Shunmyo Masuno’s business card is a keeper. Although printed on flimsy white paper of the sort you’d expect from a coin-operated machine, his is probably the only name card in the world that reads: “Zen priest, landscape architect, professor”. The order of profession, however, does not indicate tapering commitment. It’s “full-time, full-time, fulltime”, he says, laughing at the incongruity of his spiritual-cum- secular-cum-academic life. Then there’s his staging of rock shows. One of Japan’s leading landscape designers, with 50-plus gardens to his name and a studio famous for its contemporary take on centuries-old Zen garden concepts, Masuno, 61, was in Hong Kong last month to advise on the artful placement of five boulders, all shipped from his home country to be shown at a joint exhibition called “Serenity Above”. Also featuring ink paintings by Shanghai-born, United States-based artist Zheng Chongbin, the exhibition promises to turn the gallery in Grand Millennium Plaza’s Cosco Tower into an “oasis of peacefulness”. That aim, of instilling calm, inviting introspection and fostering awareness, is achieved in spades at Masuno’s sole Japanese garden in Hong Kong, Sanshintei, completed in 2007 at the One Kowloon office building in Kowloon Bay. Similar to his name-making gardens, which are rooted in tradition but sown with modernity, Sanshintei is Masuno’s attempt to lift the spirits of the salarymen and women working in the glass-and-steel hive rising from the city’s newish commercial hub. “In nature we see landscapes but One Kowloon is a building in an urban area, so what’s important to me are the people who will be passing through the space,” says Masuno. “I thought, ‘What can I do to help them feel better as they travel from home to work, work to home?’” From the lobby you can almost hear the whistled notes of a shakuhachi flute as wind rustles through bamboo planted to conceal urban ugliness. At one end of the public space sits a troika of boulders, the tallest standing 4.7 metres; at the other is a looming waterfall twice its height, with three rocks at the bottom representing Buddha and two disciples (the sanshin , or “three spirits”). In the middle is a sleek reception desk, also designed by Masuno, along with stylish stone-and-wood benches and a stone platform connecting interior and exterior spaces. Outside, the focal point is a curved rock the size and shape of a small baleen whale emerging from water. The serenity of the setting is obviously to be enjoyed in the present, and not in snapshots stored for future appreciation: security guards are on hand to repeat the mantra, “This is private property; no photographs.” I don’t relate this tale of unfriendliness to Masuno, who is all smiles in an indigo two-piece work suit, elasticised at the wrists and ankles and worn with the bib-like garment hung around the necks of Zen Buddhists who have taken the precepts. Instead, the conversation shifts to the tree that stands beside the stone sculptures in Sanshintei. “Did you know it’s a nisemono ?” I ask, wishing my Japanese vocabulary extended to polite synonyms for “fake”. “Does that bother you?” Masuno doesn’t flinch, but offers a comical “arrghhh” in sympathy. He explains that when the real Ficus benjamina died a year after it was planted in a pot, the trunk was retained, to which artificial leaves and branches were attached. “Yes, I was told about it,” he admits in English, a language he speaks in spurts, retreating to Japanese when the conversation turns to aesthetics and other subjects difficult to express even in his mother tongue. That includes metaphysics. And anyway, exhibition sponsor New World Development has requested that I stay away from questions about Zen and religion in general. That, despite Masuno being an 18th-generation head priest of Kenkohji, a Soto-sect Zen temple in Yokohama. But in debating the merits of the rocks Masuno has chosen for “Serenity Above”, there is no avoiding the inanimate objects’ ishigokoro (their “heart” and “mind”). “Every stone has its own character or spirit,” says Masuno, explaining the animist beliefs inherent in Japan’s indigenous Shinto religion. “I try to ask the stone, ‘What would you like me to do to bring out your character and make people understand you and see your beauty better?’” That may involve unearthing rocks and displaying them in their full glory, such as can be seen in many of his gardens, including those built at the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in Tokyo, and Gionji temple, in Ibaraki prefecture, and, perhaps his most contemporary design to date, Yukyuen, at Hofu City Crematorium, in Yamaguchi prefecture. Or it could require a trip to a quarry, Masuno says, adding that for the exhibits in Hong Kong, he travelled to the southern island of Shikoku to choose the diamond-granite boulders he wanted from Gokenzan mountain. Those that made the cut weren’t random finds. “I had the idea of finding stones that showed nature within,” he says, describing a two-piece jagged display, one a shadow of the other. “When you look at a mountain you usually see only the surface, with grass and trees and a bit of rock. But the real mountain is inside the rock. By putting these two rocks together you can see the heart, or the spirit, of the mountain as well as its surface.” It took two days to find that pair of rocks, he adds, spreading his arms wide to indicate the distance that separated them at the quarry. His job was to locate them and bring them together. Little wonder that Masuno’s gardens typically take three years from concept to completion, with him involved at every stage. However, nine years passed before he let go of a project at Kanagawa prefecture’s Samukawa Shrine, where he created not only the gardens within the three-hectare plot, but also the buildings it accommodated and their interiors. Some of that time went into devising tricks of the eye, to create the type of atmosphere (as opposed to form) appropriate for the site and its intended use. One technique evident there, making outdoor areas appear more spacious, is outlined in the book, Zen Gardens : The Complete Works of Shunmyo Masuno, by Mira Locher: “Sometimes, by blocking the field of vision in the garden, artificial hills make people imagine what is behind the hill.” Magic can also be created in the form of flowing water, a crucial element in his designs. For example, man-made waterfalls in karesansui (dry) gardens give the impression of water tumbling into streams, even in parched settings. Better-known water features are perhaps the tranquil “lakes” of pebbles raked into ripples surrounding rock islands, although Masuno sometimes uses broken stone for a more dynamic representation of movement. While transcending time is sometimes a focus of Zen meditation, Masuno cannot always set his work tempo. The initial planning for the grounds of the Canadian Museum of Civilisation, in Ottawa, took just 24 hours. There had been long-running arguments about what to build there and who should be the designer, Masuno says. But out of the blue he received a call from someone urging him to draw up a proposal. “They made me fly to Ottawa just before Christmas, when it was minus 20 degrees Celsius, took me to the site and said, ‘This will be the garden.’ It was covered in snow so there was nothing to see.” Overnight, Masuno worked on his drawings, detailing even the placement of rocks, and their shape, size and weight. The effort was worth it. When he concluded his presentation the following day, he says, “They stood up and clapped.” His designs resulted in a multi-level landscape affording “peaceful contemplation” and the kind of spareness associated with Zen. It is the spaces between elements that apparently create a tension that focuses the mind. As Zen Gardens notes, these minimalist areas also “allow the viewer’s eyes and mind to rest and be ‘at one’ with the garden”. The description tallies with Masuno’s account of his daily rounds at Kenkohji, where he opens the temple doors at 4.30am. The chore allows him to enjoy the gardens he helped create as a boy with his mentor, garden designer Katsuo Saito. That informal apprenticeship would lead a young Masuno to study the natural environment at Tamagawa University’s Department of Agriculture, before beginning Zen training in earnest, founding Japan Landscape Consultants and becoming assistant priest under his father at Kenkohji. Tradition, in this area at least, will continue, he says with a smile: just as he became head priest in 2001, so his first-born son, now 24, will one day assume the mantle. Whether he will enjoy the bleary-eyed starts and the gardens at dawn are a separate matter. In the 50 minutes it takes Masuno to walk through the grounds, he says, he considers the weather, observes new blossoms and simply appreciates the day. After he has prepared tea, swept and cleaned, it’s time for a change of clothes and morning prayers at 6.20am. It’s perhaps just as well his day starts early because there’s also work to be done in the material world. Apart from lecturing on Japanese gardens and environmental design at Tama Art University, Masuno teaches architecture and interior design there because, he says, “Japanese gardens do not exist independently of the house; it’s all one space.” As his portfolio shows, he accepts not only high-profile commissions but also private jobs for homes in Japan and abroad. These, too, have produced noteworthy designs. One, a two-tatami-sized (36 square feet) interior courtyard garden connected to a dwelling owned by a philosopher in Okayama prefecture, draws the eye upwards to the sky from a raised patch with a filigreed maple tree. Another, in Stuttgart, Germany, fronts a modernist house belonging to a businessman. His garden appears in horizontal layers, each level defined by a curved wall. Eager to hear his opinion of a soon-to-be-built house in Sydney with a minimalist, potentially Japanese-looking garden, I pull out my iPad and point to the plans, by Australian architect Matt Elkan and landscape architect Lindy Hulton-Larson. That it might look out of place by a beach is something that doesn’t faze him. Nor does the idea that the garden will have a busy counterpart nearby full of Australian coastal plants. “There are no restrictions on Japanese gardens,” he says, referring to the spaces he created at the Canadian Museum of Civilisation. There, in a Japanese setting, he positioned rocks and plants sourced entirely in Ottawa. The device of making the familiar unexpected allows visitors the sensation of seeing something afresh. “The most important thing is how natural beauty fits into the daily lives of the people living with the garden,” he says. “These days, most people just want peace of mind, so they look for it in a beautiful garden. But the garden needs to grow with them and complement the buildings beside it. And it should encourage self-awareness. “This you can say is a Japanese garden.” “Serenity Above”, Cosco Tower, Grand Millennium Plaza, 183 Queen’s Road Central, Sheung Wan, is open from 11am to 7pm until next Sunday.