A Viewing Garden | Japan | Living in Mexico

A Viewing Garden

Ten days into our journey, and finally we get to visit a Japanese garden.

Gardens are where I most like to be. When we lived on our 40-acre ranch in Glen Ellen, I created more than an acre of landscaping. I built stone walls and dug terraces. I cleared a half-acre of forest to plant a vegetable garden. For more than ten years, I composted and enriched the yellow clay soil until it became crumbly black loam. I planted an orchard and two hundred feet of assorted berry plants. Scores of cactus in pots littered one of our decks. Every week I went into the mixed oak and fir forest that surrounded our house and cleared underbrush and thinned trees. I built roads and forded streams. I mowed our meadows and killed poison oak.

In contrast, our city home in San Miguel de Allende contains maybe twelve square feet of open soil. Nearly the entire surface of our 2,500 square foot lot is covered with rooms or stone courtyards. In compensation, I have filled hundreds of pots with tropical plants, flowers and cactus. My flat roof is a forest. A bedroom patio is overrun with Plumeria and Jasmine. Bougainvillea climbs our walls and palms rattle their fronds in the breeze. A spiky-trunked Ceiba tree tries to grow out of its pot. A massive Pachypodium looks like something from Mars, although it only came from Madagascar.

I love gardens.

This, the first garden we will visit in Kyoto, is private. We were very fortunate to be invited; it is not otherwise open to the public. It is named The Moon Garden.

It is of the type called a Viewing Garden; one that is intended to be appreciated while sitting quietly. (The other major type of Japanese Garden is the Strolling Garden, about which more later.) Viewing Gardens are designed so that the doorways and windows of the house frame the garden, with view lines and focal points positioned so as to compose a pleasing and restful scene.


We began our viewing of the Moon Garden by sitting silently on tatami mats and looking through windows. This garden presents a highly sculpted foreground against that rarest of assets in urban Japan, a woodland vista. The designer made use here, of borrowed scenery to serve as a setting for this space. The blooming trees in the background do not belong to the garden, yet are part of it.

Moving onto an outside deck sheltered from the rain underneath curved eaves, we came into more intimate contact with the garden.


Water, rocks and plants come together to create a balanced, harmonious environment, drawing the eye from one place to the next, always with something new to contemplate. A large rock blocks the view; an arm of the water snakes around and behind it, giving the impression of a much larger space than actually exists. You want to know: What's back there? What's hidden? This garden has secrets, and since you can't walk in it, they'll remain secrets, always intriguing.


There is nothing natural about this garden. The stones have been brought here and sited just so. The pond is artificial. The plants have been placed and pruned and forced into shapes that do not exist in nature. Yet, no place could look more natural. It depicts an idealization of nature; nature as we would like to have it. It's a benign space, free of burrs and spines and stinging insects. It's the woodland of fairy tales.


As in a fairy tale, the Moon Garden is inhabited by an old crone. This rock, we were told, is one of the most famous in Japan.


Rising from the deck and walking its length, other features appear. Nearly all gardens have a fountain with water running through a bamboo pipe into basin, but always looking like an accident of nature. No spouting dolphins or pudgy cherubs inhabit Japanese fountains. This one has a dipper, set there as if for use by a thirsty traveler. Do strangers sometimes pass this way? Who? From where do they come and where do they go?