For centuries, the Japanese have re-created their favourite native scenery in their gardens, not only in their pond plots but also in their more esoteric-looking stone-and-gravel dry gardens. Travelling by Japan's well-organised transport network is an excellent way to take in the country's scenery. The Shinkansen, or bullet train, provides an exhilarating overview of the country in rapid motion.
Local trains and buses, just as punctual (though increasingly infrequent in remote rural areas), offer a more intimate view of the countryside, trundling through tranquil rice fields, past heavily wooded hills and over deep gorges, winding along the country's indented coastline with views of coves and promontories and the island-flecked sea. Once you have set eyes upon the varied landscape of the Japanese islands, it becomes all the easier to understand Japanese gardens.
(Japanese names are given surname first in this article.)
1. Joei-ji (Yamaguchi, Yamaguchi Prefecture)In this quiet temple garden, dating back to the 15th-century, naturally shaped garden stones are laid out in turf to represent famous Chinese and Japanese mountains, including Mount Fuji. Beyond this area lies a pond fringed with water irises and azaleas. There is a boat-shaped stone which appears to ride upon the water's surface. A wooded incline forms a curtained backdrop to the entire garden, while the rocky outline of a multi-tiered dry waterfall tumbles down the steep slope towards the pond.
2. Awa Kokubun-ji (near Tokushima, Tokushima Prefecture)This temple is one of eighty-eight Buddhist temples constituting Japan's most famous pilgrimage route around the island of Shikoku, yet the stupendous stone garden located behind its main hall remains relatively unknown. Massive slabs of purple-green stone appear to have been thrust out of the ground, like a scene out of a vision of the Harrowing of Hell. Several form gigantic stone bridges around a central dry pond, while ribbons of rounded pebbles represent gushing mountain rivers.
3. Joruri-ji (Kizugawa, Kyoto Prefecture)Located north of the ancient city of Nara, this secluded temple is organised around a central pond. Its western shore represents the present world. A three-storey pagoda, which symbolises the human longing for enlightenment, looks out across the pond towards a hall where a row of nine golden buddhas have been seated in meditation since the middle of the 12th century. A stubby rock at the tip of a spit of land jutting out into the water symbolises a beacon.
4. Ryoan-ji (Kyoto)This temple is usually overrun by visitors. Still, there are sublime moments when the crowds fade away, and the garden's fifteen stones, grouped into three mossy islands set in raked white gravel, confront you with their silent presence. The primary viewing spot is the eastern end of the veranda. The stones appear like rugged islands dotting a vast white ocean, or a series of mountain tops rising above a cloudscape and receding into the distance.
5. Entsu-ji (Kyoto)Japanese gardens traditionally had ponds to represent the sea, and hillocks to represent mountains. Entsu-ji's 17th-century garden dispenses altogether with hillocks. Instead, its bold composition incorporates a majestic view of Mount Hiei, the sacred mountain situated to the north-east of Kyoto. This view is framed by the upright trunks of a grove of Japanese cypresses. An evergreen hedge splits the field of vision horizontally in two. In the foreground, a flat moss garden with deeply sunken garden stones represents an ocean with islands.
6. Murin-an (Kyoto)Constructed between 1894 and 1896 by the famous garden designer Ogawa Jihei VII, affectionately known as Ueji, this charming villa garden belonged to Yamagata Aritomo, a field marshal and prominent politician who served twice as prime minister of Japan. Yamagata wanted water drawn into his garden from the nearby, recently-completed Lake Biwa Canal. He also wanted a lawn. Ueji obliged by creating a miniature waterfall and a delightful pebbly watercourse which emerges from woodland and winds through a diminutive meadow.
7. Zuiho-in (Kyoto)In 1961, the eminent garden historian and designer Shigemori Mirei created dry gardens for this tiny sub-temple, part of the Zen Buddhist temple Daitoku-ji. Of special note are the raked patterns in the white gravel. The deep furrows convey the image of powerful, rolling ocean waves. The stones in the gravel-and-moss north garden are subtly arranged in the form of a cross, in tribute to the 16th-century founder of Zuiho-in, the feudal lord Otomo Sorin, who converted to Catholicism.
8. Kiyosumi Teien (Tokyo)Created towards the end of the 19th-century, this garden was the pet project of Iwasaki Yataro, the founder of the Mitsubishi conglomerate. The garden lake was originally tidal, being connected with the nearby Sumida River that flows into Tokyo Bay. The appearance of the garden changed with the rise and fall of the water level. Magnificent examples of stones from around Japan were used to create garden features, many of which (including an impressive set of stepping stones) embellish the water's edge.
9. Ichijodani Asakura Family Historic Ruins (near Fukui, Fukui Prefecture)A populous town once occupied the narrow atmospheric valley of Ichijodani, formerly the stronghold of the Asakura clan. Razed in 1573 by the invading warlord Oda Nobunaga, the valley reverted to farmland, but three small palace gardens and a temple garden have survived. Their imposing arrangements of superb garden stones attest to the sophisticated tastes of the Asakuras. The Suwa Residence garden features an elegant series of cascades, while an air of melancholy hangs over another garden designed around the auspicious images of the turtle and the crane.
10. Kenroku-en (Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture)Adjacent to Kanazawa Castle, Kenroku-en was originally the palatial retreat of the feudal lords who ruled the land of Kaga. At every turn of the many paths which wind through this spacious garden, new views unfold to delight the eye. There are lakes and waterfalls, rivulets with jewel-like stream beds of coloured stones, as well as Japan's oldest existing fountain, and stone lanterns of every size and shape imaginable, including the iconic two-legged Kotoji-style lantern for which the park is famous.
(Japanese names are given surname first in this article.)