Rock garden in Kyoto

In a Japanese Zen Garden

(a guide for photographers)

Monotonous rocks instead of colorful flowers; dry, gray sand as a substitute for glass-clear water; moss supplementing cherished flowerbeds. Even this can be a description of a garden. Everyone can recognize them at the first glance, but few can depict them in words. Bringing your camera, or two, along when visiting Japanese gardens is a good idea.


More images of Japanese gardens

Traditional Japanese garden is an illustrious pearl on a long choker of the country's attributes. Despite it is quite a static and easily accessible subject (try to chase some real Geisha or Maiko girls or a meditating Zen monk to know what I am talking about), capturing its essence on a film has always been a photographer's challenge. As in other fields of photography, decent images of Japanese gardens do result from luck, but more often than not they are the products of thorough planning, choosing the right garden, in the right season, during the right time of the day, with the right equipment around your neck, and the right films in your pocket.

Karesansui - sand, rock and gravel
Rock garden in Ryogen-in (Kyoto)
The roots of the art of Japanese garden date back to antiquity. Initially, Japanese gardening was under the fundamental influence of Chinese and Korean immigrants. It was not until the Heian period (794-1185 AD) that it became exclusively a Japanese affair, being still a hobby rather than profession or even art. Later on, the monks of Buddhist temples came to assert themselves as garden designers and it was Buddhism, namely its contemplative form - Zen - that created the original, truly Japanese, form of gardens known as karesansui - dry or rock garden. Wicked tongues say that nowadays gardens are more or less variations of the previous forms and more than a half of today's Japanese gardening consists of maintaining gardens already set.

Based on their function and appearance, Japanese gardens are roughly divided into three categories: landscape gardens, tea gardens and rock gardens. Although all of them are photogenic in their own way, I found the serene beauty of rock gardens the most appealing, formidable and photogenic.

In the Mecca of traditional gardens
Unless you have plenty of time, I would not recommend hunting landscape gardens as they are spread all around the country with large distances between them. On the other hand, the most famous of all Japanese rock gardens are congested within a walking distance or short taxi drive in the historical city of Kyoto. If you long for pictures of Japanese rock gardens and your time is limited, then visiting Kyoto is a must. This marvelous city of a halcyon atmosphere is scattered with hundreds of Buddhist temples of which many boast one or more beautiful gardens. And what is good for us, photographers, nearly all of them let us indulge in our passion. Yes, you have to pay an admittance fee ($5 on average), but in most cases it is well worth it.

No list of Japanese gardens would sound competent if beginning with anything else but the most celebrated one - the garden of Ryoan-ji temple. This prominent example of karesansui style, with 15 stones arranged on a bed of raked white sand, is reputedly the first intentionally built meditative garden. Come right after the opening hour (8 am in summer) and bring the widest lens you have. The bright sand calls for adjusting exposure by about +1 EV, but deliberate underexposure will result in a gloomier image. Don't use up all your film on the rock; you will soon need it when circling around the temple. The moss garden on the other side of the building is rather unpretentious, but the famous tsukubai, a water basin with a Buddhist inscription, deserves some attention of your lenses, preferably longer ones. A tripod will be handy to apply a longer shutter speed and accentuate water movement.

Kyoto's Silver and Gold
The Golden Pavilion in winter

Kinkaku-ji in winter

A 15-minute walk from Ryoan-ji will lead you to the most famed of Japanese temples - Rokuon-ji, better known under its second, more descriptive, name, Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion). The garden circumfused around the temple includes elements of Zen garden architecture as well as water sheets, more typical for Heian gardens. During a windless morning, you may be lucky enough to capture the temple's golden structure mirroring in the water surface of Kyó-ko Pond. To be in the garden of The Golden Pavilion during a snowfall is the top prayer of many photographers of Japan, since it is probably the only chance to get a relatively novel shot of the most photographed of Japanese buildings. Don't bother bringing your tripod; the only place from where you can take decent pictures, right behind the entrance, is closely guarded - no bribes accepted. A monopod resting on your shoe, however, might be tolerated.

Rock garden in Ginkaku-ji (Kyoto)
Apart from The Golden Pavilion, there is also a Silver one, Ginkaku-ji, although the original intention to cover its outside walls with a silver layer has never been implemented. Located at the foot of Mt. Koyo in eastern Kyoto, the temple is surrounded by a charming landscape garden, comprising several smaller stone gardens. The most ostentatious is the elevated field of white sand, meticulously raked to evoke an impression of looking at Mt. Fuji from the sea. A wide-angle lens will do you proud here, but watch out for Japanese students flooding the garden all day long, all year round. Coming as close to opening hours (8.30 in summer) as possible, however, does increase your chances of getting decent results.

If it is a traditional rock garden in the truest sense of the word that you are after, Daitoku-ji, a 14th century temple in northern Kyoto on Kitao-ji Street, will fulfill your wildest dreams. This complex houses about 20 tachu, or sub-temples, many of them priding on one or more traditional Zen gardens. Take a look at any authentic book about Japanese gardens; if not the cover, one of the front pages will be dedicated to a garden of Zuihó-in, Daisen-in, or Ryógen-in, the three most eminent temples in the complex. And rightly so - they are sumptuous illustration of infinite beauty in an extremely confined space. Bring an ample supply of film and look through your viewfinder in any direction. Of all my lenses, a 20mm wide-angle was the one most often attached to my camera. Remember to bracket your exposures toward the overexposure side to compensate for the white sand. For those thirsting for superlatives, Ryógen-in brags of totekiko, allegedly the smallest rock garden in Japan.
Rock garden in Ryogen-in (Kyoto) the smallest in Japan
Rock garden in Ryogen-in, the smallest one in Japan

A tripod is imperative to do these gardens justice, so come early on a workday morning and pray to meet a tolerant monk.

Do not overlook the temple buildings as they offer an abundance of photo opportunities -shadowy nooks, bright Buddhist altars embellished with Buddha images, mysterious places for sutra meditation, or decorative wall paintings.

In the cradle of the world literature
A unique position amidst Kyoto's temples belongs to Rózan-ji. Apart from showing off an unusually composed garden of white sand and green mossy isles, this temple is called "the place where the world literature was born". It's because lady Murasaki, the author of the world's first novel (The tales of Genji), spent most of her life here. Being hidden behind the Kyoto Imperial Palace, Rózan-ji receives surprisingly little attention from otherwise omnipresent throngs of tourists, making it a great spot for photographers.

A saunter down the eastern edge of the city from north to south will take you through a chain of inimitable temples. Starting with Manshu-in, through Enko-ji, Shisen-do, Honen-in, Eikan-do and finishing in Nanzen-ji, each temple houses a unique garden. Allow a full day to complete the whole stroll, and look at what Japan might have been like a few centuries ago.

The last on a severely reduced list of Kyoto gardens is Tofuku-ji, an important temple of Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, sited in southern Kyoto. The four sides of the mail hall, hójó, are surrounded by no less than four unique gardens. The most acclaimed of them are the southern one, a typical representative of karesansui garden style, and the northern one, a chequered pattern of moss and stone. Be wary when using a tripod, as the wooden veranda surrounding the main hall is rather flimsy and bypassing visitors may rock your camera support.

Where have all the flowers gone?
Flowers, an inherent component of western gardens, are considered distracting elements and are almost absent in Buddhist gardens - all because of their fugacious beauty. Like Japanese ink painters, who gave up colors to achieve monochromatic simplification, rock garden designers renounced varicolored flowerbeds in favor of stone. The exception proving the rule, however, is the flower of Buddhism - lotus.

Lotus in close-up
You can appreciate the graceful blooms of this flower during hot summer days in several Kyoto's gardens of which the one of Hokongo-in temple in the south-west part of the city is the most rewarding. In the mid-July, some 60 species of lotus from Japan, India, China, and the USA come into blossom here.

For lotus photography, you will need to get up earlier. It's not only to make the most of the inviting morning light but because of the circadian rhythm of the flowers that expose their harmonious, immense, white or pink blooms at around 6am and close the imposing show after just a few hours.

Bring all your lens-arsenal with you: macro or tele-lens for close-ups of isolated blooms, wide-angles to record efflorescent field of flowers surrounding a temple building. Since tripods are not permitted in Hokongo-in, bring films of various speeds to meet the existent lighting conditions.

General photo-tips

As many gardens are huddling behind temples' walls, the lighting conditions may be less than modest and you will need, apart from other gear, a sturdy tripod. And this is the nub of the problem.

Although photography is generally permitted in most temples, the use of tripods is often proscribed. It is not that the abbots fear tripods might ruin the polished wooden floors of temples' verandas; the reason is more prosaic - the phalanx of photographers that would spread their camera supports, preventing other viewers from passing through.
Garden of Enkoji temple
Garden of Enkoji temple

An operative, but not 100% effective, solution is to visit gardens on weekdays, as near to opening or closing hours as possible (most temples are open from 9 to 4:30, check with Lonely Planet's Kyoto guide). The lighting will be more friendly to your intentions, that's granted, but there is also a slim chance you will be the only visitor, or one of few, and your tossed photo paraphernalia won't irritate anyone.

Since English is not widely spoken in Japan, it is difficult to negotiate. Some monks, particularly those in senior positions, may speak English, but it is always a good idea to greet them in Japanese ("Ohayó gozaimasu" in the morning or "Konnichi wa" - in the afternoon) and ask whether you might use your tripod ("Sumimasen, stando wo tsukatte mo ii desu ka?"). A postcard or a sticker picturing your country or hometown may serve as a gentle bribe and will be appreciated and thanked for with numberless bows. It happened to me on several occasions that an understanding abbot showed me around a garden, pointing at features that I might have otherwise passed over and stopping fellow viewers from entering my composition. This is, however, only conceivable during off-peak hours.

Being allowed to use my tripod, Fuji Velvia was the film of the first choice; in the case of a fruitless chaffer, I used a second camera body loaded with somewhat faster film (Kodak E100S or Fuji Astia), allowing for handheld shots. Using preferentially prime lenses, I found everything between 20 - 105 mm quite useful; wider lenses allowing to look for unusual angles, longer lenses helping to isolate a particular feature of a garden or temple. A zoom lens may come in handy if you need to tightly eliminate the extremities of other visitors from your composition.

Given the chance, I waited for an overcast day to take advantage of the soft, diffused light. Direct sunlight, unbearably increasing the contrast of the scene created by white sand and dark stones, often meant the end of my photo session. Low doses of sun, however, can spirit the scene up.

Red momiji and green bamboo
Red momiji and green bamboo
Given the choice of season, I would prefer fall or winter. Not only is the light more tolerant to your intentions, but the colorful leaves of Japanese maple trees in late November or a gentle touch of snow on the ornaments of neatly raked sand, a very rare and valued circumstance in Kyoto, will add another dimension to your photographs.

The bizarre ornaments of sand and stone along with the fact that viewers are not physically entering the gardens but look at them from an adjacent veranda are ready to test any photographer's compositional skills to the limit. Even more so if you are looking for a special shot taken during a particular time of the year or under specific lighting conditions. Despite their relative proximity, you can easily gobble up months or years shooting Kyoto's gardens. But do not despair - even a short time stopover will reward you with startling memories and fill your album with exceptional photographs.

On just a few occasions did I manage to be the only visitor in a garden, and it was unalloyed bliss to set all the photo equipment away (and open both eyes again), sit down on the wooden veranda or tatami of a temple, plunge deep in the deafening silence of the stones, betake myself to the garden's charm and let my thoughts waft on the waves of the white sand. Moments spent in the "entrapment of sand and stone" are among the best you can experience in hasty, over-commercialized Japan.


Text and images are copyrighted by Frantisek Staud
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