Day 38 – The cutest bamboo fence I have ever seen – Yotsumegaki (よツ目垣)

Everything in Japan has a kawaii version, I guess.

Kawaii Yotsumegaki bamboo fence in Kyoto (可愛い四ツ目垣)

Kawaii Yotsumegaki bamboo fence in Kyoto (可愛い四ツ目垣)

This is a miniature version of the popular Yotsume-gaki bamboo fence and it is used to mark a water faucet.

I have to add this to our Real Japanese garden e-Book about bamboo fences.

Day 30 – When the crowds are gone – After hours in Kodai-ji

The spring season special opening (春特別拝観) with extended hours and a beautiful light-up of the garden is ended yesterday at the last day of the official Golden Week. I experienced the garden today for the first time without visitors and was amazed by the atmosphere. Even the staff was gone while I did my last round of the day. I was tired after some days of long long working hours and all I wanted to do is sit on the wooden veranda (engawa – 縁側) of the temple, enjoy the garden and fall asleep.

I didn’t, but I took this picture:

Kaisan-do, the Hall of the Fouding Priest of the temple after hours


Kaisan-do, the Hall of the Fouding Priest of the temple after hours


Day 25 – Planting moss and the mountains of Kyoto

After a day of working in heavy rain, a colleague and I climbed up the mountain behind the temple, just above the tea houses Kasa-tei (傘亭) and Shigure-tei (時雨亭). Kasa means umbrella and shigure means drizzle or autumn rain and is written with the kanji for “time” and “rain”. Very poetic, I find. Both tea houses were designed buy Sen-no-Rikyu, Japan’s most famous tea master.

We had a great view from the mountain, which is unfortunately closed for visitors. Some clouds still hang in the valleys of the distant Northern Mountains. My colleague explained that this is how we should plant moss – like soft mountain ranges, with valleys and hills, reaching out and retreating here and there. The mountains are our teachers.

The Kitayama mountains in Kyoto

The Kitayama mountains in Kyoto

Kaki-Shibu – 柿渋

I love Kyoto because it is the center for traditional craftsmanship in Japan. Over centuries, emperors, shoguns, religious and political leaders and tradesmen have lived here in beautiful houses and gardens, have held sophisticated parties and indulged in lavish banquets. They have invested in the beauty of Japan – sophisticated craftsmanship, a sense for balance and details, refined cuisine. And this tradition continues until today.

We stopped on our way to the temple at Kakishibu, a shop in Kyoto which sells mainly one thing: The liquid essence of dried and fermented unripe kaki fruits. It is used to dye clothes, wood and protect them against insects and water damage (to some degree). This essence is sold throughout the country, specialist garden shops as well as DIY and hardware stores. It is quite pricey. This small and unsuspicious shop is where they make the essence and run their business:

We bought about 1.5 liters which we filled in a used pet bottle. As soon as the pet bottle was in the car, it started smelling really foul – like rancid butter. You can find more information about Kakishibu in English from this seller’s site in the US.

Kaki (柿) means persimmon, an orange fruit that is harvested from autumn to early winter. The kaki used for kakishibu is Shibu-Kaki. Shibu (渋) refers to the astringent and bitter taste of the fruit. It is furthermore used to describe a visually austere, somber, subdued, subtle, quiet or unobstrusive elegance, an understated beauty.

When oyakata asked me what gardens I like I replied with Obai-in (Daitoku-ji) and Funda-in (Tofuku-ji). To both he replied: Shibui! I have never really thought about it, but in the following days out in Kyoto I realized that I do like shibui things way more than hanayaka (華やか – showy, flowery, bright) things. For example, this small hut in Kozan-ji near Kyoto:


Jizo-in in the Arashiyama mountains in Kyoto:

Jizou-in - Sub3 - Logo


And this wooden cedar veneer in Shake-machi near the Kamigamo shrine:

Kyoto Tag 1 - 1 Shake-machi Streets 3 (1)

Book review – A Guide to The Gardens of Kyoto

Guide to the gardens of Kyoto

A Japanese garden guide by Marc Treib and Ron Herman
Must-Have-Level: 6/7, I wouldn’t want to miss it on my desk or when out exploring.

Audience: First-time visitors to Kyoto (if they love gardens and explore on their own), students of Japanese garden culture and seasoned Japanese garden veterans.

Character: “Serious Japanese garden book” – no dreamy photographs or romantic descriptions to be found here. It’s a reference book, a guide book and great introduction to the history of the garden culture in Kyoto.

What I like about it: Its small size allows me to take it along, so I am able to read ABOUT the garden when I am IN the garden. The thing is: If I read about the garden before my visit I forget 90% of the information, because I have a hard time visualizing the gardens; if I read about it afterwards, I realized I missed half of the details and context.

Links: (free browsing on Google books), (Amazon affiliate), (Amazon non-affiliate)

Description: A Guide to the Gardens of Kyoto introduces 50-something gardens in Japan’s ancient capital Kyoto. The text for each garden is short and very precise, conveying the feeling of the garden as well as the facts and some background knowledge. The average garden gets a description of one or two pages, and a black-and-white photograph. Some more important gardens like Saiho-ji and Katsura-Rikyu get four to five pages. In addition to the description of the garden, each chapter features the time period it was built in, with remarks to major restorations, and in the case of a temple, the branch of Buddhism to which it belongs. The address, opening times are featured as well, and whether a permission is needed to visit the garden or take pictures in the garden.

I tremendously enjoyed reading the 50-page long introduction to the cultural context of Japanese gardens, out of which 20 pages are devoted to the history of the Kyoto area. I also like the suggested reading list – a fountain of books to add to my to-read list.

The book was written by Marc Treib, a (now retired) professor of Architecture of UC Berkeley and Ron Herman, a landscape architect in the San Francisco bay area, who has spent many years researching Japanese gardens. This is the second edition from 2003, the first edition was published in 1979.

Links: (free browsing on Google books), (Amazon affiliate), (Amazon non-affiliate)

Sandboxing with polymeric sand

Polymeric sand - the setup

So I ordered this table top sand box – in order to better understand the spatial dimensions of Japanese gardens. I do not want to copy single Japanese garden in minute detail, but rather understand how the proportions and dimensions of the design work. I also use them to better understand the levels of an existing garden or a garden I design for my clients at Dendron Exterior Design.

I yet have to start to really build a garden, but I thought I’d take a few pictures of the set and the tools I use. I hope to pick up some bigger gravel stones on my next trip to the beach to use as Japanese garden stones.

My sand-boxing set

Kinetic Polymeric Sand for Modelling a Japanese Garden (2)012814_0305_Alittlebito2.jpg

Sand, sandbox and tools. Gravel in different colors and grain size. A wooden knife, shaped like a butter knife that came with the box. So did the sand form. A wooden Miso spoon. A spatula, most useful for cutting straight and clean lines. 2 scrapers from the art supply store that I intended to use for gravel patterns, but that doesn’t work as I thought it would.

Using the wooden miso-spoon to get the sand surface as smooth and level as possible

Since the sand sticks to itself, it is easy to create slopes and valleys. It also cuts clean and nicely, which would be impossible to achieve with actual sand.

Not afraid to mix with small gravel. Imagine the mess had I used play-doh!

Easy clean-up & storage!

Available in the US from (my affiliate link:, non-affiliate link: and directly from brookstone ( The only similar product I found in the UK is this: For Japan, have a look here:

Why polymeric sand?

I never ordered one of those table top Zen gardens, because I was afraid of the mess they’d make. This sand (kinetic or polymeric sand) sticks to itself but not to your hands – like cookie dough. It is 98% sand and 2% polymers. Non-toxic. Smells funny, though, and washing hands after handling it is advised.

Just in case you’re wondering: Kinetic or polymeric sand is different from moon sand – here is a video that shows the difference:

Other options:

Originally, I thought about buying Lego bricks to build gravel gardens, but unless I would use lots of the tiny flat grey 1×1 squares, the scale would be too big to make sense. I also thought about play-doh, too, but I am not too fond of colorful dirt beneath my fingernails. Also, I was worried it might look to childish.

Working intuitively:

I was looking for an intuitive tool to work with – model building requires too much preparation for my taste. And the kinetic qualities of this kind of sand are so fascinating, it is hard to put it down.

Keep toying around:

I will keep you posted about future gardens I make.

Do you build miniature gardens yourself? What tools & material do you use?