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 Pulling the Rake - A Practical Guide to Raking a Karesansui Garden  by Andrew R. Deane and Martin McKellar

If you have Japanese enabled on your browser, mouse over Japanese terms to see their kanji and definitions. The entire list is available here.

Karesansui raked sand garden at Harn Museum.

Partial view of the dry landscape garden at Cofrin Asian Art Wing, Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art.

Andrew R. Deane became interested in Japanese gardens while teaching English in Japan in the 1990's. He maintains a hybrid Japanese-Western garden in the suburbs of Tokyo, and has an online book on Japanese gardens, Japanesegardensonline.com.

Martin McKellar is a retired Ph.D. from the University of Florida International Center. He started raking the dry garden at the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art as a volunteer in August of 2012. He is currently planning his eighth trip to Japan.


A "Green" Thumb

Despite appearances, raking an expanse of gravel is not easy. It is physically demanding and it takes time. Martin McKellar is the custodian of the karesansui 枯山水,( literally “dry mountains and water”) garden at the Cofrin Asian Art Wing of the University of Florida’s Harn Museum of Art in Gainesville, Florida, and one of his duties includes raking the garden’s expanse of crushed gravel.

Although McKellar had an abiding interest in Japanese culture and had spent many years in its study, he knew virtually nothing about the care and maintenance of dry landscape gardens when he assumed the position of custodian at the Harn garden. However, he determined to learn all he could about how raking designs were conceived and brought to reality in the raked gravel itself. It was not an easy task as the available literature in English focuses on the historical and theoretical aspects of dry landscape gardening in Japan. There is little information on either the process of raking or the techniques employed. McKellar has spent the last several years visiting karesansui gardens in Tokyo and Kyoto, and speaking to Japanese gardeners who rake karesansui gardens as part of their daily gardening responsibilities. Back home in Gainesville, Florida, he continues to experiment with designs and concepts, adapting them to the unique features of the dry landscape garden at the Cofrin Asian Art Wing. He practices the techniques he has witnessed or learned directly from Japanese gardeners, honing his skills the hard way - through trial and error.

In this article - the first of two - McKellar shares that body of practical knowledge, fully aware of its imperfections and limitations, but hoping that by doing so, a more thorough conversation in English about the pragmatic elements of dry landscape gardening can begin. In the second article, McKellar will share his responses to the many theoretical questions raised in the performance of his duties as custodian of the dry landscape garden at the Harn Museum.

Rocks and islands in karesansui raked sand garden
Bird’s-eye view of the dry landscape garden at Harn showing the concrete walkway, major rocks & islands, potted plants, & lighting fixtures.

 

Rake for karesansui raked sand garden
The original wooden rake was provided by the garden designer and builder,
Kurisu International - 30 inches (76cm) wide with 12 teeth.
Teeth, Bristles and Broom-handles

When McKellar originally volunteered to oversee the dry landscape garden, he had no practical knowledge or experience, and he found himself learning on the fly. A single piece of specialist equipment was provided: a large wooden rake. Manual evidently not included!

A design had been raked into the gravel by the garden’s builders, and this seemed to invite imitation. Two components of the existing design accorded with McKellar’s expectations: broad straight lines that went from east to west across the garden, and a set of lines the width of the rake that circled each rock island. The pattern of waves or ripples drawn across a large expanse of sand or gravel in straight parallels or in gently waving parallels is known as sazanami-mon (漣紋 “ripple pattern”). The generic term for concentric ripple patterns or wavelets surrounding rocks or islands is mizu-mon (水紋 “water pattern”). In their purest form, mizu-mon resemble the concentric rings on the surface of water broken by a thrown pebble or a drop of rain. When they surround a rock, they appear like waves breaking around an island.1

However, there were two additional components that took McKellar by surprise: two sets of short fluid lines that waved across the horizontal lines, and a set of lines that bordered the cement walkway into the garden. McKellar began with the most basic of intentions and expectations. He cleaned the garden of fallen leaves and weeds by hand, then, using the rake, he went over the existing design of the entire garden to remove footprints - his own from the weeding and clearing, those of the workmen who had adjusted the irrigation or the in-ground lighting, and the occasional footprints of visitors who were unaware that they should not be walking on the gravel.

In the beginning, McKellar considered only two practical questions. How do I make lines in the gravel where the available space does not permit the full width of the rake? (He ended up using his fingers!) And, secondly, how do I rake the design so as not to leave any footprints after I’m finished? (Plan a sequence of designs, each of which conceals the footprints left while making the previous design; from within the last design, jump to the sidewalk and reach back with your rake to smooth out the final footprints.) Several months following the initial completion of the project by Kurisu International, a trusted member of staff made a follow-up visit to the garden to ensure that all was well. He approved of the raking McKellar had been doing, but as McKellar was visiting Japan at that time, there was no opportunity to receive additional feedback or training in person.

McKellar was left to his own devices, and as time passed, he began to think more deeply about design issues. Copying the original design was not as easy as it looked. McKellar believed that the concentric waves around each rock island should be graceful and fluid, not stiff and angular. He tried thinking about the act of raking in terms of Henri Matisse “drawing subtly nuanced charcoal lines on drawing paper”, but quickly abandoned this analogy as impractical. It also raised several questions about McKellar’s preconceptions. Is it productive to compare the smooth expanse of gravel to a sheet blank paper? Is the process of raking similar to the act of drawing? And are Matisse-like lines appropriate to - or effective in - a garden space? Perhaps, he concluded, he merely needed more practice making those lines?

As knowledge and experience gradually accrued, so did confidence, and McKellar found himself becoming more adventurous.There were two components of the design that he consciously changed. The ripples along the walkway were intended, he thought, to affirm the presence of the cement walkway within the garden. However, he chose to discontinue making those lines in order to allow himself more easily to imagine the “sea” (the Japanese term often used for an expanse of gravel representing water is umi 梅, or “sea”) without a walkway in its midst. The wavy currents across the straight lines were another matter. Their purpose in the overall design was not immediately apparent to him, and their execution was for the time being beyond his ability with the large rake. He photographed both sets of lines for future reference and stopped including them in the design.

metal sand rakes from Daitoku-ji Kyoto
Two metal rakes used to rake the karesansui garden at Daitoku-ji, Kyoto.

While he continued to fulfill his duties at the Harn garden, McKellar began to look to other karesansui gardens for  inspiration. But more importantly he wanted to observe the maintenance practices of their caretakers and look at the rakes being used. From his visits to various gardens and from conversations with their gardeners, McKellar acquired a burgeoning body of practical knowledge concerning the variety of rakes employed and the raking techniques for each. However, one of his earliest lessons was something of a revelation.

On a trip to Japan, McKellar visited Daitoku-ji in Kyoto where he gained special permission to photograph the rakes used by the gardeners. To his surprise, the rakes were made not of wood but of metal, and the teeth were perpendicular and narrow rather than angled outwards and V-shaped. In addition, the rakes were lighter in weight, which meant using them was less tiring. The gardener showed him two sizes, a wide rake, and one about one-quarter the width of its broader brother.

Raked sand garden at Canadian Embassy in Tokyo Japan

Professional Gardener Mitsuru Machida (left) and co-worker Toshiyuki Uchida, after raking the karesansui portion of the landscape garden at the Canadian Embassy, Tokyo. The long pivoting broomhead with short even bristles is a perfect fit for the grooves made by the wooden rake, providing the raker with more flexibility to reach and to correct channels that can’t be touched using the wooden rake.

 

 

 

All photographs by Martin McKellar unless otherwise noted.


After arranging to meet the professional gardeners who tended the contemporary karesansui garden at the Canadian Embassy in Aoyama, Tokyo, McKellar discovered a third style of rake and an additional technique.2 Their equipment included a narrow wooden rake and a broom, which they used for “tidying up” the grooves. The gardeners demonstrated not only the use of its bristles for “smoothing away” particles of gravel, but also the application of its handle to “dig out” the troughs of the waves or to redefine their crests.

Special broom for raked sand garden
This special broom-head with a pivoting handle is used
to perfect the troughs made by the rake.
Using the broom handle to complete grooves around an in-ground spotlight at the Harn.
Using the broom handle to complete grooves
around an in-ground spotlight at the Harn.

McKellar returned to Florida with a treasure trove of techniques and a firmer understanding of the use of the tools of his trade. By this time, he had worn down the wooden teeth of his own rake, so he asked a Harn Museum staff member to fashion a new rake, taking the opportunity to make a slight modification to the angle of the handle. The wear on the original rake was at the front of the teeth, whereas so far the wear on the replacement rake has been uniform across the surface of the teeth.

Raked sand garden rake teeth
McKellar’s original rake on the left and its replacement on the right. In addition to allowing the teeth to wear
more evenly, the angled handle facilitates the physical task of raking.

Subtle changes in the design of the rake have various outcomes in the field. For example, it is not only the size and shape of the teeth but also the weight of the rake itself which contributes to the depth and width of the grooves in the gravel. The gardener must also do his part by holding the rake so the teeth are almost perpendicular to the surface of the gravel, and by keeping the rake deep in the gravel as he shuffles backwards.

He must constantly check depth and angle by watching the rake-head to assure that the gravel rises to the top of the V-shaped gap between the teeth and forms a uniform height across the board. With this technique, the visual impact is greater and the gravel will not require raking as frequently. But there is a trade-off: this sort of “heavy raking” takes considerably more energy. One work-around is to use a narrower rake, and McKellar constructed one with the same teeth dimensions but with a head-board that was half the width of the original. In addition to being lighter to use in the wider areas of gravel, the smaller rake was useful in areas of the garden that were restricted or narrow. Flipped over on its head, the rake can also be used to level the gravel.

Small rake for karesansui raked sand garden
The newly-made smaller wooden rake can be used in spaces that are too narrow for the original wooden wide rake.

After constructing these two new rakes, McKellar visited the Portland Japanese Garden in Portland, Oregon, where he met gardeners using two types of rakes. The first is the  familiar wooden board design, but with two important differences. The first modification is that the teeth have flat spaces between them. This is to counteract the propensity of gravel to fall off the crests of the ripples and fill up the valleys. When these valleys are slightly wider, more gravel can accumulate without filling them completely.3

Wooden rake from Portland Japanese Garden raked sand garden
The wooden rake at the Portland Japanese Garden showing the flat spaces
between teeth. The rakehead is approximately 28 inches (72 centimeters).
Portland Japanese gardener Heike Edossa with sand rake
Gardener Heike Edossa at Portland Japanese Garden demonstrates how
to grip the rake for making designs in the gravel.

The second difference in the design of this wooden rake is the V-shaped attachment at its head which allows the raker to grab a cross-bar to manipulate the rakehead when creating detailed designs such as circles. This feature affords a significant advantage in handling and manoeuvring the rake.

Aluminum sand rake at Portland Japanese Garden
The aluminum rake used for leveling the gravel before the design is made. The rakehead is approximately 36 inches (92 centimeters).

The second rake, light-weight and crafted from metal, is often used for grooming sand-traps on golf courses.4 In the Japanese garden in Portland, it is used to level the gravel before the design is raked into it. The gardeners at the Portland Japanese Garden also use their aluminum rake to lightly “groom” the entire garden, a process that traces faint lines in the gravel. These lines serve as guides for the process of raking in the final design.5



Walking on Water

One challenge all gardeners must contend with is moving about the gravel in such a way as to leave no footprints in the final raked pattern. Indeed, the authors of “Patterns in the Sand”, a workshop handout produced by the Portland Japanese Garden, emphasize the importance of this skill: “Walking on the sand without leaving footprints is an important skill to have. We call it ‘levitating.’”6 They offer the following advice: “Distribute your weight evenly over your foot. Try not to dig in your toes creating big holes in the sand. It helps to walk slower.” However, this is easier said than done, and McKellar admits that he has yet to master the art of “walking on water”. Photographs in Gardens of Gravel and Sand by Leonard Koren show Japanese monks raking karesansui gardens while wearing either soft-soled straw sandals called wara-zouri (藁草履) or Japanese gardeners’ jika-tabi (地下足袋; literally “ground below foot bags”).7 The soft soles of both these footwear allow the feet to adapt more fully to the contours of the ripples in the gravel.

Walking on raked sand with Japanese shoes
Walking on the raked gravel while wearing cloth tabi with thin plastic soles. The footprints are barely noticeable.
Japanese tabi gardener shoes
Japanese gardeners’ jika-tabi (地下足袋) are fashioned from stout cloth and sport
a split toe and a soft rubber sole. (Photograph: Andrew R. Deane)

McKellar’s practice has been to simply avoid walking on the surface of the gravel unnecessarily. However, he recently tried an experiment. He raked a test section of the garden while wearing cloth tabi with thin plastic soles and found the resulting footprints to be virtually invisible. However, these tabi are designed to be worn with kimono, so it is doubtful whether they would hold up to regular raking of the entire garden.


From Design to Execution

In the following paragraphs, McKellar walks us through the actual process he follows in raking the dry landscape garden at the Harn Museum.

Let’s say we’ve decided on the design for the garden. How do we go about raking it? At first I started with a two-step procedure, which guaranteed satisfactory results: I removed any dead leaves and then I raked the design into the gravel. However, I now use a four-step procedure. After clearing the gravel of obvious detritus, I level it with the wide aluminum rake. Then I moisten the area to be raked with a garden hose. Lastly, I rake the design into the gravel using the appropriate sized rake. Moistening the gravel before raking it gives crisper outline to the grooves, which then last longer before needing to be refreshed. The disadvantage is that wet gravel is heavier than dry gravel.

Some karesansui include live plants. The Harn garden includes four potted camellias and one potted maple, which consistently shed dead leaves onto the surface of the garden. In addition, lightweight material, notably bamboo leaves,  is blown onto the garden from nearby garden areas. Frequently, the design in the garden remains strongly visible even though dead leaves have fallen across it. This is why surrounding vegetation is often considered when a dry landscape garden is planned. At the Harn, the maple sheds an enormous number of small leaves that blow about the garden and require a lot of work to pick up one by one. Camellias are less onerous. In addition to dead leaves, weeds sprout in the gravel and need to be removed.

First, one must decide how clean the garden should be. Perhaps one is satisfied by the removal of leaves large enough to be caught by the rake when the gravel is raked? Can smaller leaves be left on the gravel? The goal at the Harn is to remove any organic matter that falls onto the gravel that is large enough to be seen.  Much of this would pass between the teeth of the rake and therefore must be picked up by hand before the garden is raked.  I declined the offer of a leaf blower, but perhaps other gardeners have found them useful. Some areas of the garden must be cleared of leaves and other detritus weekly using a long-handled reacher, but most areas of the garden can be cleaned by walking only on the areas that will be raked that week.

Dry landscape garden at Harn Museum
A partial view of the Harn dry landscape garden on a foggy morning, facing north.

At the Harn, the lines that encircle the rock islands are raked every week even if the larger design is not. The logic behind this is that visitors tend to notice these encircling lines, so they need to have the strongest impact. By walking around each island before raking, walking along the concrete pathway, and walking around the edges of the garden, I can remove debris without walking on areas that are not scheduled to be raked that week.

I rake the gravel in the same direction each time. Partly this is dictated by logistics. The rake handle is too long to rake up against certain walls or other obstacles, and gravel tends to accumulate in front of the rake-head. This gravel is deposited inadvertently at the finish of the raking arc and, after repeated rakings, the convex accumulation becomes obvious. I need to redistribute the gravel from areas of accumulation to areas where hollows have appeared. The lightweight aluminum rake turned upside down is the ideal tool for this.

Immediately before raking the garden, I hose it down, one section at a time. Dragging the hose across the surface of the gravel will leave deep swales that will not be erased by raking. Therefore, it is important to keep the hose off the gravel. I use a multiple-pattern spray nozzle attached to a garden hose which lets me gently shower the areas that are close without buffeting the gravel. To reach farther distances without pulling the hose across the gravel, I use the jet-spray setting. Raking moist gravel results in a crisper design.

Some areas of the Harn garden, which are protected by either overhanging rock or the eaves of an adjacent building, appear dirty because rain does not reach the gravel. I clean these areas weekly by hosing them with fresh water.

The most frequent queries I receive from visitors concern how I rake the garden without leaving footprints. There are seven rock islands in the Harn garden, and each island has a circle of lines raked around it. It is virtually impossible to rake the circles around these islands first and then to rake the surrounding “sea” in straight lines. The straight lines must be put in first in such a way that they extend into the areas surrounding the islands that will bear the circular patterns. It is critical that there be small nearby areas of unraked gravel or areas outside the garden into which one can step after completing the circles around the island. These are what I call the “escape areas”. I start my circles closest to these areas, making a complete sweep around the island until I am back to the point near the escape areas. After stepping into the escape areas, I reach into the raked circles and erase any footprints or irregular lines using the end of the broom handle. I rake the areas around the islands one by one until at the last island I step onto the perimeter of the garden or onto the walkway.

After I have finished raking, it is time to sit down on one of the garden’s benches and enjoy the garden. But perfection is a vaguery, and I end up making mental notes of all the things I need to do better next time.

After two years, the range of equipment that McKellar uses to rake and maintain the Harn dry landscape garden has grown from a single large wooden rake to include the following: a wide wooden rake; a narrow wooden rake; a wide aluminum rake; a long-handled broom with a narrow head of synthetic bristles; and a long-handled aluminum reacher.

Tools for karesansui raked sand garden
Harn Museum tools: grabbing arm for debris; original wide wooden rake; narrow wooden rake; hard-bristled brush; and metal sand-trap rake.


Light Maintenance

Florida receives frequent rain, so the Harn dry landscape garden suffers considerable run-off from the rooftops of adjacent buildings. This water often contains small particulate matter that contaminates the gravel, but the situation is easily remedied when the gravel is dry by using a large kitchen colander held firmly over a wastebasket. Contaminated gravel is placed into the colander using a garden trowel until it is two-thirds full, then it is shaken vigorously until the visible particles of contamination have fallen through the colander and into the wastebasket. The process is repeated as necessary. If the gravel is wet, however, this cleaning process must be postponed. Notice the damp particulate matter adhering to the trowel in the photograph below. This substance sticks to the gravel when the gravel is wet. McKellar takes advantage of dry periods when neither the in-garden irrigation system nor the natural rainfall have wet the gravel.

colander for cleaning raked sand garden
Kitchen colander for removal of particulate contaminates.
Cleaning raked sand garden with long reach grabber
Long-handled reacher to remove leaves & debris.

The occasional dry leaves also fall on the garden in between rakings. Initially, McKellar used to step onto the gravel and remove the leaves by hand, but of course this necessitated considerable effort to erase his footprints. He discovered that fallen leaves could be easily removed using a standard long-handled garbage-grabber such as those often used to clear trash from street gutters or to retrieve dropped items at train stations.


Last Thoughts

Many visitors to the Cofrin Asian Art Wing of the Harn Museum tend to connect dry landscape gardens to Zen Buddhism, and some of them have asked McKellar whether he meditates during the raking process. “My thoughts tend to questions of survival,” he admits. “Am I dehydrated yet? Sunburned? Do I have heat stroke?” During the intense summer months, the garden broils under direct sun and it receives no wind. On one occasion, McKellar decided to wear his work clothes to the museum front desk area where he usually drinks coffee or has a snack. “Usually I change into office dress, but this time I wore my sweat-soaked raking clothes. It was docent training day and after several people saw my sorry state they quit asking me about meditation.” He sometimes feels more like a share-cropper pulling a heavy plow around a Florida field than a meditating monk! “But I make an effort to think Zen thoughts along the way. There is plenty to think about.”

And how does McKellar feel about his contribution to the dry landscape garden at the Samuel P. Harn Museum? When he asks visitors for their thoughts on the patterns he has brought to the garden, he finds that they generally do not have precise ideas or preconceived notions. It is not that visitors have no emotional response to the garden, but rather that this is an unfamiliar aesthetic for them, so they are willing to accept what they see without imposing their own opinions. In part, this is a blessing as they rarely comment on what McKellar calls the “flaws in his raking”. He recounts the following excerpt from an NHK broadcast on the Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture:9

The narrator interviewed an artisan who makes the shoes worn by the monks at the shrine. They are exquisite, completely useless in the real world, and seemingly identical. The question of monotony was raised by the narrator. Didn't the artisan feel as if he had done the same thing for decades? The craftsperson replied in the negative. His activities were not a circle - they were a spiral. He constantly moved his craftsmanship to a higher level as he strove to produce the perfect shoe. He compared this to rebuilding the Ise Grand Shrine every twenty years. He remarked that the carpenters were not merely duplicating the shrine; they were striving to make it better each time. I'm not sure if he speaks for the shrine, but his words spoke directly to me. I now see raking the garden as trying each time to do a better job. People should walk into the garden space and sense they are in a sacred space with power, shouldn't they? If I do a good job, I can elicit that response from visitors, I believe.

It is a worthy endeavor, and one in which he quite correctly takes pride. “Perhaps taking pride in the finished work is counterproductive,” he muses. “But I am proud of it. But that is another conversation.”

In a subsequent article, “Pushing the Line”, McKellar and Deane share their thoughts on the theoretical side of karesansui gardening.

__________________________________________

  • 1 Deane, Andrew R. “At a Rakish Angle”. In The Dry Landscape Garden (Japanese Gardens Online, retrieved 16 Sep 2014 from http://www.japanesegardensonline.com/The-Dry-Landscape-Garden/). Mizu-mon is also pronounced sui-mon. A variant term is simply sui 水, or “water”. Sazanami-mon is also pronounced ren-mon.
  • 2 See also Mansfield, Stephen. “Canada’s Hanging Garden of Stone.” (The Japan Times; retrieved 16 ep 2014 from http://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2011/10/30/environment/canadas-hanging-garden-of-stone-in-japan/#.VBeRJ15Kpm0).
  • 3 Personal communication from Sadafumi Uchiyama, Garden Curator, Portland Japanese Garden, May, 2014.
  • 4 Personal communication from Aaron Wiener, M.L.A., Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, Gainsville, Florida, May 2014.
  • 5 Harmon and Uchiyama (n.d.). “Patterns in the Sand”. Portland Japanese Garden Workshop Handout; p. 10.
  • 6 Harmon and Uchiyama (n.d.); p. 10.
  • 7 Koren, Leonard (2000). Gardens of Gravel and Sand. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press; pg. 10-15, 77, 78-79.
  • 8 Bedi, Manjot (3 Sep 2014). “Ise Jingu - Man, Gods and Nature.” (Retrieved from NHK World TV - Journeys in Japan on 15 Sep 2014: http://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/english/tv/journeys/archives20130828.html).
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