A little while ago, the NASA Perseverance Rover no Mars posted a nice Twitter photo:
Zen gardens, or karesansui (枯山水) meaning “dry mountain and water” or “dry landscape”, have been a part of Japanese aesthetics since at least the 10th century, when it was borrowed from Song-Dynasty Chinese garden trends. Contrary to popular belief they are not always associated with Zen-Buddhist temples either. However, karesansui really took off during the famous Higashiyama Period centered around the failed military shogun, but artistic genius, Ashikaga Yoshimasa. Because Rinzai-sect Zen temples were very prominent in the capitol at the time (e.g. the so-called “Five Mountains system“), the influence of Ashikaga Yoshimasa, his employment of extremely talented artists, and his patronage of these temples produced a unique aesthetic that is still very popular in the world.
The classic example is Ryoanji Temple, but also Ashikaga Yoshimasa’s own retreat, the Silver Pavilion (later converted into another Rinzai Zen temple, Ginkaku-ji):
What makes karesansui sand gardens so fascinating I suppose is the way that it captures a macrocosm landscape into a smaller, more epitomized version. I’ve always been fascinating by the Chinese ink landscape paintings and in the same vein, sand gardens capture that same quiet, timeless aesthetic. I haven’t personally seen one since my kids were very little, but they really do make a lasting impression.