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A Guide to the Gardens of Kyoto    by Marc Treib & Ron Herman order for
Guide to the Gardens of Kyoto
by Marc Treib
Order:  USA  Can
Kodansha International, 2004 (2003)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I wish that I'd had this informative guide when I visited Kyoto years ago. The city's temple gardens have lingered in my memory, so that I appreciated the new insights provided by A Guide to the Gardens of Kyoto. Its authors know their subject - they teach Japanese architecture and gardens at the University of California, Berkeley. The guide includes two excellent essays outlining the history of Japanese gardens, and Kyoto's development as a city. These are separated by color photos of chronologically ordered gardens, and followed by an introduction to 51 'important and/or accessible' Kyoto gardens, photographed in black and white. At the back are suggested itineraries and times of year to visit, plus glossaries of terms and of plants.

The authors' introduction speaks of the Western tourist's 'distancing from understanding' of the modern Japanese metropolis in contrast to our sympathy with the 'quiet and repose' of the country's historic gardens. They also warn that, though it is easy to appreciate the gardens' instant appeal, the 'intentions behind them are not easily deciphered', including elements that are both functional and symbolic. The first essay introduces the different historical periods of garden design. We learn about the role of the garden in the life of the aristocracy, about Zen gardens and tea ceremonies, concepts of 'hide and reveal', 'borrowed scenery' and 'mitate ... a way of viewing in a new light'. We see how designers controlled a visitor's feelings via their movement through a garden. A garden became an 'idealized landscape' aimed at stimulating both body and mind.

The 14 color photos entice the eye, and made me want to return for a visit to each and every garden portrayed, in different seasons. The 51 individual gardens are grouped into various districts of Kyoto, with maps. Advice is included on opening hours and how to get permission to visit, when needed. I visited (and puzzled over) the famed dry Zen garden of Ryoan-ji ('Dragon Peace Temple') in 1987, and a print is hung nearby as I type, reminding me of its austere beauty. After reading about others, I would love to go back to Kyoto to see the celebrated gardens of Daisen-in (including a special rock that once belonged to shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa); Sento Gosho (with a lovely simulated coastline and cobblestone beach); Kinkaku-ji, its Golden Pavilion and pond garden; the Moss Temple of Saiho-ji; the intimate jewel garden of Shisen-do; and the small but lovely Renge-ji.

If you're planning a trip to Japan, then you really should visit Kyoto. And if you spend time in the imperial city, I highly recommend that you visit its gardens, and leave yourself enough time for a serene contemplation of their orchestrated natural beauty.

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