It was built in 1601 by Hosokawa Tadaoki, a Samurai who was also a tea master. We entered Kōtō – in through a rustic wooden gate that framed young Japanese maple, “Momiji” trees, which are used extensively in the foreground and matured bamboo in the background. The ground is covered with a carpet of velvety moss. The path is on a long but segmented stone pathway. With each turn, the width, depth and dimensions gave a different perspective. All these are intentionally designed to create distance, space and symbolic to the trials and tribulations of life and the spiritual path. It requires the visitor to slow down and observe a specific ‘framed view’. Clay tiled roof were encrusted with moss as on the ground. The twisted path, “roji” led from the garden entrance to the “Hojo”, main hall. The main garden, at the “Hojo”, is sparsely planted with a few maple trees, a single stone lantern and in the background a living grey-green wall of bamboo. The level foreground is covered with a carpet of moss. Comparatively, this front garden design accentuated simplicity. The moss encrusted stone lantern created a focal point. This garden had been my favourite so far. In one corner, a single maple tree had only a few bright pinkish leaves that were just starting to colour. I could only imagine the colours of these maples in late autumn. A couple sat on the red carpet reflecting their own lives. Within the “Hojo”, walls are painted with murals and calligraphy. An elderly man, seated on tatami floors, was absorbed with one particular painting.
Seated on the veranda below a wooden hanging lamp, I found tranquility. I imagined living here surrounded by natural beauty and the lack of modernity. The visual effect of this Zen garden is addictive. For the moment, Kōtō- in Temple is a green garden. On one wall was the “tokonoma”, the main alcove with an “ikebana” arrangement on a raised platform. This is certainly a heart-warming place. Such is the magnetic appeal of these rustic wooden temples and their surrounding manicured gardens.
” Paintings without brushes,
sutras (Buddhist teachings) written without characters “
– ancient Zen Master describing
On the western front of the “Hojo”, a few roughly places natural stones connected to the adjacent warm dark wood coloured tea rooms. This tea garden, in contrast with the “Hojo” courtyard garden, however, is densely planted with variegated grasses, shrubs, sculptured pines, more maples and structural cycads. I loved the subtle variations in the foliage colours and their textures, particularly in the partially filtered light today. Flowering plants are nowhere to be seen. In a secluded corner is a “tsukubai”, stone water trough teeming with moss and ferns. A bamboo ladle is placed on top. We strolled with no words spoken in this enchanted temple garden.
“Aside from house and family, it is nature that gives me the most pleasure, the changes of the season, the blossoms and leaves of autumn and spring, the shifting patterns of skies” – Prince Genji, Heian Era
It is hard to explain how and why a Zen Garden affects an individual. One is overcome with a sense of calm and happiness. Slowly, details emerge with great clarity – the shapes and hues of plants and rocks, light and shadow heightened, sounds of chirping birds enhanced, creaking of bamboo, even the carpet of moss is appreciated. The idea is to move through (visually and physically), around it, embrace, pause and reflect. Those with little or no knowledge of Zen or Buddhism will also be touched. Interpretations may vary but there is a longing to prolong this moment. A simple answer – it just does!
Beginning from the entrance and within the buildings, the garden seemed to be framed – through doorways, slatted sliding doors, and windows – in every direction. The indoor and outdoor flow is seamless, as if the garden is within.