In the historic old capital of Kyoto there are well over 5,000 temples, shrines, castles, museums, gardens and other sites that attract some ten million visitors each year. 

From all of these sites,  17 are UNESCO World Heritage sites, the largest number of World Heritage Sites in any city in the world. 

The 17 are designated as World Heritage Sites primarily because of some special feature; a special structure or group of structures, a special garden or some aspect of the garden, not necessarily because they are the most beautiful, although each is beautiful. 

However, many of the other places are quite beautiful as well, but since they’re not designated as World Heritages Sites I’ll describe them as “just ordinary sites.”

One such ordinary site is Shisen-do, a garden designed and constructed by a man named Jozan Ishikawa who lived during the very early years of the Edo Period (1600 – 1867) when Japan was ruled by a series of shoguns from the powerful Tokugawa clan. Jozan’s outspoken opposition to this feudal system of government caused him to be driven from the eastern capital of Edo, now Tokyo, and he eventually found is way to Kyoto where he studied the tea ceremony, the arts, philosophy and garden design after which time he designed and constructed the garden he called Shisen-do. The small rustic gate and few stepping stones at the entrance give no hint of the beauty of the garden beyond the gate. 

There’s a delicate balance between the actual garden and the tree-covered hillside just beyond the garden which lends a degree of beauty and serenity to the garden. Raked sand, a small pond backed by a bamboo fence, well trimmed azalea, pine and Japanese maple trees provide a beautiful view from the veranda of Jozan’s home. 

Although the name of the garden is Shisen-do it’s often called the hermit’s garden because after the garden was completed Jozan lived out his life in near seclusion and came to be known as “the hermit.”

The garden is beautiful in any season, but particularly so in the spring when the dozens of azaleas shrubs are in bloom. We visited Shisen-do in the spring, but beyond the peak of the azalea blooms, none-the-less the garden was still beautiful.  It may be just an ordinary garden but for many it’s an exquisite ordinary garden.

Larry Jones is a member of the Stillwater Sister Cities Council.

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