The Use of Light in a Dry Landscape Garden

Sometimes I stumble upon phrases in texts about Japanese gardens.

These phrases are actually common knowledge in the Japanese garden scene, yet, although it is widely spread and you can read about it in every book (or so it seems), in this one situation it always hits me as if I have never heard of it before.

Gravel area in front of a temple hall
Gravel area in front of a temple hall

This time it was a very short paragraph about a gravel area in front of a hōjō building in a Japanese temple. “The gravel area isn’t only to meditate, it also reflects the moonlight to brighten the rooms at night.”

Time to investigate!
I became curious and wanted to learn more. A fast search through the internet wasn’t very productive. Everything I was able to find was touristic articles about the Silver Pavilion in Kyoto. Which has its reason, but more about that later..

I also asked some people I know who are deeper into the topic than I. I got some hints and took my books out of the shelves…

Unfortunately, I found something about the use of light in one book alone (Japanese Gardens: Symbolism and Design). Other books mentioned it, however, without any further explanation.

But there must be more behind this topic!
So I continued my search…

There are many questions coming up in one’s mind when thinking about this topic more deeply:

•  Why is it only a statement without any further information?
•  Is it true for every gravel garden next to a hall?
•  In which angle towards the hall has the garden been built to get the best results in reflecting the moonlight to brighten the rooms?
•  Is it worth the efforts when we take into consideration that a lot of nights are cloudy and the moonlight isn’t strong before and after the new moon?

And there are even more questions popping up…

Ginkaku-ji temple in Kyoto
Ginkaku-ji temple in Kyoto

We know that the Silver Pavilion (Jisho-ji) in Kyoto features the Moon Viewing Platform (Kogetsudai) and the Silver Sand Sea (Ginshadan). It is the most prominent example and the first one mentioned as far as I know.
The Sea is reflecting the light of the moon beautifully but it also is said that the idea of the Silver Sand Sea reflecting the light is coming from the Edo period (1603-1868).

Since many dry landscape gardens have their origin in the previous time period (starting in the 14th Century), it seems likely that not all gardens were designed with a gravel area to reflect the moonlight in mind.

Actually, I didn‘t find more than a few other gardens where the (moon)light is mentioned.

One is the Manpuku-ji temple in Uji – Kyoto.
Here we have an elevated area with gravel in front of a hall and the moonlight should brighten the hall. A stone is placed in the gravel area where a person, who did something wrong, could repent under the moon.

Nanzen-ji temple in Kyoto
Nanzen-ji temple in Kyoto

Another garden where light is important is the Nanzen-ji temple in Kyoto. The main temple’s hōjō garden was built by Kobori Enshu in a way that the sunlight should be reflected to brighten the room.

Both gravel areas were built during the Edo period.

And then there are the moon-viewing platforms like the one of Katsura Rikyu, but these have nothing to do with reflecting the light but only with viewing the moon in beautiful (autumn) nights.

While we find in books and on the internet that one aspect of the gravel areas in front of buildings in Japanese gardens is to direct light into the rooms, after my research I ask myself if this is really a major aspect?

Wouldn‘t we find more about it then? More gardens as an example, more about the history, or how to implement the effect..

But there seems nothing else behind.

So my personal conclusion on this matter is that is not impossible that the gravel areas were built to reflect the light and direct it into the rooms of the temple buildings.
Also, the direction of light inside buildings was a common way to brighten darker areas of a house. This was done by placing golden or silver-coated statues or by painting sliding doors in gold or silver (read more about it in „A praise of shadows“).

gravel area reflecting moonlight in a temple
How moonlight can be directed into a temple hall

We do know from the Nanzen-ji that it was built to reflect the sunlight. So why not also the moonlight?
However, I don‘t think that it was a major reason to build the gravel areas in front of temple halls.
The gravel can have the effect that the reflected sunlight can blind the people sitting around it and the clear night-skies are limited every year that it wouldn’t be of great use if build for this effect alone.

A nice side effect it can be, but not of significant importance.

Here are some sources I used:

Japanese Gardens: Symbolism and Design by S. Goto & T. Naka
Sakuteiki edited & translated by J. Takei & M.P. Keane
Japanese Gardens by G. Nitschke
日本庭園のみかた by K. Miyamoto
(Information on reflecting light was found in the first of the mentioned books.)

Many thanks are going out to the Facebook Group Real Japanese Garden and its elements and Edzard Teuber (who is driving me crazy but asking very good questions 😉 )

The following links are tied to the Amazon Associates program.

Japanese Gardens: Symbolism and Design

Author: Seiko Goto, Takahiro Naka
Price: $47.61
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Japanese Gardens

Author: Gunter Nitschke
Price: New from $49
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Author: Jiro Takei & Marc Peter Keane
Price: $13.39
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Author: Kenji Miyamoto
Price: $49.40
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One thought on “The Use of Light in a Dry Landscape Garden

  1. I wonder also whether the ‘reflection of the moon’ thing may have associations with the Zen phrases about the moon as a symbol of enlightenment e.g. ‘the reflection of the moon is not the moon itself’ i.e. the Buddhist teachings which describe enlightenment are not enlightenment itself (sometimes ‘the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself’ – which I guess could also be the stones in a gravel garden?).

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