In Japan, there’s a unique and enigmatic style of garden known as “karesansui” (枯山水) also called a dry garden or a dry landscape garden. The name “karesansui” means “dry mountain water,” where “mountain water” represents nature, and “dry” symbolizes the use of stone patterns to represent water. In simpler terms, karesansui aim to capture the essence of natural landscapes or seascapes using just stones, occasional plants, and carefully raked gravel in various patterns.
These patterns are called “samon” (砂紋) and are usually raked to create the appearance of water surfaces, waves, rivers and oceans. Because of this, the beauty of karesansui lies not only in their original design but also in the continuous renewal of these patterns. They are not mere static backgrounds but must be raked every few weeks to counteract natural forces like rain and wind. Regular cleaning, weeding, and reshaping are also necessary to maintain the their appearance.
Raking the sand or gravel adds texture and imagery to the dry garden, with different patterns invoking different moods. Depending on the style and size of the ridges, they can simulate the calmness of lapping waves or the energy of flowing rivers. Light and shadow are also important partners with the patterns in dry gardens. The sun as it moves through the sky interacts with these ridges and changes the entire visual experience throughout the day. Strategic pruning of surrounding foliage also controls the intensity of sunlight and shadows, creating a curated, dynamic visual effect.
Karesansui gardens feature a variety of raking patterns, each with its own significance and appeal. Here are some seven of the most common pattern styles:
- Aranamimon (荒波紋): Rough ridges resembling stormy seas or chaotic semi-circular ripples.
- Ichimatsumon (市松紋): A checkerboard pattern of squares, with the weave changing direction like woven threads.
- Mizumon (水紋): Concentric ripple patterns, resembling the surface of water disrupted by a pebble or raindrops.
- Ryūsui (流水): Sand raked to resemble the flow of streams or rivers.
- Sazanamimon (漣紋): Continuous waves or ripples drawn across a large area of sand or gravel, with various styles.
- Seigaihamon (青海波紋; 清海波紋): Sand raked into tightly-interlocking semicircles, resembling fish scales.
- Tachinamimon (立波紋; 太津波紋): Large, sharply-angled zig-zag patterns of waves.
These patterns are not only found in gardens but also in traditional clothing like kimono (着物) and yukata (浴衣). In Japan, the term “mon” (紋), meaning “pattern,” is also used to refer to family or clan crests. In this context, the patterns used in a specific temple or garden can become as recognizable as a crest. However, while these patterns have established forms, there’s room for individual interpretation in how they are executed. Each person who rakes or redesigns them does so based on their unique vision.
Further Resources: If you are interested in learning more, please check out our detailed Japanese Garden Handbook chapter on dry landscape gardens. For access to more resources, events, workshops, and community conversations, see our website for information on becoming a member of the North American Japanese Garden Association.