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In the world of Japanese landscape gardening, whether as writers, apprentices or designers, women seem to be conspicuous by their absence.

Japanese Zen Gardens, by Yoko Kawaguchi
Photographs by Alex Ramsay
208 pages
FRANCES LINCOLN

There are, however, a small number of notable exceptions. Among these, we might include Sunniva Harte, author of the beautifully illustrated “Zen Gardening” (1999), and Mira Locher, an architect and keen observer of Japanese landscaping, whose recent book, “Zen Garden Design” (2020), examines the work of eminent designer Shunmyo Masuno. Loraine E. Kuck, whose writings go back as early as the 1930s, remains a potent force in the analysis and dissemination of knowledge regarding the Japanese garden. Her book, “The Art of Japanese Gardens” (1940), is an enduring classic.

Yoko Kawaguchi, who lives in Britain where she writes for horticultural publications and lectures on Japanese garden history, is a worthy successor to Kuck. With the authority and erudition that comes from a lifetime of dedication to her subject, Kawaguchi’s focus in “Japanese Zen Gardens” is largely on the gardens of Kyoto, many of which accommodate Buddhist principles in their designs.

We learn that temple gardens evolved as much from religious as aesthetic considerations and preferences, as they were conceived as spaces for meditation and enlightenment. In their most reductive form — the stone garden — space allocations may be small, but there is a dignified quality to the rocks, which stand for the eternal. Citing the dry landscape garden of Ryoanji Temple as an example, Kawaguchi notes the absence of flourishing plants, often used to soften the harshness of rock surfaces. Here is a design that seems the “very antithesis of what a garden ought to be,” she writes. Ryoanji Temple, in fact, is an outstanding example of a mutei, or “garden of emptiness.” Kawaguchi offers a brave interpretation of a design that is one of the most analyzed, pored over, picked apart and venerated works of organic art on the planet, a garden that has been combed over like a crime scene.

The supposed mysteries of the Japanese garden were once jealously guarded among a small and exclusive fraternity of professionals, with secret manuals passed among the initiated like sacred parchments. The arcane and encoded traditions have always existed to keep out the unschooled hordes, but they don’t appear to have worked in the case of Kyoto, which, in normal times, is overwhelmed with tourists.

Although many of the selected gardens will be familiar to visitors, the author also includes less visited sites in her book, such as Shuonan Ikkyuji Temple, with its expansive gravel plain, lapping against lush moss, azalea bushes and sumptuous clumps of sago palm; Shodenji Temple, a garden reached by climbing through a cedar forest; and Keishunin, an exquisite world of saturated greenery, created in the spirit of the tea garden.

Linking Zen concepts and symbolism with the temple and tea gardens of Kyoto, Kawaguchi highlights the inspiring quality of master gardens. As we probe deeper into them, reexamining form, grasping their complex symbolism, they begin to radiate a fresh, recharged vitality.

With Kawaguchi and her immersive writing as our guide to the higher principles of the Japanese garden, where we once saw only the surface, we now see strata, complexity and profound depth.

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