The Kyoto Garden in London’s Holland Park is set aside for quiet and contemplation. I went through the gateway one Sunday morning and soon began to see why. As if I had turned off a motorway into a tranquil rest area, the outside noise dropped instantly away. My breathing slowed and I caught, clearly now, the gentle trill of falling water.
Designed for the 1992 Japan Festival, this is a traditional Japanese ‘stroll garden’ encouraging visitors to move quietly through the landscape, discovering new aspects as they proceed and allowing nature to ‘unscroll’ before them. The key elements are water, rocks, fish, stone ornaments, trees and flowers, all carefully placed to encourage an appreciation of natural beauty and meditation on the wider world, represented here in miniature.
I followed the arrows clockwise round the pond, several koi carp keeping silent pace as I approached the waterfall. My fellow visitors stood or padded by, talking in hushed tones. A young man sat cross-legged, headphones in and contemplating the water, moving every few minutes to catch the sun. A dad in shorts and sunglasses perched on the rocks by the water’s edge, pointing out to the toddler cradled in his arms the multi-coloured shapes gliding below. Even the wildlife here seemed open, receptive and calm.
As the path turned towards the waterfall I had to make a choice about where to place my feet. I stood still for a moment and looked at the smooth surface of the large flat stones ahead, comparing them with the more uneven jumble of smaller ones set alongside. Both paths led to a frothy pool of foam beneath the tumbling water, so this was not about where but how. I was being quietly wrong-footed. The deliberate duplication in garden design was prompting me to stand still and think about my next move.
Those large flat stones underfoot would give confidence and I could walk purposefully, looking out and ahead at the next view. But putting my feet on the smaller ones would mean glancing down, away from the garden, going more slowly and thoughtfully before reaching the water’s edge. One was not better than the other – the point was to have a deliberate moment of stillness and choice before launching into movement. How I moved and what I experienced would be different depending on my decision.
The Kyoto Garden encouraged me to be still, though not static. I had to keep moving but be thoughtful about it, senses heightened, aware of myself and what and who was around me. I needed to allow the landscape to unfold, in a quietly active way and be open to surprises. The narrow path was circular so I could go round as often as I liked seeing it differently each time. And time itself became a thread in the natural tapestry as reflections and shadows and people changed over the morning. It felt good to be in an outdoor space that respected and promoted stillness, sensory awareness and conscious movement.
My own capacity for all these things is growing. I’m learning to quieten my thoughts and reactions so that through stillness I have the choice of which path to take. In movement I’m more able to stop at any point and remain integrated and in balance. And as I become more able to stay calmly within myself my field of awareness is widening and deepening, which in turn makes movement flow more easily. The stroll garden reflected me back to myself. At the change of seasons I’ll return and be still and move through it once again.