While cloister and Islamic gardens were being built in Europe in the middle ages, Zen priests were creating dry rock gardens or kare sansui in East Asia. Designed to facilitate Buddhist meditation, these metaphorical, highly edited and compressed landscape gardens used raked sand or gravel to represent churning water and large rocks as islands and mountains.
Kare sansui gardens are meant to be viewed from a single bench. Seated, one could truly pause and reflect. This type of garden-making became popular when the nobility and military upper class incorporated its style into their own gardens.
I was really struck by the dry landscape garden at San Diego's Friendship Garden at Balbao Park pictured above. It consists of 7 large rocks, imported from Japan, set in a sea of raked gravel. The garden is well placed next to an exhibit house with a viewing bench.
In Priscilla Lister’s article “Park’s Japanese Friendship Garden Grows Tranquility,” she explains the somber back story behind this garden, which began as a tea house and garden:
“…the original Japanese tea house in Balboa Park … was built for the Panama-California Exposition in 1915… [when] the city couldn’t maintain the operation after the exposition, a Japanese couple, Hachisaku and Osamu Asakawa, managed it until 1941. When the U.S. entered World War II that year, the Asakawas, along with other Japanese-Americans were interned during the war... Left to deteriorate, the teahouse was finally razed in 1955…“
It wasn’t until 1990 that the Japanese garden was re-established in Balbao Park.
Today 100,000 people visit this 2-acre garden each year. It is so popular that an additional 9 acre expansion is set to open in 2015. A must-see during any visit to San Diego.