by David Rettig
Lead Horticulturist, Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park


Armed with a list of gardens to visit from Hoichi Kurisu, I was sent by Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park to Japan. I was planning to meet up with gardeners that I worked side by side with during the construction of the Richard and Helen DeVos Japanese Garden. I touched down in Tokyo and found my way through a maze of efficient trains to my hotel. My next days were spent in Tokyo and Nagoya with Greg Afman and later in Kyoto with Toru Kato. Having friends and fellow gardeners that I was connected with through garden building, afforded a myriad of insights and sneak peeks into gardens well off the beaten path.  It was the gardeners heart that connected the two countries, more so than finding similarities and differences in particular gardens.

Dave with Toru Kato at the entrance to Saiho-ji

On my first trip to Japan, I visited Murin-an, Saiho-ji, Tenryu-ji, Ryoan-ji, and Kinkaku-ji. These are very distinct gardens. Murin-an is modern, while Saiho-ji and Tenryu-ji are more austere with Zen Buddhist influences. Others, like Ryoan-ji and Kinkaku-ji are popular tourist destinations with high visitor ship.

Murin-an was constructed in the home of Aritomo Yamagata, an elder Statesman to the Emperor. Jihei Ogawa VII built the garden between 1894 and 1896. He is considered one of the early pioneers of natural style gardens. Today, Murin-an is designated a National Place of Scenic Beauty and uses the Higashiyama Mountains as the shuzan or focal point. 

Murin-an has large areas of turf, which for years were mowed regularly. After Ueyakato took over the fostering of the garden, the turf was maintained true to its original intent as an ephemeral wildflower meadow. The stones in the pond are placed to work in scale at harmony as a stream coming down from the mountains and broadening into a meadow. At Murin-an the architecture is beautifully blended into the garden. 

The lower garden at Saiho-ji, Kokedera, Moss Garden, was originally built during the Heian period (729-794) by Gyoki Bosatsu. The upper level was built and the full garden restored by Zen Priest Muso Soseki. It is the first example of the austere karesansui style garden. A visit to Saiho-ji requires a reservation made months in advance. Upon arriving, all visitors participate in a Buddhist ceremony in the temple. Given its long history, the garden is a significant historical and cultural site. In the lower garden, plantings surround a pond shaped in the Chinese character for heart. 

The teahouse at Saiho-ji is historically important as it was originally built by Muso and repaired by Shoan, the second son of Sen no Rikyu, founder of the Japanese tea ceremony. Saiho-jin also includes earthen bridges and has an abundance of moss carpeting the ground. The moss is immaculately cleaned and maintained. In the upper garden an aesthetic shift towards austerity and idealized nature in the mind is apparent. 

Tenryu-ji was established in 1339 by shogun Ashikaga Takauji. Muso Soseki was the founding abbot and garden builder. This garden has maintained its same form since its completion. Tenryu-ji was the first garden to use borrowed scenery- shakkei. Inspiration for the Sogen Garden came from the Chinese fable about a koi who swims up a waterfall and becomes a dragon. Visitors to Tenryu-ji exit the garden through a bamboo forest. 

In 1450, the site of Ryoan-ji was first acquired for use as a Zen Training Temple. During the Muromachi period (around 1500), in the age of aesthetic austerity influenced by Zen, the rock garden was created by Zen monk, Tokuho Zenketsu.


Ryoan-ji is the first karesansaui as we recognize them today. The stones were likely set by “river people” who found upward social mobility as gardeners. Ryoanji-set the style for this style of tsukubai.  

          The inscription in the basin reads, “Wada Tada Taru Shiru,“ “I know only what is enough.”

                                  The style of fence below was made famous by Ryoan-ji.

Kinkaku-ji or the Golden Pavilion has a buddhist hall- Rokuon-ji Zen Buddhist Temple. Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu acquired the property in 1397 as his villa. It was eventually converted to a temple by Muso Soseki.

At the entrance to Kinkaku-ji there is a cooling mist to set the mood and make guests feel comfortable. Kinkaku-ji has many visitors from all around the world. In 1994, it was designated a World Cultural Heritage Site and includes 11th century warrior, Chinese, and Edo period architecture. It is indicative of Muromachi period garden design and architecture. 

Gardens are where nature and human culture meet at their finest. A place where our better angels can connect with one another. It is through the passage of time, working in a space that will far outlive us, that gardeners are able to connect and teach on another. It is the fundamental aspect of community that allows for gardens to continue to exist. We are the current humans in the human culture portion of the gardens.