Soul of the Garden

Images of Japan

A Tribute to Japan and Japanese Gardens



Welcome to the Soul of the Garden tribute to Japan and Japanese gardens. The inspiration for these pages stretches back approximately thirty-five years when, as a high school student, one of my teachers suggested that I read a book about haiku poetry. That book touched off a lifetime of exploration about Japanese literature, culture, religion, and of course, gardening. Several years into that journey I discovered R.H. Blyth's  book on the spiritual and cultural roots roots of haiku where I found the following Zen koan:

The plum tree, dwindling, contains less of the spring; But the garden is wider, and holds more of the moon.

(from Haiku Volume 1 - Eastern Culture, R. H. Blyth)

A koan is a story or riddle that  was used as a teaching tool in the Zen tradition of Buddhism. Koans are, by intent, difficult to follow with our normal rational way of thinking and yet they are accessible to our intuitions, sometimes immediately so. That was certainly the case with me. The "Way" of the garden, of nature, and of life itself seemed bound up in this short little verse that felt so poignant, yet hopeful and wise.  I didn't know how to interpret my experience, except to say that it touched my heart and reminded me of what we call the "spiritual" dimension of life. Without that gentle image of the plum tree in autumn, this website probably would never have seen its first spring. I have felt indebted to Japan ever since that day.

In April of 2007 I had the good fortune to realize a thirty-five year long  dream of visiting Japan and touring some of the exquisite temples and gardens of that most gracious country. My partner, Victor, and I spent ten days in the ancient capitals of Nara and  Kyoto and the incredible metropolis of Tokyo (with a lovely side trip to the Kamakura area.) What follows is a photographic record of our pilgrimage, I hope that you enjoy this abbreviated tour and feel a little of the peace that welcomed us in so many of these lovely sites.

Namaste, Tom Spencer


The "gateless" gate of Nanzen-ji.

A monk told Joshu, "I have just entered this monastery. I beg you to teach me." Joshu asked, "Have you eaten your rice porridge?" The monk replied, "I have." "Then," said Joshu, "Go and wash your bowl." At that moment the monk was enlightened.  - from The Gateless Gate - a famous collection of Zen koans and commentaries.


Kyoto - City of Fabled Temples, Gardens, and Castles



Even in Kyoto --
hearing the cuckoo's cry --
I long for Kyoto

-Matsuo Basho

What can I say about Kyoto that hasn't already been said? It is certainly one of the world's great destinations...  the Rome of Zen Buddhism with hundreds of temples and temple complexes thickly scattered around its perimeter and dotting its heart. There is much about modern Kyoto that is banal... lots of post-war cement and glass boxes. But, step down almost any side street and you'll encounter something special - Jizo statues,  lovingly tended gardens,  canals lined with cherry trees. And, of course there are wide swaths of the city that are truly magical... the Gion district on a misty evening, Arashiyama with its bamboo groves and mountain breezes, or the Philosopher's Walk with cherry petals drifting on the wind.  Kyoto was the capital of Japan for nearly 1,100 years and is considered the cradle of Japanese culture. From the tea ceremony, to gardens and geishas, Kyoto is the  eternal Japan that is etched onto our imaginations... like a woodblock print depicting the "floating world."


Tenryu-ji, Kyoto.


Daitoku-ji complex

Eikando Zenrin-ji

Fushimi-Iniri Shrine - "The Gates of Kyoto"


Kinkaku-ji - The Golden Pavilion



Pine and raked sand, Ginkaku-ji.



Nijo-jo Castle

Ryoan-ji - The Ultimate Zen Garden


Tofuku-ji - Moss, Stone, and Maples


The Philosopher's Walk.


Kyoto - The Philosopher's Walk

Kyoto - Stolen Glimpses


Nara - The First Capital of Japan


The Daibutsu-den (Hall of the Great Buddha) Todai-ji, Nara.

Temple bells die out.

The fragrant blossoms remain.

A perfect evening!


 - Matsuo Basho


The city of Nara was the first capital of Japan to remain in one place over an extended period of time. It served as the capital from 710 until 794 when the capital was moved to Kyoto. Nara was where Buddhism was finally and firmly grafted onto Japanese culture and is the site of the first great Buddhist complex in the country, Horyu-ji. Today, Nara is a quiet city less than an hour by train from Kyoto. Many of Nara's ancient temples escaped the civil wars and fires that plagued Kyoto and so the city remains a national treasure filled with impressive temples, quiet walkways, and a pleasant green ambiance. Among its famous sights are the world's oldest and largest wooden buildings, the largest Buddha statue in the nation,  and the expansive Nara-Koen park (along with its resident herd of "sacred" deer.)



A sculpture inside the Daibutsu-den.


Kasuga Taisha - "The Way of the Lantern"


Todai-ji Temple Complex


Tokyo and Area


Cherry blossom viewing party, Shinjuku Gyo-en National Garden.

Without flowing wine

What good to me are lovely

Cherry trees in bloom?


- anonymous haiku

Tokyo lies at the center of what is still the world's  largest urban conglomeration (with over thirty million residents.) For most of us the prevailing images of Tokyo are of the Ginza district's neon displays and of enormous crowds packed into subway cars. Yes, the Ginza does glare and yes, at rush hour, the subway cars are very crowded. However, we never got the feeling of being overwhelmed. In fact, compared to most of the other mega-cities that I have visited, Tokyo feels quite subdued, very orderly, and almost miraculously clean and safe.  I have to admit that my favorite memories of Tokyo involve food - amazingly fresh and beautifully prepared sushi. But even in this giant city, we encountered beautiful temples and great public gardens including the grounds of the Imperial  Palace and the Shinjuku Gyo-en National Garden.

Kamakura, a small town on the Pacific coast less than one hour by train from central Tokyo, was once the home base of the country's ruling military elite and served as the capital for over one hundred years (starting in 1180.) When the capital was moved back to Kyoto, Kamakura and the surrounding area, including Kita-Kamakura and Hase, reverted to being sleepy backwaters. However, their brief moment at the center of the nation's political power left them ornamented with many beautiful temples, gardens, and shrines.  When toured together, they compose an ideal day-trip from Tokyo. Some of my favorite memories of our trip come from the quiet gardens and secluded Buddhist cemeteries of Kita-Kamakura. Wandering through these places under the cover of towering trees, you encounter moss covered shrines and statues, friendly priests, and the haunting calls of the cuckoos singing from hidden perches. If your trip to Japan is a very quick one and you won't get out of the Tokyo area, go to Kita-Kamakura, Kamakura, and Hase and you'll be able to say, "I have been to Japan."


Statues dotting the moss "lawn" of a monastery at Kita-Kamakura.


Glimpses of Tokyo

Imperial Palace Gardens

Kamakura and Hase

Kita-Kamakura - Poignant Pathways

Shinjuku Gyo-en National Garden


Links to other Japanese Garden Sites




The Japanese Garden - from Bowdoin College, Maine. An excellent introduction to some of the great gardens of Japan. This site was extremely helpful to me in planning my own itinerary while in Japan.

The Japanese Garden Database - An exhaustive source of information about Japanese gardens around the world.

Japanese Garden Journal - The Japanese Garden Journal is a bi-monthly English-language print publication dedicated to the special world of Japanese gardens and Japanese architecture.

Meditations on the Japanese Garden - Meditations on the Japanese Garden (MOJG) is an online community about all aspects of the Japanese garden.


Cherry tree and azalea, Shinjuku-Gyoen.


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Zen Gardens of Japan Zen Temples Kyoto Nara Tokyo Kamakura