Dr. Watson E. Mills, here with the bullet train, has visited all 28 sites comprising the Smithsonian Institutes “travel bucket list,” also known as the “28 Places to See before You Die.” He has also visited all of the “New 7 Wonders of the World,” as well as the 14 semi-finalists as determined by the New 7 Wonders Foundation in 2014. His travels have taken him to 174 of the United Nations’ membership list of 193 countries.

Kyoto, a city on the island of Honshu, was once the capital of Japan. This city of 1.5 million people was the site for the World’s Fair in 1970. The city’s name is spelled with the same letters as “Tokyo” and in both names two letters occur in sequence: “Ky.” Ky means “capital” or “metropolis.” The other letters in Kyoto’s name refer to “imperial.” When the capital of Japan moved further to the East, “Tokyo” became the “new” name for the capital. The additional letters mean “to the east.”

Kyoto is famous for its many Buddhist temples, gardens, imperial palaces, Shinto shrines, and traditional wooden houses. Near the end of WWII, Kyoto was on the USA’s list of targets for the atomic bombing of 1945 aimed at ending the war. Military planners had concluded that its large population might well persuade the emperor to surrender. In the end, however, the city was removed from the target list and replaced by Nagasaki. Thus the city’s rich history and traditional architecture was spared. Yet some urban planners today point out that the tendency towards modernization has, in recent decades, begun to break down the traditional “look” of Kyoto in favor of newer architectural designs.

There are many modern, high-speed trains that link Tokyo to Kyoto. These trains are known widely outside of Japan as “bullet trains.” They offer fast acceleration and deceleration, and they are of lighter construction when compared with traditional locomotives and carriages. The coaches are air-sealed to ensure stable air pressure and offer an extremely smooth ride at about 200 mph. These trains, running on electricity, are quiet, safe, super fast, and always on-time. They are a joy to ride.

The opportunity to ride the “bullet” train from Tokyo to Kyoto was itself a great thrill for me. I left Tokyo station that bright June morning in 2012 aboard the “Shinkansen,” as the Japanese refer to these high speed trains, for Kyoto. The journey of 329 miles took only 110 minutes, meaning that the train was averaging over 190 mph.
Although I had been to Kyoto almost 40 years before, I wanted to return so I could visit some of the world famous Zen Gardens that are scattered throughout this area of Japan. The Zen gardens of Japan are known internationally for their enigmatic beauty. With the passage of centuries, that beauty has remained vibrant and unchanged.

The first Zen rock gardens appeared in Kyoto in the 15th century. At that time several of the leading Zen masters were also master gardeners. They introduced layouts that centered on rocks and sand rather than flowers or trees, lawns or water. These were certainly not gardens in the familiar Western sense. In fact, the term “rock garden” sounds like a paradox!

Among the beautiful Zen Gardens at Kyoto are: the Garden at Tofukuji Temple; the Garden at Okochi-Sanso Villa; the Garden at Myoshin-ji Temple. But it was the Zen Garden that is called the “Temple of the Dragon at Peace” that was at the top of my list. Locally it is known the “Ryoanji Temple.” This classic example of the rock garden is located in northwest Kyoto. It is the garden I had come here to see. As the name (rock garden) suggests, this garden is devoid of water and is composed only of sand and rocks.

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is also number 14 on the Smithsonian List of “28 Places to See before You Die.” In fact, Kyoto boasts 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites altogether. This means that Kyoto ranks near the top of the list of cities of the world with the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The Garden at Ryoanji Temple is a genuine rock garden. In the Japanese tradition this type of garden is known as karesansui (meaning something like “dry-mountain-water”). This type of garden originated in medieval Japan and is renowned for its simplicity and serenity. While there are many examples of this type of garden, this one is easily the most famous. James Ulak, curator of Japanese art at Smithsonian, says, “While there are other similar gardens of great beauty, Ryoanji remains the ur-site of the type–powerful, abstract, Zen Buddhist landscapes designed to invoke deep meditation.”

The Ryoanji Garden is located near a Zen temple that belongs to the Buddhist religious tradition. This temple and its gardens are widely considered as the finest surviving example of the traditional “dry landscape” garden. This refined type of Japanese Zen temple garden design features a distinctive rock formation arranged amidst a sweep of small smooth, carefully selected and polished rocks. Those who come here to worship believe that this particular arrangement “facilitates” meditation which itself plays a key role in the Buddhist tradition.

As the site of Japan’s most famous rock garden, the Ryoanji Garden attracts hundreds of visitors every day. Originally an aristocrat’s villa, the site was converted into a Zen temple in 1450 and belongs to the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism whose head temple stands nearby. The exact date of the construction of the Garden itself is unknown.
Measuring 98 by 32 feet, the Ryoanji Garden is about the size of a tennis court and is composed solely of 15 large and small rocks, grouped in five clusters on a bed of carefully raked white sand. As a work of art, the meaning of this garden is open to interpretation. Many theories have been advanced both within Japan and abroad as to what the garden is supposed to represent. The precise meaning of the garden is not immediately clear and is widely debated today. From a distance, some observers say that the rocks resemble islands and that the sand represents a tranquil sea. Others believe that the garden represents the common theme of a tiger carrying cubs across a pond or across islands in a sea. Fifteen years ago, a research team from Kyoto University announced that they had broken the Zen code. Using advanced computer modeling, they concluded that the garden’s rocks (when viewed from a certain specific angle) evoked the tranquil outline of a tree with several branches.

Over the centuries, however, visitors have discerned images as diverse as the Chinese character for “heart” or certain abstract concepts, such as “infinity.” Some have even suggested theories that are based upon the secrets of geometry or of the rules relating to number sequences. These conflicting theories have caused some scholars to conclude that the garden does not actually symbolize anything. Rather, it is an abstract composition of “natural” objects in space. Its sole purpose, these critics claim, is to bring about meditation.

Since the anonymous designers left no explanation, the garden’s exact meaning is, and will probably always remain, a mystery. This factor no doubt contributes to the Garden’s enduring allure. Tourists view the garden from the Hojo, the head priest’s former residence. An interesting feature of the garden’s design is that from any vantage point at least one of the rocks is always hidden from the view.

For those who admire Japanese gardens, these “dry” gardens will certainly rank among their favorites because in many ways these gardens epitomize the most appealing characteristics of Japanese aesthetics: simplicity, elegance and restraint. The real pleasure of gazing at the Ryoanji garden comes when the visitor realizes that it is like looking at clouds in the sky – you can let your imagination run wild and imagine all sorts of “meanings” and shapes.

Next time: “The Uffizi Galley: a gem in the city of Florence”