Written by Gregory Wittkopp
Director, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research and the Cranbrook Japanese Garden

In November 2022, NAJGA organized a study tour of Japanese gardens in Tokyo and Kyoto. Sponsored by the Japan Foundation, the group included Greg Wittkopp, Director of Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research and the Cranbrook Japanese Garden. In this four part, serialized article, Greg recounts the group’s adventures and reflects on what he describes as an “opportunity of a lifetime.” You can read Part I and Part II. To contact Greg directly, send an email to him at GWittkopp@cranbrook.edu.


Next time I take the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto remind me to book a seat on the righthand side (fig. 3.1).

Figure 3.1: Shinkansen (Bullet Train) Departing from Tokyo for Kyoto.

Seated on the lefthand side and gabbing away with my seatmate Catherine Marsh from the Anderson Japanese Gardens, I suddenly found myself leaning into the personal space of the two Japanese women seated across the aisle from us. I was simply trying to get a glimpse of Mount Fuji. With more than a little pride in their eyes (their masks covered what I was certain were their smiles), they shifted and permitted us to get the best view and cellphone shots possible and then asked—as if it wasn’t obvious—if it was our first trip to Japan. Covering about 400 miles in two hours, we arrived at Kyoto Station and immediately boarded a bus to the Imperial Palace (Kyoto Gosho). We had indeed arrived! Midway through our tour of the palace grounds I remember standing awestruck in front of the Oikeniwa Garden thinking it couldn’t possibly get any better than this. Reading my mind, Ben Schrepf from Phoenix, for whom this was not his first trip to Japan, looked at me and said: “Wait until you see the gardens tomorrow.”

Without even referring to my cellphone shots, the memories of that first afternoon at the Imperial Palace in Kyoto—it seemed like paradise to me—come flooding back: the views of the landscape framed by the architecture of the teahouse in the southwest corner of the palace grounds; the glimpse of the paintings on the sliding doors in the “Room of the Cranes,” one of three waiting rooms in the Shodaibunoma; the materiality of the roofs made of Japanese cypress bark, and the thickness and precision of their crisply cut edges above the eaves; the enormity of the raked gravel courtyard on the south side of the Shishinden (Hall for State Ceremonies) punctuated only by two solitary trees, a mandarin orange and a cherry tree; and the repose and understated beauty of the Oikeniwa and Gonaitei gardens. From the gardens alone there was so much to learn. I focused on Oikeniwa’s frontality, standing on axis with the center of the Kogosho ceremonial hall to experience the view of the garden seen by the seated emperor (fig. 3.2).

Figure 3.2: Oikeniwa Garden, Imperial Palace, Kyoto.

It was clear that even gardens meant for strolling, changing with every turn in the path, also need to be carefully composed for views from fixed perspectives. 

Before we left the grounds of the Imperial Palace, I asked Professor Suzuki if he could help explain why the color of the vermillion paint used on the gates (fig. 3.3) was distinctly different from the color of the paint used on gates in Tokyo, including those we had seen at Senso-ji Temple.

Figure 3.3: Gekkamon Gate with View of Nikkamon Gate, Shishinden (Hall for State Ceremonies), Imperial Palace, Kyoto.

Without hesitating, he explained that the paint used in Kyoto—closer to a burnt orange or persimmon—originally was made from natural materials. The paint used in Tokyo—the brighter vermillion red that we think of in the United States, and the one we selected to paint the Cranbrook Japanese Bridge based on the torii in the contemporaneous Brooklyn Botanic Garden—was a commercially available twentieth-century paint that approximated, but could not yet duplicate, the natural vermillion used on Kyoto’s historic structures. The difference has now become a tradition. 

We ended the day’s tour at Maruyama Park on the eastern edge of the city, where the terrain steepens as it rises up into the surrounding Higashiyama Mountains. The park, like the Japanese garden at Kyu-Furukawa in Tokyo, was designed by Ueji at the beginning of the twentieth century. Both gardens, with their less studied and more naturalistic use of grass and scattered rounded stones along the pond and stream edges, bare many resemblances to Cranbrook’s garden. If our founder had traveled to Japan—which he didn’t—I am convinced it is Ueji that he would have asked to travel to Michigan to help design his garden. At the same time, Maruyama Park is not one of Ueji’s masterworks. Unlike Murin-an, which we also would experience in Kyoto, this public park occupies an unsatisfying space between here and there, between Japan and the West. The day before, Sada replied to one of my emails and said: “Great, I am happy for you to have a full immersion experience of Japan. Please keep your eyes on the lake/pond edges of the gardens you visit.” As I know that Sada feels our eroding pond edges with their uninspired reliance on stacked rounded stones lack character, I knew that those of Maruyama Park were not what he had in mind.

The goal had been to arrive at the Ryoan-ji temple, site of Japan’s most famous karesansui garden, before the masses. While we weren’t the first, we were early enough to have the time and space we needed to contemplate this masterful arrangement of fifteen rocks in a sea of raked white gravel (fig. 3.4).

Figure 3.4: Karesansui Garden, Ryoan-ji Temple, Kyoto.

Even if it meant missing other components of the temple complex, I decided I would take the time it took to sketch each of the five groupings—5, 2, 3, 2, and 3 rocks grouped together and laid out from east to west—to etch the experience into my consciousness. As the tour groups ebbed and flowed, I remained seated on the edge of the Hojo’s veranda where I selfishly maintained an unobstructed view. I mentally entered the space, initially wondering what it would be like to be the monk that rakes the garden. As I increasingly focused my attention on the rocks, trying to memorize their every detail, I realized that turning a single stone a fraction of an inch would destroy both the balance and the tension of the classical composition of this centuries-old garden. Does the arrangement allude to the ancient Chinese tale about a mother tiger ferrying her cubs, one by one, across a river? Like any great work of art, associations like this can deepen our understanding. But seated in front of it, seeing the rocks against the quiet ochre backdrop of the oil-soaked clay wall, I was simply aware of its perfection. As a curator I know the difference an inch can make when hanging a painting; Sada will need the same latitude as he sets the stones in our garden.

As we boarded the bus, I took a seat next to Professor Pingxing who asked if she could see the sketches she saw me making at Ryoan-ji. I gladly pulled out my black bound sketchbook and asked if she could identify any of the rocks. Looking at the sketch of the third grouping of stones, she wrote in Japanese and English the names of the three stones, and then noted that the Shirakawa-suna, the garden’s characteristic silver-gray gravel, comes from a source near Lake Biwa that only can be used at Ryoan-ji. I again felt fortunate to be able to take advantage of experts like Professor Pingxing, whose research focuses on the stones in Japanese gardens.

While it’s hard to ignore the gilt structure at the edge of its pond, I focused on two very different lessons at nearby Rokuon-ji, commonly known as Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion (fig. 3.5).

Figure 3.5: Rokuon-ji, or Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion), Kyoto.

By the time we arrived at the Zen temple, the garden was packed with sightseers, mostly yellow-capped Japanese students. One might think the garden’s magic would be destroyed by the hordes (in a typical year, it sees over a million visitors). Yet by limiting the pathway to one side of the pond, the caretakers have made it possible for a visitor (with this six-foot-three American having an extra edge) to have an unpopulated, postcard-perfect view of the pond and the pavilion with the borrowed scenery of the mountains in the background. The impression is of a remote garden, far from the city. I learned how important it is to plan your pathways carefully, taking into consideration a beautiful fall day when the garden is teaming with people, not just the quiet mornings when you have it to yourself. And I will never forget Kinkaku-ji’s islands. When Sada talks about the potential of the island in the middle of the Lily Pond in the Cranbrook Japanese Garden, I now can call to mind some of the most sublime examples, islands where a few exquisitely pruned pines and a carefully composed arrangement of rocks along the edge create poetic metaphors for distant lands.

I could have left for the airport and felt completely satisfied, but we were just getting started. Fortified by lunch served in an old private house (Professor Suzuki left nothing to chance on this trip, including our lunches), we arrived at Daitoku-ji, Kyoto’s largest Zen Buddhist monastery complex. Containing no less than twenty-four temples and subtemples and their attendant gardens, it would take days, if not months, to study them all; we had a few hours. Deciding on the spot that someday I would return to Kyoto, I focused my attention on three: Daisen-in, Zuiho-in, and Ryogen-in. Whereas coaxing a narrative out of the Ryoan-ji’s fifteen rocks, if one is inclined, requires practiced concentration, it is relatively easy to see Daisen-in’s famous east rock garden as an idealized landscape scene. Tightly compacted within a narrow space, some twelve feet wide, the “water” in this dry rock garden cascades over a mountain waterfall, flows under a bridge and over a dam, before forming a river that carries a boat-shaped rock toward the sea. I was reminded of the Muromachi period landscape paintings I admired in the Nezu Museum where the mind also is invited to wander an imagined world.

I will remember Zuiho-in for the cryptomeria in the outer garden (fig. 3.6).

Figure 3.6: Cryptomeria in the Outer Garden, Zuiho-in Subtemple, Daitoku-ji Monastery Precinct, Kyoto.

A delightful addition to the trip was Philip Bloomquist from Washington. A Nursery and Propagation Specialist at the Bloedel Reserve, Philip quickly became our go-to-guy for identifying all the plants we encountered. How this North American horticulturist knew every living plant in Tokyo and Kyoto is beyond my comprehension. Waiting to enter the walled inner precinct of the subtemple, I learned about daisugi, how this variety of cryptomeria (Japanese cedar) is periodically coppiced, or “stumped,” to create long straight knot-less shoots that can be cut for use as roofing timbers. It was not just our Japanese guides, but my fellow NAJGA colleagues that contributed to my education. As for the rock garden inside the walls of Zuiho-in, I focused my eye on the grouping to the right where the rugged stones were paired with the smooth rounded form of a clipped shrub to represent mountains rising above an island of moss with an undulating coastline—another idealized landscape created for contemplation and meditation (fig. 3.7).

Figure 3.7: Karesansui Garden, Zuiho-in Subtemple, Daitoku-ji Monastery Precinct, Kyoto.

The illusion was broken when I glanced at my watch. If I left in a few minutes, I would have time to experience Ryogen-in and a few more subtemples. On my next trip, I plan to choose a hotel within walking distance of Daitoku-ji so I can spend the early morning hours of several days seeking, like centuries of monks before me, my own enlightenment.

The final garden of the day placed us squarely in the here and now. Near Kyoto Station, on the southern side of the city, lies Umekoji Park, a bustling site home to both the Kyoto Aquarium and the Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum. It also is home to one of Kyoto’s newest gardens, Suzaku-no-Niwa Garden. Opened in 1995, it was built to commemorate the 1,200th anniversary of the establishment of Heiankyo in 794 CE, the Heian era capital that preceded modern Kyoto. I am an historian at heart, constantly researching the contexts and precedents of the collections I oversee, including Cranbrook’s Japanese garden. On more than one occasion, however, Sada has stressed that Japanese gardens are a living tradition that must reflect the needs of a particular site and moment in time. At Suzaku-no-Niwa, the contemporary moment includes welcoming a new generation into the garden. As we enjoyed an evening reception and dinner hosted by the Kyoto City Urban Greenery Association and several other organizations, we saw the garden transformed through a dramatic nighttime display of colored lights (fig. 3.8)

Figure 3.8: Nighttime Lights Display, Suzaku-no-Niwa Garden, Umekoji Park, Kyoto.

Was it a bit surreal, especially after the contemplative beauty of the afternoon’s karesansui gardens? Perhaps. But it made clear that even in Japan creative programming must be employed to keep our gardens alive.