The most remarkable gardens often combine nature and symbolism: Think of the Alhambra Palace in Granada with its cool water and bowers of jasmine offering a preview of the Islamic paradise. In Europe, symbolic gardens sometimes testified to a monarch's power -- the most extreme example being at Versailles, just outside Paris, embodying the "divine right" to rule of France's Bourbon kings.

There, the formal gardens of Louis XIV's fairytale palace were built on a grand scale, befitting the precincts of the Roi Soleil (Sun King). Thousands of soldiers were made to dig vast lakes out of the original, poisonous marshland, and even the aristocratic Madame de Sevigne noticed "the prodigious mortality of the workmen, whose bodies are carried out every night by the cartload."

Eventually, the gardens of Versailles had 1,400 fountains, timed to spring into life as the king approached, statues of Apollo positioned to blaze in the rays of the rising sun, and nearly 2 million flower pots, ready to fill the parterres with blooms even in the middle of winter.

Even in Japan, where garden symbolism owes much to the gentler notions of Shinto, Taoism and Buddhism, wealthy rulers invested in gardens that would impress mere mortals. I recently visited Nijo Castle, built between 1603 and 1626 as the magnificent Kyoto residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), the first shogun. There, I especially enjoyed the Ninomaru Garden: a miniature landscape of rocks, water and perfect pine trees, originally built to impress daimyo lords and imperial emissaries.

But it was a different Kyoto garden that made the most profound impression: and that garden wears its symbolism lightly. This is Shishiku-no-niwa (The Garden of the Lion's Roar) at the Daikisan Hogonin Temple, part of the Tenryuji Temple complex in the scenic district of Arashiyama. Last year, for the first time in more than 130 years, it opened for a limited period to the public. This year, it is open until the end of June and again in autumn for its beautiful seasonal coloration. If you visit early in the morning, you can enjoy the lush landscape and calm atmosphere to the full.

This is a Zen garden, in the karesansui (dry landscape) tradition, in which stones are used to symbolize rivers and seas. In earlier landscape gardens, based on the Chinese model, both rocks and water were essential symbols of the universal elements of yin and yang. Sometimes, the combination specifically evoked the mythical islands of the Taoist immortals. These sacred peaks were believed to rise from the Eastern Sea, and are often symbolized in Chinese and Japanese gardens by tall rocks set in a pond. But the Zen masters, seeing deeply into the heart of existence, made a great imaginative leap and replaced real water with sand, pebbles and rocks.

To some people, sand and rocks might seem "dead" whilst water is "living"; but to the Japanese both elements contain the mystic life force. And in this garden, the stone river that winds its way past mossy banks is indeed refreshingly "alive." And although it is hardly necessary, there is even a small clay bridge, edged with moss, arching over a "stream."

Large boulders have, since ancient times, symbolized nature's power, and the garden has several massive rocks. One, known as the shishi-wa (lion's rock) is dramatically positioned beyond a "pond" of low-growing bamboo, and the solidity of the rock contrasts well with a sinuous maple tree planted before it. In autumn, this must make a magnificent sight, as the leaves turn crimson and scatter over the mossy green stone.

Another rock has a large pine tree growing out of it, known as the Hagan-no-matsu (stone-splitting pine), and I was pleased to see that the gardeners leave small seedling pines growing here and there among the moss. After all, it would be too unfair to admire this symbol of endurance, while killing off its offspring!

The garden dates back to the Muromachi Period (1338-1573), and was created by the priest Sakugenshoryo Zenshi, who twice made the dangerous journey to China. For him, the garden's Kukai (Sea of Hardships) must have had a personal as well as universal meaning. The sea of gray stones represents the difficulties of life, but there is a rock shaped like a boat, and an island beyond, which promises peace to those who struggle and find the way. At the edge of the pond, contrasting well with the stones, is a tall, handsome cluster of striped susuki grass (Miscanthus sinensis "Zebrinus"), which will send out silver plumes in autumn.

Some of the most curious symbols in this and other Japanese gardens can be found in an unexpected place: the fence-work. Here, there is a magnificent fence called hogan gaki (treasure round fence) set in a mossy glade. This unusual fence is completely free-standing, like a sculpture. Its brushwood stems are neatly tied in bunches to form a sturdy, curving base, but at the top they explode in a feathery profusion of twigs.

Elsewhere in the garden, one fence was in the ho-gaki style, its twigs sprouting upwards like the lucky symbol of freshly sprouting rice (ho). Opposite, was a fence in the mino-gaki style, with fine twigs hanging down like a mino -- an old-fashioned straw raincoat. Incidentally, the straw coat was often used as a good luck symbol on bridal and children's kimonos, since it implied protecting the wearer from ill fortune. Other fences had a simple and endearing end-post: a garden broom, standing on its handle.

Perhaps every visitor will find a different meaning in these fences, (as the Zen precept goes, "though we lean together on the same balustrade, the colors of the mountains are not the same"). To me, they conjured up some favorite haiku poems, clearly influenced by Zen:

The brushwood,
cut for fuel,
is beginning to bud.

And this by Matsuo Basho:

Sweeping the garden,
the snow is forgotten by the broom.