Books: Japanese Zen Gardens

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This is an elegant coffee table book, but one that you can get your teeth into. Part One introduces you to the tradition of the landscape garden in Japan, and covers a selection of individual temple gardens. Part Two is more cross-cutting, and highlights common symbols that are often found in these gardens, which is interesting but entails some repetition.

The photography is captivating – every bit as good as in The Gardens of Japan by Helena Attlee (2010), for which Alex Ramsay was also the photographer. For instance, the mesmerizing greens of Saihō-ji, so famous for its moss that it is known as the Moss Temple; or the textures and colours of Konchi-in – gravel, rocks, evergreens and a gnarled Chinese juniper tree that is thought to date from the construction of the garden in the 1630s; or the more modern designs at Tōfuku-ji, produced by Shigemori Mirei in 1939.

The text too is rich in historical and topographical detail, with little plans of the gardens alongside. I suspect there is no real substitute for visiting the gardens (which sadly I have not), but this tries hard to be that substitute. I confess, though, that I struggled at times to identify which particular stone represented the carp, the turtle and so on – some labels with arrows would have helped me, though perhaps it would compromise the design of the book.

I liked the way that Kawaguchi compares aspects of the gardens with Chinese ink-brush painting. I think it made a lot of sense and that she could have explored this angle further, perhaps even included some paintings.

Overall, a very fine volume – would definitely recommend, but perhaps more for those with a little existing knowledge.

Japanese Zen Gardens
Yoko Kawaguchi, photographs by Alex Ramsay, 2014.
Frances Lincoln Limited, 208 pp, £30.

This book was received as a gift from family!