Koto Jazz: Japanese stone Zen garden

KotoJazz 9: Islands of Japanese Gardens

When you grow up in a town like Boulder as I did, which sits at the front range of the Rocky Mountains, it’s not possible to miss out on the majestic boulders towering over the city. These “flatiron”- shaped boulders jut a thousand or more feet into the air like tectonic plates forced up to meet the sky by two converging continents. They stand tall as guards to the doorway of the Colorado Rockies.
Whether a Flatiron rock laying against the Rocky Mountains or a stone strategically placed as the Buddha in a Japanese garden, there is a spiritual element to the stones we live among. Boulder residents, Silver Wave Records and Grammy award nominees Peter Kater, Carlos Nakai, and Steve Haun were undoubtedly inspired by the cathedral rocks of Boulder. I searched for both western instrumental and Koto music influenced by stone(s) and what it symbolizes, the island, and came up with the following collection:

• Poem of Tree and Stone – by Masao Matsumoto (1956);
• The Spirit of the Island – by Taiko Legends, Traditional Melodies of Japan;
Towards the Vietnam Land (Hong Vi Dat Viet) – by Tran Quang Hai;
Wind, Rock, Sea & Flame – by Peter Kater;
Sacred Stones – by Asian Meditation Music;
The Hour – A White Stone – by Lee McDerment;
Stones, Baby Sleep Music – by New Age Music Academy;


Island Music of Hawa’ii – by Cyril Pahinui (no relation to koto, but . …) Hawaiian Ki Ho’alu Slack Key Guitar Master;
Emerald – by Wind Machine, Wind Machine album;
The Island – by Christopher Ryan, Lost: Music from the Island for Solo Piano;
Gentle Flowing Brook Over Stones with Flowing Stream – by Green Escape, Nature Sound Series;
Stone Tower Temple (Legend of Zelda) – by Monsalve – Majora’s Mask;
Sacred Stones – by Oriental Music for Relaxation, Meditation, Massage Therapy, Healing, Zen Meditation, and Yoga; and
Box of Stones – by Gavin Mikhail, Skinny Love.

Stone – The Island in Japanese Gardens:
The stone is a common element in the Japanese garden. The Way of Zen and Zen values of simplicity (kanso), naturalness (shizo), and refined elegance are similarly values expressed in the Japanese garden. Stones and rocks are as simple as they get. Normally stones are grouped by themselves or they are grouped in threes with a taller boulder standing regally behind two shorter boulders. This is believed to create balance. All three stones are generally vertical, with the taller stone in the center representing The Buddha (one who has become enlightened), and the two other stones on each side representing two Bodhisattvas (one who is “bound for enlightenment; the two stones are called sanson). They are placed next to water, a body of water or water feature, as images of water features and/or mountains.

Bodies of water are represented in the Japanese garden by a pond or lake. In the case of dry Zen rock gardens where sand and gravel represent the sea or ocean, the stones would be placed next to or in the sand/ pebble garden. The scene of ocean and sea occupying the majority of the garden space (“chisen”) originates from China, as does the garden aesthetic and spirituality of Zen Buddhism. Groups of rocks on one or more sides of the body of water in the garden may represent the seashore.

Japan is an island country surrounded by large bodies of water; the Japan Sea to the west, the North Pacific Ocean to the east, the Korean strait to the west, the South China Sea to the southwest, and the Philippine Sea to the south. Wikipedia says Japan has over 6,000 islands in total, with four main islands (Honshu, Kyushu, Hokkaido and Shikoku).

Unique to Japan:
Perhaps unique to Japanese gardens is the impact of Japan’s insularity; island mentality and sense of space. One can achieve the simplicity, elegance and Zen spirituality of a Japanese garden in a small space.

The Japanese garden itself is a symbol of longevity, as it requires long term care over many years to reach its true potential beauty. There are two types of island stones that symbolize the longevity of the crane and tortoise (often shaped like them; these symbols also originate from China). These special islands are sacred and not accessible by bridge. If one sees a bridge to an island in a Japanese garden, these are ordinary islands called nakajima.

The bonsai images of shaped evergreens in the Japanese garden symbolize happiness and longevity. Black and red pines represent positive (omatsu) and negative (mematsu) forces in the world.

“The visual entities which may appear as a design in the Western sense of forms, textures, and colors are less important than the invisible philosophical, religious, and symbolic elements,” according to garden designer and architect Dr. Koichi Kawana. The Japanese garden represents a utopia or sacred refuge from the distractions of daily life.


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