Kyoto gardens give up all their secrets during intimate guided tours

Mark Hovane knows just about everything there is to know about ancient capital's star attractions

by Jane Singer

Special To The Japan Times

How do you appreciate a Japanese garden? The typical temple visit — where you ponder a seemingly random assemblage of rocks and raked gravel or push your way through a throng of tourists jostling for camera angles — can leave one confused and underwhelmed.

Kyoto-based garden tour organizer Mark Hovane, 47, suggests that visitors first becalm themselves. He quotes master gardener Kinsaku Nakane’s advice that we view Japanese gardens “with a detached gaze, without preconceptions, and in a state of total receptivity.”

On a recent midwinter day, Hovane explained the history and design of two gardens in the Daitokuji Temple complex in northern Kyoto. It is a prime destination for his tailored tours, Kyoto Garden Experience, which take no more than four visitors at a time to intimate but historically and aesthetically noteworthy gardens.

He displays effortless erudition and a passion for his topic, achieved through a 23-year residence in Kyoto. In his tours, he said, “I try to provide clients with a set of tools to interpret what they see, so they can experience gardens in a deeper way.” Today, he also provides this writer with an extra pair of wool socks, which become increasingly appreciated as we linger on an open-air temple veranda.

We have entered Daitokuji, a Rinzai-shu Zen complex of 22 subtemples that was originally built in the late 14th century, through a large stone gate — a framing device, Hovane said, that both separates us from the bustle of adjacent Imadegawa Street and accentuates our entrance into sacred space.

We soon reach the subtemple Obaiin, founded in 1562 at the order of the warlord Oda Nobunaga. Obaiin contains a dry landscape garden designed by the great 16th-century tea master Sen no Rikyu as well as the front garden before us, now blanketed with golden moss. Although this garden draws crowds to view its maple leaves in autumn, Hovane likes viewing it in midwinter: “Once the leaves have dropped and you are no longer taken with their autumn beauty, the bare form of the garden reveals itself,” he says.

We continue to Ryogenin, originally built in 1502, whose five gardens include a fine example of kare sansui, or dry rock gardens. Hovane explains that raked gravel gardens offer both symbolic meaning and practical utility. Many were first constructed during the Muromachi Period (1337-1573), when much of Kyoto, including the Daitokuji complex, was decimated by the decade-long Onin War (1467-77) and subsequent factional warfare, disrupting water supplies. Stone gardens needed no water, making them an excellent landscaping choice (and ideal today for arid locales like Hovane’s native Australia).

In Ryogenin’s dry garden, observed from the veranda of the former abbot’s home, the rocks are raked in raised, parallel rows to suggest waves, to imply a sea of humanity beset by turbulence. Interspersed are islands, groupings of vertical or horizontal rocks. The main grouping here signifies Mount Horai, a mythical land in Chinese mythology where the immortals live; to the left and right is an auspicious pairing of vertical rocks representing a crane and horizontal rocks in a round bed of moss representing a tortoise, both symbolizing longevity.

Hovane adds: “The thick clay walls surrounding the garden play an important role in bounding the garden, as a picture frame bounds and defines space. This frees our minds to travel into the microcosmic world of the garden. Since we can’t physically enter dry rock gardens, we must enter them cerebrally, with our imaginations.” The monochromatic hues of kare sansui gardens also allude to the black-and-white Chinese landscape paintings that have greatly influenced Japanese landscape design.

Different types of gardens emerged over the many centuries of garden design in this country, Hovane explains, depending on function and then-current influences. Many Zen temple gardens are intended as aids in contemplation, but not meditation, as is commonly believed, since Zen monks typically meditate in an inner, enclosed space.

“The spirituality of temple gardens is actually experienced through the maintenance of the gardens,” he says. Before entering a kare sansui garden to rake the gravel, for example, you must center yourself, or you risk producing a messy combination of storm-tossed and becalmed seas.

Some gardens were designed for strolling and entertaining for the nobility, such as the villa gardens at Katsura Rikyu and Shugakuin Rikyu in Kyoto. Then there are the roji, or gardens adjacent to tea rooms, spaces whose main function is to receive guests and foster the proper ambiance for the tea ceremony.

Hovane first learned of Japanese design in elementary school in Perth, in Western Australia. Struck by its simplicity, he decided that he was “destined to live in Kyoto.” After graduating from the University of Western Australia with a humanities degree in 1988, he arrived in Kyoto in 1989 on a working holiday visa.

He had hoped to secure an apprenticeship to a master gardener, but when that proved problematic, he began teaching English. He later became a lecturer at several local universities, among them Kyoto University of Foreign Studies, Kansai University and Kyoto Prefectural University.

On weekends Hovane read about and visited as many of Kyoto’s 1,600 temple gardens as time allowed, and he traveled overseas, visiting gardens in Europe and China for comparative study.

He has also studied ikebana, calligraphy and the tea ceremony, and he notes that these arts share many aesthetic principles with traditional garden design. The positioning of rocks in the garden, for instance, he finds akin to calligraphic compositions, and both arts foster an appreciation of yohaku no bi, or “the beauty of paucity, referring to the unexpressed portion of a work.” He notes that all of these arts hold in high regard seasonality and “the spirit of hospitality.”

Coming from a land blessed with 300 days of summer a year, Hovane’s first experience of autumn leaves in Japan was a revelation. “Colored leaves — wow! Autumn became my favorite season, but I soon wanted to see how the gardens change at different times of the day and the year,” he said. “In Australia one’s eye is undisciplined because we have boundless outdoor space. But in Japanese gardens everything is compressed, with an economy of design. You start to appreciate fine nuances despite an apparent simplicity. My training here has been from the development of my eye.”

Garden Experience tours began in January 2010 and he has led more than 100 clients to date. Hovane says that his clientele tends to be older; many are artists, designers, architects or retired academics, and most are from the United States, Australia or Europe. With the hope of returning to Australia someday to lecture and do consultancy work about Japanese gardens, he is now writing a regular blog and working on a garden book that will focus on seasonality, links with other Japanese arts, and trees and shrubs suitable for planting in them.

For visitors wishing to have their own garden experience, Hovane gives some timely advice: to avoid the crowds, select temples not listed in tourist guides and visit just after the gates open or just before closing. Also, try visiting during the off-season, he added. “In May and October you can enjoy irises, hydrangea and other flowers, yet hardly anyone is here. Also, Kyoto’s gardens are best if you see them just after it’s rained. The greens of the garden become more vivid and the wet rocks come to life as their colors are revealed. The moss looks especially beautiful.”

When asked to suggest favorite Kyoto gardens Hovane mentions but three:

Katsura Imperial Villas (Katsura Rikyu): No expense was spared to construct and maintain this “fantastic compendium of design,” Hovane says. This 16th-century palace in western Kyoto incorporates both Shinto and Buddhist design concepts, and the gardens contain four teahouses. Visits are by appointment with the Imperial Household Agency.

Saihoji: Also called the Kokedera, or “moss temple,” Saihoji requires advance permission and compels visitors to first hand-copy a Buddhist sutra or join in chanting before being allowed into the celebrated moss gardens, with their amazing interplay of dark and shadow. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is at its best in June and July.

Entsuji: Off the beaten track in suburban Iwakura, this temple is “a small masterpiece of design, featuring the borrowed scenery (‘shakkei’) of Mount Hiei in the distance. The mountain background is cleverly incorporated into the garden by the bridging device of Japanese cedar trees in the middle ground, linking the distant scenery and the foreground of the garden, thereby framing the viewer’s perceptions.”

Mark Hovane’s tours can be booked via his website, www.kyotogardenexperience.com. Participants are advised to bring warm socks.