Moss Gardens In Kyoto

In Kyoto, there are many moss gardens to choose from, most hidden behind aged wooden doors, but there is this one that is very special to me in how it guides me into being. To gain access, you would have first entered a traditional Japanese paper shop to buy a postcard, weeks before even stepping onto the southbound Shinkansen high-speed train which will bring you there. On the postcard, you indicate your available times to visit, a month or two in advance, and include your return address. Hopefully, you receive an answer and that one of your proposed times has been accepted. Only then would you witness the mountainous coastal landscape rushing by outside the spaceship-like train window, savouring the anticipation, imagining what awaits you. This process is conscious and ritualistic, entering into a world in-between everyday things. I almost always experience this waiting for my approval as slightly threatening. But at the same time, I feel held by the traditional ways. This invitation to be safe enough to be brave echoes my research at this book’s core.

Japanese gardens and tea houses take up a lot of space in my head and time in my life when travelling. My long-term plan is to build and maintain one with my own two hands. I recently listened to a lecture on spatial concepts in traditional Japanese architecture, and one thing that stuck with me was the process of gradual invitation into a garden. Or into a temple, or tea house for that sake. The entrance to a traditional Japanese house contains several thresholds to cross. The first one may be a red wooden Torii gate, a symbol for stepping into another realm, followed by an entry path into a garden leading up to a house. The house has a Genkan, an above-ground entry area for welcoming guests that often includes a porch. Outdoor shoes are exchanged for slippers as another transition. Inside there are several rooms, each room separated by sliding Shoji doors. The doors are opened and closed as the guests are invited further into the building. Each door marks another threshold and another ritual of moving into an evermore personal realm. Every step exists to invite the visitor along a mysterious path, each step shrouding the next, by the turn of a corridor, a sliding door, or thoughtfully placed red oak tree. In Japanese, this process could be described as Yugen. A vague and poetic term for a profound, eerie sense of the beauty of the universe and the sad beauty of human suffering. I think yugen aims to bring attention to the often overlooked subtleties of life, and to those aspects we usually rush by, just like the many moss gardens in Kyoto do.

When Saying No Is Not An Option

Writing this, I remember my years working for the Docomo telecommunication operator in Japan and how impossible it was to say no. In the morning meetings, my manager would tell me, “I am writing down in my report that you did this today.”

“But it’s first thing in the morning and I haven’t done anything yet and I don’t know if I will able to to!” my Scandinavian mind would complain. Anyhow, it was up to me to do what the manager said I would do. This might seem harsh and stupid, but the flip side is that my manager would take the blame if I failed. In this way she would slowly invite me into more responsibility, similarly to how the tea garden stepwise invites the visitor into a meditative space. This process is crucial in a culture where it’s almost impossible to say no. And there are several layers to it. At first glance, it may seem uncomfortable for the person receiving the no. When they do something wrong, in Japanese culture, they will lose face and be embarrassed. But it is equally uncomfortable to say the no, as the speaker, or the naysayer, must show their discontent and break the illusion that everything is okay. The best way is to see it as a joint failure of proceeding through the formal process of invitation. This behaviour is very defining of Japan, but we traditionally have the same tendencies in Sweden to avoid being rude and breaking social codes. Maybe that is why I find it so comfortable in Japan as an introverted Swede. Still, in Japan as in Sweden, I can help but wish to disrupt the game by pointing out that much of this awkwardness can be alleviated by just getting better at asking for what you want and need.

And here our story makes its first connection to my sadomasochistic play, because I believe my rope bondage is similarly a form of invitation where the word ‘no’ is seldom heard. It has to be there, as a defined idea, as a handbrake when everything else fails. But preferably it is never used. The Japanese moss gardens achieve something similar through gradual immersion into their architecture which slows the guests down. That is why paths are built in different-sized stones, often slippery from the moisture of moss to demand greater focus onto not falling. Entering the garden should be a mystery, yet peaceful and tranquil, just like a rope bondage session. The surroundings continually change – shaped trees, moss-covered rocks, and moving water mixed with ageing wooden constructions and carved stones. The garden conceals this process from the visitor and it’s also in service to the visitor, inviting them to let go of the doing and just be. This is Yugen.

Sadomasochism Aims To Remain In The Mystery

Sadomasochistic play is similar as it often involves a gradual increase in intensity as the ropes become more challenging and positions expose more vulnerability. It’s a gradual process that tests if both individuals are ready for the responsibility involved. Just like my manager at Docomo. There are always unexpected layers of meaning as well as multi-pathed invitations behind every corner. Sure, one can always say no, but the goal is to reach a point where saying ‘no’ is not even desired.

A Japanese expression called Omakase could translate into ‘chef’s choice’ when ordering sushi. The guest entrusts the chef to provide a mystery meal and in doing so can let go of a need to control and surrender to the preparation of food. It all comes down to trust, be it in a tea garden, during sadomasochistic play or in a sushi bar. But remember, similarly to the gradual invitation into a garden, no sushi chef will force-feed you your sushi. My manager and restaurant owner would lose face and want to kill themselves if I had to say no. 

Losing the face and killing the self are expressions of trust and responsibility, and a key to an invitation where no is not an option. As food for thought, consider this: in a sadomasochistic play, who invites who? On the surface, it may look like the dominant, the rope master (or the bakushi, in fancy Japanese) is inviting the submissive into their realm of expertise. But I believe it is equally much an invitation into the vulnerability and deviant fantasies of the submissive, gradually asking the dominant if they are ready for that responsibility.