By Lenny Karpman
Zen—serene, contemplative, a discipline of meditation associated with painting, rock gardens, and flower arranging—seems an odd ingredient in the martial psyche of the Japanese Samurai.
—Winston King, Zen and the Way of the Sword


I didn’t know why I was so drawn to Chiran. There had been no rave reviews, no stars, no “Best of” listings. The gardens I had visited in central and southern Japan, in Kyoto, Nara, Kumamoto, and Kagoshima were world famous, visited by throngs, and splendidly photographed in dozens of books. The Samurai Gardens of Chiran were poorly represented in a paragraph in one guidebook and a few pages in one German language anthology. Still I was drawn.

Chiran is a small town in southern Japan, twenty miles down the Satsuma peninsula from Kagoshima. The outer perimeter is a paved shallow moat so narrow that an intruder could bridge it with a single long stride. The enclave of Samurai warrior homes within the perimeter served as a defense from unwanted intrusions, centuries ago. Between the curb and the sidewalk runs a three-foot wide clear stream that stretches as far as the eye can see in either direction. It is neither fenced nor covered. It teems with one- to three-pound koi, flashing gold, silver, yellow, red, and black mosaics as they swim against the current. Had this moat existed centuries ago, it probably would have caused even the most malevolent intruders to pause in admiration.

Beyond the koi and sidewalks I found narrow paved lanes bordered on both sides by moss and lichen-covered rock walls. Atop the hoary walls, the undulating manicured hedges cloistered homes and gardens. The lanes were intentionally narrow and high walled to confuse would-be invaders of the local castle, which has long since disappeared. The homes were given to Samurai warriors. Their descendants still inhabit many of them. The homes are closed, but seven of their gardens are open to the public. They reside along a single narrow street named “Samurai Lane.”

A young man in a suit and tie emerged from the gate of one of the houses and headed past. I exchanged nods and smiles, and caught myself scrutinizing his gait, his frame, his manner, for any trace of Samurai ancestry, as I imagined it.

The force that directed me here was making itself clearer. I was being drawn into a journey backwards in time. I had a burning desire to understand how fierce warriors could be artists, gentlemen, and practitioners of Zen meditation. I wanted to see and feel and smell their gardens for all they were and all they were not.

I tried to make the water flow where I thought it should, and force the dirt to stay where I thought it ought to be. But it didn’t work. Water’s water, dirt’s dirt. I can’t change their nature.
—Eiji Yoshikawa, Musashi

In the seventeen forties, the Shimazu clan ruler of Kagoshima rewarded the Lord of Chiran and his entourage of Samurai with trips to Edo (Tokyo) and stopovers in Kyoto on the way home. They were so enraptured by the gardens that they hired Kyoto gardeners to return with them and build small gardens between their modest homes and the hedges atop the walls of Samurai Lane.

The gardens seemed a little cluttered to me, as were the gardens that the Zen priests had seen on their pilgrimages to China. They were small. Only one had a pond. Another had neither rocks nor stone lanterns. The others balanced sand, sculpted plants, clusters of rocks, stone lanterns, pagodas, and framed views of the surrounding hills. In typical Chiran gardens, an entire landscape could be depicted in a rectangular plot no more than 40 feet long and 20 feet wide.

From the sand adjacent to the house, I gazed upon miniaturized symbolic coastlines sculpted from small shrubs, dwarfed trees, and stone lanterns. Behind many of them were clusters of rock pinnacles, part way up man made hills. On one such hill, a small stone path wound its way up to a four-foot pagoda. For a moment, I thought I saw tiny saffron cloaked monks climbing the path. The flash of color and motion was from a butterfly. Along the top of the hill, bolder, larger shaped trees and bushes simulated a nearby mountain range. The staccato song of a gray wagtail pierced the silence. The proud bird perched on a high branch, yellow breast inflated under its gray morning coat. Beyond it, a real mountain range could be seen in the distance.

Although Buddhism came to Japan in the sixth century, Zen Buddhism didn’t arrive until the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The way of the Samurai, bushido, began in the early fourteenth century. The warrior class embraced the new brand of religion, of meditation and philosophical puzzles, of austerity and discipline, and of the search for truth. They added martial arts, chivalry, and morality as a way of life. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, civil wars were nearly nonstop, and the status of the Samurai and Zen Buddhism flourished side by side. Between battles, many Samurai mastered calligraphy and ink landscape painting.

Zen brought new concepts to gardens, as well. Large pond gardens were replaced by smaller dry gardens, karesansui, containing sand to symbolize oceans or rivers; shaped bushes, karikomi, to symbolize hills or tea plantations in the foreground and mountains in the background; clusters of pointed rocks, ishigumi; and dry waterfalls and stream beds. Zen focused more on nature and less on human made statues of Buddha, as the older forms of the religion had.

When peace came to Japan in the Edo period, 1603 to 1868, the warrior class turned its passions toward teahouses and the disciplined ritual of tea ceremonies. The harmonious mixture of meditation, ritual, structure, and nature unified the inner and outer worlds of the Samurai. In Chiran, the site of such coincident elements remained intact.

These gardens were minuscule compared to the ones I had seen before Chiran. They were not sumptuous places for recreation or strolling nobility. They were rather reflections of the complexity of a vanished class of men who had made peace with the inevitability of imminent death. They learned to wield a long and a short sword simultaneously like no others in history. They were as adept with a quill or a brush. They spent hours in motionless meditation in their simple homes, looking into their small gardens.

At the far end of town there is a park and small museum in memory of Kamikaze pilots who accepted death and duty in World War II. Coincidence or Samurai epilogue?

Be absolute for death: either death or life Shall thereby be the sweeter.
William Shakespeare, Macbeth

I sat on the edge of a deck attached to one of the Samurai garden houses. My legs began to fold under me as though they were familiar with the routine. I was awestruck by my physical comfort and sense of belonging in this place. The Zen love of the land permeated both the design of the garden in front of me and the mind and spirit of the Samurai who lived in the house behind me, two and a half centuries ago.

Effortlessly, I drifted back in time. It seemed as if a Samurai were sitting cross-legged next to me. Internally, I felt unexpected tranquility and a strange mix of strength and humility. Outwardly I trembled slightly. I wanted to hear his voice, but dared not violate his meditative silence. Rather, I too turned toward the garden and inward, and borrowed his eyes. The sharp outer edges of the images softened. I relaxed all my muscles and inhaled and exhaled slowly and deeply as he and I looked across the silver gray sand that swept us to the far shore, only a few feet away. Our gaze ascended the hills and mountains sculpted from bushes and rocks. The garden carried us beyond its obscured boundaries past the trees on the next hillside to and beyond the mountainous horizon, into the endlessness of the contemplative cosmos.

My wife found me sitting motionless in the rain.

“Are you OK honey?”

Softly, “Yes.”

Lenny Karpman is a writer who divides his time between the San Francisco Bay Area and Costa Rica.