Rocks in My Head

Sometimes to relax, I look at photographs of karesansui (‘Zen’ gardens) or watch videos of them being maintained. A few days ago I recalled that, when younger, I found them quite boring and started to ponder whether I have actively learnt to like them or would always have developed into it.

Three irregular rocks surrounded by gravel that has been raked into swirling patterns
A karesansui garden in Ryugen-in sub-temple of Daitoku-ji, Kyoto.
©KunihikoCC BY-NC

As frequent readers will know, I have a mild fondness for Japanese artforms that has grown from (rather basic) attempts at haiku while first playing Legend of the Five Rings many years ago. Over those years, I’ve learnt the symbolism of Japanese art meaning that—amongst other things—I know what some of the patterns raked into the gravel in karesansui traditionally represent. Knowing this, I can ‘see’ the garden as a message rather than some rocks embedded in raked gravel.

This growth of appreciation following knowledge initially struck me as almost a perfect example of an acquired taste. However, that triggered a memory of another story of acquired tastes. When the first Japanese restaurants opened in the United Kingdom they didn’t do very well, not because the quality wasn’t high, but because the taste profile of Japanese food includes a high number of flavours that weren’t present in other cuisines that British people usually ate; the food tasted ‘wrong’. But British people who tried it several times started to enjoy it. When I was first told this story, it was as a story about how we can acquire a taste for things. Now, with Japanese cuisine a common thing in the United Kingdom because British people have grown up eating it, I wonder if it is actually about how the taste has always been there rather than being learnt.

Do I enjoy Japanese art because I have learnt the symbols or is learning the symbols a convenient logical explanation for why I have come to enjoy Japanese art? Either way, karesansui relax me.

I have learnt one thing for definite though: as Yo-sensei teaches, if you have a cat, put a cover over your karesansui because karesansui are very pleasant for cats but not so pleasant for humans after.

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