In her latest book, Japanese Zen Gardens (Frances Lincoln Ltd 2014), author and BBC correspondent Yoko Kawaguchi takes a detailed look at Zen temple gardens in Japan from the 14th through the 20th centuries.
As she says in the introduction, Zen gardens within the grounds of Buddhist temples owe much to "various Chinese cultural influences, Buddhist and otherwise," but they also "draw heavily of long-standing, native Japanese customs and preferences."
Kawaguchi notes that the term "Zen garden" outside Japan usually refers to dry, stone and gravel gardens like Ryoan-ji, but in fact, many different kinds of gardens are found at Zen temples in Japan. In the first part of the book, she explores early Japanese garden history dating back to the fifth and sixth centuries and the garden styles that emerged through the decades. In Part Two of the book, Kawaguchi explains the symbolism behind elements in Japanese garden style: ponds and bridges, sacred stones, the dragon, the ox, the borrowed landscape, tea gardens and plants, just to name a few.
It's simply fascinating. For example, she says that the ox derives from the artistic convention of the Ten Ox-herding Pictures, and they represent the 10 stages "involved in the attainment of enlightenment." The dragon symbolizes "nature's power to transform itself."
There are gorgeous photos throughout the book by Alex Ramsey and a very useful list at the back of Temple Gardens, addresses, phone numbers and opening hours.
It's an essential book for anyone who wants to understand what goes into a true Japanese garden; a great reference work; and a beautiful book for display on any table.