Perhaps the most recognizable Japanese garden style to Westerners is the dry landscape garden or karesansui, what we commonly call a Zen garden. The religious association is accurate, as this garden style arose during the Medieval Period between the 12th and 15th Centuries, when Zen Buddhism spread across Japan and greatly influenced garden design. The karesansui garden puts many Zen principles into practice, such as simplicity, profundity and limitlessness. The acts of gardening and raking the gravel or sand common to a Zen garden where part of a monk’s meditative practice.
Karesansui literally means dry-mountain-water. The principle difference between karesansui gardens and their predecessors is the lack of water, which dominated Japanese gardens of earlier eras. Instead, gravel or sand is used to symbolize rivers, lakes and seas, and are often raked to evoke the movement or feeling of water. These dry water masses have as much impact in the garden as true ponds, and allow for a variety of expression through raking.
Every element in the garden is representative of a larger, landscape component. Mountains are symbolized by boulders which are often set upright or at odd angles. We commonly see rocks set in groups of odd numbers and in triangular shapes reminiscent of the mountains. Boulders are also used to symbolize islands. Pruned trees and shaped shrubs can be used interchangeably with rocks to represent land forms. Another expression of land is the use of earthen mounds covered in moss to represent the land and forests.
Like the larger viewing gardens of the time, Karesansui gardens are often meant to be viewed from a single vantage point. Rather than designing for physical entry and movement through the garden, the designs of the Medieval Period encouraged contemplation. The relationship of the gardens to the surrounding architecture supported opportunities for contemplation. Gardens were carefully sited to afford a variety of viewing points and vision lines from sitting areas inside and outside of buildings. Each view was carefully designed.