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Raikyuji Temple: a garden designed for the aesthetes
Many features of Raikyuji Temple deserve extensive comments but its most remarkable element is certainly its garden.
When he was put in charge of administrating the Bitchu region in 1604, Kobori Enshu chose to make of Raikyuji Temple his personal residence and his command post. That is one reason why he is assumed to be the designer of this garden, which at any rate displays obvious similarities with sceneries Enshu has crafted elsewhere in Japan.
This garden shows how the revival of classical culture inspired artists in the 17th century. In this time of peace, the warrior cast could focus on rediscovering Chinese and indigenous classics, collecting manuscripts, practice poetry, calligraphy, and other arts etc. Also, with Zen becoming the most influential Buddhist sect of Japan, religious topics in art gradually shifted from liturgical scenes to depictions of nature itself. This fashion culminated with the emergence of the demure stone gardens in the 15th century. Not only did Enshu excel in landscape design, but he was also a tea-ceremony master; two forms of art that thrived under the Pax Tokugawa.
The garden most remarkable feature is the “crane island”, a one-and-a-half-meter stone raised amidst other rocks and surrounded by azalea shrubs, which shape changes according to where you look at it from.
If you sit in the drawing room, the three central stones call to mind the body and wings of a crane, while two other stones at the back depict the head and the shell of a turtle, two recurring animals of the Japanese iconography that represent figures of longevity.
Zoom out a little and you can make out from the white gravel and the sloping-down azalea shrubs a coast landscape and recognize in the “crane island” the legendary Mount Horai Island, thought to be host to immortals, according to old Chinese believes. Even though Enshu means to evoke a sea here, not a drop of water is used in this typical karesansui stone garden.
When examined from the priest’s chamber, the circular form that the crane island shapes is said to represent Mount Sumeru, called Shumisen in Japanese, a sacred place of the Indian cosmology supposed to be at the center of the universe in Buddhism.