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The history behind the traditional Japanese rock garden seen in Taizo-in of Myoshin-ji Temple

I visited Daiko Matsuyama at Taizo-in of Myoshin-ji, a Zen temple in Kyoto.
Daiko-san is a man with wonderful ideas!

Some of his unique ideas include the “one drop of Zen” session, where visitors get to experience Zen by enjoying candies, and a marathon project that transcends the boundaries of religion! (See below for his TED talk and other related articles)

What caught my attention more, though, was the remarkable traditional Japanese rock garden at this temple.

Traditional Japanese rock gardens are specially designed gardens whose terrain is sculpted using only stones without any water. These gardens are usually created by garden craftsmen, but “Motonobu’s Garden” at this temple was created by Kano Motonobu, a painter of the Muromachi period. This garden boasts a perennially unchanging design that features only evergreen trees such as the Japanese camellia, pine, Japanese cedar, Japanese ternstroemia, and Japanese photinia. In other words, the garden itself is a work of art.

It is said that this work was created around 1546, when Kano Motonobu was almost 70 years old and had reached his full maturity as a painter. In fact, this garden is a three-dimensional adaptation of his own painting and is considered a rare work as this final work of his was a work of landscape art.

Traditional Japanese rock gardens were created between the Kamakura and Muromachi periods to portray the religious worldview of Zen. This minimalist depiction of the spiritual world might have been a representation of the prevalent views of life and death during the Warring States period.

By the way, here is the historical context. This garden was built during the Muromachi period, the era of Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
Muromachi period: 1336-1573 (the Warring States period)
Toyotomi Hideyoshi: 1536-1598

Although I was not able to see it during my visit, the oldest ink painting in Japan “Hyonenzu” is held here. This is a painting by the artist-monk Josetsu and has been designated as a National Treasure of Japan.

This work was inspired by a riddle by Ashikaga Yoshimochi (1386-1428), the fourth shogun of the Muromachi shogunate, whose theme is whether it is possible to catch a catfish with a gourd. Some people say that “Hyonenzu” depicts hard work and achieving one’s goals, but to me, the painting looks as if a powerful figure of that time was just enjoying an intellectual game with the artist. Culture can be nurtured through the artistic representation of themes like that. In other words, Ashikaga Yoshimochi was a brilliant curator.

I hope I will get to see this painting the next time I visit.

*Photos are taken from the official website, Wikimedia Commons, and TED.

Official website of Taizo-in of Myoshin-ji Temple in Kyoto

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