Perception psychology

Visual structure of a Japanese Zen garden

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  • A Correction to this article was published on 16 January 2003

The mysterious appeal of a simple and ancient composition of rocks is unveiled.


The dry landscape garden at Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto, Japan, a UNESCO world heritage site, intrigues hundreds of thousands of visitors every year with its abstract, sparse and seemingly random composition of rocks and moss on an otherwise empty rectangle of raked gravel1. Here we apply a model of shape analysis in early visual processing2,3 to show that the 'empty' space of the garden is implicitly structured and critically aligned with the temple's architecture. We propose that this invisible design creates the visual appeal of the garden and was probably intended as an inherent feature of the composition.

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Figure 1
Figure 2: Medial-axis transformation of the layout of the Zen garden, showing the rock clusters (top) and building plan (ad 1681) of the temple (outlined in white).


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Correspondence to Michael J. Lyons.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Van Tonder, G., Lyons, M. & Ejima, Y. Visual structure of a Japanese Zen garden. Nature 419, 359–360 (2002) doi:10.1038/419359a

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