A Japanese rock garden (known as Karesansui in Japanese) has got the name of Zen garden in the west. The American writer Loraine Kuck in her book 100 Gardens of Kyoto gave this name to it. The name has since been adapted into the Japanese language as Zen niwa.
Basically a Zen garden is an enclosed shallow sandbox that contains sand, gravel, rocks, and occasionally grass or other natural elements.
Rock and sand are the main elements of karesansui. The sea is not symbolized by water but rather by sand raked in patterns that suggest rippling water.
Plants do not have an important role in Japanese gardens. They are sometimes lacking or even non existent in many karesansui gardens.
Most often you have to view Karesansui gardens from a single, seated perspective, but this is not always the case. The rocks that are used are often linked with and named after many famous Chinese mountains.
Generally a Zen garden’s layout is explained in the following ways.
Gravel represents ocean and the rocks represent the islands of Japan. Rocks represent a mother tiger with her cubs, swimming to a dragon. Rocks form part of the kanji for heart or mind