there:
We took the Keihan line from Shichijo, changed at Chushojima to the Keihan Uji line and got off at Mimurodo station. From there it is a 15 minute walk due east. You could also take Bus 43 from the JR or Keihan Uji Stations, to Mimurotoji Temple. The bus fare from JR Uji Station to Mimurotoji Temple is 220 yen. Here is a map.IMG_3848 (Medium)

Here are some close-ups on those hydrangeas (the Japanese name “ajisai” is so much prettier I think).

And here are some more pictures from around the temple grounds:

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The Stone Garden at Ryoanji

The vacant space of the garden, like silence, absorbs the mind, frees it of petty detail, and serves as a visual guide -a means for penetrating through the “realm of the multitudes.”
-from “Stone Garden” by Will Petersen.

My friend Chris Carver, recently lent me a copy of Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums and fairly early on in the book I found something, or rather someone, of interest. Kerouac’s alter ego, Ray Smith, is hanging out at his buddy Japhy Ryder’s house when this someone walks in…

…Rol Sturlason, a tall blond goodlooking kid, came in to discuss his coming trip to Japan… This Rol Sturlason was interested in the famous Ryoanji rock garden of Shokokuji monastery in Kyoto, which is nothing but old boulders placed in such a way, supposedly mystical aesthetic, as to cause thousands of tourists and monks every year to journey  there to stare at the boulders in the sand and thereby gain peace of mind. I have never met such weird yet serious and earnest people. I never saw Rol Sturlason again, he went to Japan soon after, but I can’t forget what he said about the boulders, to my question, “Well who placed them in that certain way that’s so great?”

"The rocks are not so much forms placed on the surface from above as bumps pushing up from below -pushing into space." - from "Stone Garden" by Will Petersen.

“Nobody knows, some monk, or monks, long ago. But there is a definite mysterious form in the arrangement of the rocks. It’s only through form that we can realize emptiness.” He showed me the picture of the boulders in well-raked sand, looking like islands in the sea, looking as though they had eyes (declivities) and surrounded by a neatly screened and architectural monastery patio. then he showed me a diagram of the stone arrangement with the projection in silhouette and showed me the geometrical logics and all, and mentioned the phrases “lonely individuality” and the rocks as “bumps pushing into space,” all meaning some kind of koan business I wasn’t as much interested in as in him…
– from “The Dharma Bums” by Jack Kerouac

I was curious about this character of Rol Sturlason. Who was he and what became of him, I wondered. A quick search and I found that Jack Kerouac based the character of Rol Sturlason on Will Petersen, an artist and poet associated with the Beat Generation, who lived in Kyoto for eight years. There he followed his passions in art, printmaking and Noh drama. In 1957 he published a famous essay on the garden at Ryoanji named “Stone Garden”  in the Evergreen Review. It makes for quite an interesting read, especially if you are familiar with Rol’s brief appearance in The Dharma Bums. It even includes the very diagram that Rol showed Ray Smith in the passage above.

"Diagram of stone arrangement with projection in silhouette" from Will Petersen's 1957 essay "Stone Garden"

Petersen sees the stone garden as a endlessly fascinating puzzle; “a visual koan“. He points out that because of the walls that enclose it on three sides, the garden can only be viewed from a single vantage point. This focus, he says, “suggests the garden’s purpose as an object of contemplation” but we are not encouraged to study the transitory nature of life here, for there are no “blossoms to fade and no leaves to wither and fall”. Instead its simplicity: “fifteen rocks -of various sizes and shapes… on a flat rectangular area of raked white sand”, guides our mind into a purer meditation on the abstract relationship between emptiness and form. “The garden,” he says, “like all things is not unchanging. But what significant changes do occur, occur not within the garden, but in the mind of the viewer and in his perception of the garden.”

Ultimately the garden must be viewed as art, and viewed in silence. As a silent sermon it raises many questions, but asks for no answers. It calls to mind the flower held before his disciples by the silent Buddha, which brought forth no classification, description, analysis or discussion, but only the comprehending smile of the clear-seeing.
-from “Stone Garden” by Will Petersen.

I have given you just a taste of Petersen’s essay here, and in these pictures I have only given you a hint of what the garden at Ryoanji has to offer (remember there are fifteen rocks). If you find your interest has been piqued, then you should both read the full article and view the garden for yourself. “Stone Garden” was published in the Evergreen Review Vol. 4 in 1957. This issue is available as a downloadable pdf here for a humble $2.95. Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums is available from and

Ryoanji is situated in the north-west of the city near to Kinkakuji. There is an access map on the Ryoanji website. Check the city bus travel map for the buses that go out there, or splash out on a taxi. You could also go by bicycle if you have enough energy. It’s uphill all the way but an excellent workout!

See also: Autumn Colours at Kinkakuji & Ryoanji

Plum Blossom at the Kyoto Imperial Palace Park

It was pretty chilly out yesterday morning and more than a few flakes of snow were falling, but worth it all the same. A small gaggle of photographers agreed with me too, clustering round the 梅 trees in the Imperial Palace Park in a thicket of tripods… Here are my pictures…