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There are only a handful of foreign writers on the Japanese garden that can really be taken seriously. Among those who have applied their erudition and insight to the subject are Loraine E. Kuck, Gunter Nitschke, Marc P. Keane and David A. Slawson. Leonard Koren joins this exalted group with “Gardens of Gravel and Sand.”

Gardens of Gravel and Sand, edited by Leonard Koren.
96 pages
Stone Bridge Press, Nonfiction.

Both meditation and analysis, Koren’s book focuses on Japanese design concepts related to a number of karesansui (dry landscape gardens) located in Kyoto. Eschewing effusive, largely Western sobriquets such as “Zen gardens,” Koren comes up with his own interpretations. He uses the term “meta-gardens,” defined as the “ultimate conceptual refinement of a particular garden type.” Conceding that gardens are better experienced via the senses than analyzed, Koren nevertheless, makes a fine job of developing his own theories on the subject.

In this beautifully written and deeply considered book, the author focuses solely on gravel and sand, a “simple vehicle to highlight ironic perspectives in a way that venerable place, luxuriant vegetation and curious rocks could never do.” In scrubbing the gardens of extraneous clutter, Koren exposes their skeletal elements for examination, but also their underlying lyricism and mastery of form.

Dark, grainy monochrome images taken by the author, who also designed the book, form a simple, minimalist backdrop to a text that is richly complex.

Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential.

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