The Dry Landscapes of Zen Temples Meet California's Drought

Detail of the dry landscape garden at the Ryoan-ji in Kyoto, Japan.

Asian Accents: This article is part of an ongoing series that explores the diverse range of artistic influences from Asia in the arts and culture of Southern California.


With California in its fourth year of drought, government, businesses and residents are being creative in their efforts to conserve our precious water. Urban landscapes, in particular, are undergoing a dramatic change as institutions and homeowners rip out their lawns and substitute thirsty grass lawns for native plants. However, there is another option available to those who wish to create a beautiful outdoor space that requires very little water -- the Japanese dry garden. These kare-sansui (dry landscape) gardens comprise mainly rocks, sand and gravel arranged sculpturally to represent miniature natural landscapes. Because many of them are on the grounds of Zen Buddhist temples, they have become known in the West (but not in Japan) as "Zen Gardens" and have come to symbolize the stillness and focus of Zen meditation and serve as an exotic element in Western gardens. These gardens, though predominantly dry, also typically include areas of moss and small shrubs and borrow the shade of tall cedars looming overhead. Though not originally designed in Japan to save water, these drought-friendly gardens fit not only into California's cultural and spiritual landscape but may have a role to play in helping to meet the long-term needs of this increasingly dry state.

Dry landscape garden at the Ryoan-ji in Kyoto, Japan.
Dry landscape garden at the Ryoan-ji in Kyoto, Japan.

The Japanese dry landscape tradition goes back well over a thousand years. Early dry landscapes were inspired by gardens in China, where rocks were strategically placed to evoke dramatic mountains and gentler hills, and sand and gravel suggested streams, rivers, and the ocean. After the introduction of Zen Buddhism to Japan in the 12th century, Zen Buddhist temples were built with beautiful gardens, and from the 14th century onwards, dry landscape gardens, also known as sekitei or "sand-and-stone gardens," increasingly became a feature on Zen temple grounds. One of the earliest was designed by the 14th-century Buddhist monk and garden designer Muso Kokushi on the grounds of the Saiho-ji as a dry rock garden including three rock "islands": Kameshima, the island of the turtle, Zazen-seki, a flat "meditation rock" and the Kare-taki dry "waterfall" built of layered flat granite rocks. A century or so later, the gravel garden at Ginkaku-ji, or the Temple of the Silver Pavilion was created, featuring an area of geometrically raked gravel. After a mountain was added in the center in the 17th century, the space evolved into a highly stylized representation of Japan's famous Mount Fuji surrounded by a tranquil ocean. In the 16th century, the most famous of all Japan's sekitei was created at Ryoan-ji, combining the rock islands of Saiho-ji with the raked gravel seascape of Ginkaku-ji. In this highly abstracted landscape, set within a raked-gravel rectangle, a total of 15 stones are arranged in five groups consisting of five, three, three, two, and two stones, each cluster surrounded by a skirt of moss.

Dry landscape garden at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino. | Photo: John Lodder/Flickr/Creative Commons License.

Similar Japanese-style dry gardens began to appear in California in the 1960s. As interest grew in Zen Buddhism and meditation here in the U.S., garden designers added sekitei dry gardens to their repertoires. One of these dry garden is at the Huntington Library, Botanical Gardens and Art Collections in San Marino. Designed in the 1960s by the garden curator Robert Watson with two Japanese assistants, this garden pays homage to Ryoan-ji and other Kyoto dry gardens with its balanced arrangement of rocks on a sea of gravel in a rectangular space, bordered on one side by trees and shrubs. Like the early rock formations at the Saiho-ji, one of the rock arrangements has the look of an alligator emerging from the depths of a swamp. Another is the "Sankeien," or "Garden of Three Ravines," created by Japanese garden designer Ken Nakajima in the late 1980s to encircle the Exhibition House of the Japanese Friendship Garden in San Diego. A third notable space inspired by the "dry garden" is Isamu Noguchi's California Scenario in Costa Mesa. Built in the early 1980s, it is a public space formed of a stream meandering its way through large granite rock sculptures, stone slabs and small hills planted with California native plants and trees. Although the motivation for the creation of the sekitei gardens in San Marino and San Diego was primarily artistic and philosophical, Noguchi's Orange County plaza was also built with California's precious resources in mind as a reminder of the delicate balance between our needs and our natural landscape and climate.

Isamu Noguchi sculpture garden ''California Scenario.'' | Photo: Kathryn Poindexter.
Isamu Noguchi sculpture garden ''California Scenario.'' | Photo: Kathryn Poindexter.

This delicate balance, which has been acutely highlighted by our current drought, has been motivating an increasing number of people and businesses to replace lawns with drought-tolerant plants and dryscaping with rocks, sand and gravel. Blending stone and gravel sculptural features with shrubs, plants and trees, Japanese kare-sansui or sekitei gardens are increasingly providing a source of inspiration beyond the gardens of large estates and public Japanese gardens. Garden designer Keiji Uesugi, senior associate for TUA Inc., a landscape architecture firm in West Covina, has noticed a rise in the number of clients who wish to replace their lawns with something Japanese. "I am in the process of changing my own front lawn with a Japanese garden inspired design," he explains, "and I have clients asking for this approach as well." In some cases, rocks and paving stones are combined with bamboo fences and small shrubs to create a Zen-like atmosphere, such as the corner in one Monrovia garden designed by TUA Inc.

Dry landscape element designed in a Monrovia garden by TUA Inc. architects at Vidor Residence, Monrovia, CA. 2002. | Photo: Courtesy of TUA Inc.
Dry landscape element designed in a Monrovia garden by TUA Inc. architects at Vidor Residence, Monrovia, CA. 2002. | Photo: Courtesy of TUA Inc.

Although Japan's climate is humid and enjoys plentiful rain over the calendar year, Japanese gardens in Southern California can be designed using drought-tolerant plants without sacrificing style and spirit of an authentic Japanese garden. Plants like Japanese camellia, aloe vera, angel's hair, Japanese honeysuckle and star jasmine have been traditionally used in Japanese gardens, but are also suitable to a Mediterranean climate, like that of parts of California. Pathways can be created using DG (decomposed granite) and lined with succulents and the occasional water feature. There is no rule against incorporating non-Asian plants like lavender or salvia as accents among rock and gravel. In fact, Kendall H. Brown, a Japanese art historian and authority on Japanese-style gardens in the West, argues that integrating native plants into Japanese-style gardens is very much in keeping with trends in Japanese-style garden design in North America. Ever since the 1890s, when Japanese gardens were first built on the West Coast of the United States, these gardens have been "distinctly North American rather than imitations of 'authentic' Japanese gardens."

By replacing well manicured lawns, which have their roots (as it were) in the wetter climes of England and France and replacing them with a fusion of native drought-tolerant plants and Japanese-style rock gardens, garden designers have the opportunity to create something new here in Southern California -- gardens that are at once sustainable and spiritual. Whether in residential, corporate or institutional gardens, these dry, meditative spaces can offer us peace of mind not only in the face of more years of drought ahead but during many of the other challenges life presents.

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