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Tsukubai and Zenibachi, the Japanese Water Basins

Another picturesque garden ornament is the stone water basin, tsukubai, with its bamboo dipper, hishaku, for washing hands and drinking in a purification ritual before tea ceremony. Large cut stone basins are found outside temples for the same purpose.
In the classic garden, the basins are either hollowed out by an artisan or are naturally formed by a waterfall. Originally, taller versions where for nobility, but the tea ceremony abolished this distinction and both aristocrat and commoner must bend in equality.

Often a small bamboo pipe supplies a steady stream of water to the basin. When the pipe is rigged to seesaw piece of bamboo that fills with water, tilts, empties itself, and then tilts again with a clap on a rock. The device is called shishi-odoshi. The hollow sound, occurring about every two minutes, is very pleasing to Japanese garden enthusiasts, but the device was created centuries ago to scare wild boars away from the vegetation near mountain streams. Eventually, it was used in gardens to discourage deer and birds.

The Tsukubai in the Ryoanji Temple

Chinese CoinOne of the most famous tsukubai (wash basin) is the zenibachi sitting near the rear of the monks quarters behind the famous Ryoanji Temple (The Temple of the Peaceful Dragon) in Kyoto which is one of the UNESCO world cultural heritage sites in Kyoto. The Tsukubai is a small basin into which water continuously flows. At Buddhist temples in Japan Tsukubai allow visitors to purify themselves by the ritual washing of mouth and hands. The lower elevation of the basin requires the visitor to bend a little bit to reach the water.

This suggests supplication and reverence. Looking like an old-fashioned Chinese coin (Zenigata Tsukubai 銭型蹲踞), the shape of the stone basins is a circle representing heaven (yang) which is pierced by a square hole representing earth (yin).
Tokugawa MitsukuniIt is said that the original Tsukubai has been contributed to the temple by a member of the powerful Tokugawa family, Mitsukuni Tokugawa (1628-1700), a feudal lord and well known for being the compiler of the 'great History of Japan', also known as "Dai-nihon-shi" containing 397 volumes that he started in 1657.

Ryoanji-Temple Tsukubai ware tada taru shiruThe Ryoanji Tsukubai (蹲踞), which translates literally as 'crouch' has written kanji on the surface of the stone. These kanji are without significance when read alone. Read clockwise from the left side, the characters mean: arrow, five, short-tailed bird. The fourth and last character, at the bottom, has no meaning on its own, and that is the clue helping to solve the mystery.
If each character is read in combination with 口 (kuchi), (the form of the central bowl), then the combined characters become 吾, 唯, 足, 知 which reads clockwise as 'ware tada taru (wo) shiru'.
Ware Tada Shiru TaruThis is a Zen saying that translates literally as 'I only know plenty' (吾 = ware = I, 唯 = tada = only, 足 = taru = plenty, 知 = shiru = know). To interpret the meaning of the carvings a little imagination is required as this can be roughly translated as follows:

  • what one has is all one needs
  • I am content with what I have
  • I alone know I am content with things
  • if you learn to be content, you are rich in spirit
  • I learn only to be contented
  • he who learns only to be contented is spiritually rich
  • all I know in life is to be contented, to be grateful
  • I know only satisfaction

If you have a chance to visit Kyoto's Ryoanji temple on a quiet day you will be able to hear the peaceful sound of water trickles into the basin and flowing in various locations within the grounds.


V23 Zenibachi

ZenibachiReplica of the famous Tsukubai in the Ryoanji-Temple in Kyoto with engraved Zen Buddhist saying 'ware tada taru (wo) shiru'.

Elements: 1 Pieces
Height:   ca.
18 cm
Diameter: ca. 41 cm
Price: CHF 5
00.—  Currency Converter

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V22 Ginkakuji Mizubachi

Ginkakuji Mizubachi Cube-shaped hand water basin named after the famous 'silver pavilion' of Kyoto's Ginkaku-ji temple.

Elements: 1 Pieces
Length: 30 cm
Width:  30 cm
30 cm
Price: CHF
640.—  Currency Converter

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Ginkakuji KyotoGinkakuji was originally built to serve as a place of rest and solitude for the Shogun. During his reign as Shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa inspired a new outpouring of traditional culture, which came to be known as Higashiyama Bunka (the Culture of the Eastern Mountain). Having retired to the villa, it is said Yoshimasa sat in the pavilion, contemplating the calm and beauty of the gardens as the Ōnin War worsened and Kyoto was burned to the ground.

In 1485, Yoshimasa became a Zen Buddhist monk. After his death on January 27, 1490, the villa and gardens became a Buddhist temple complex, renamed Jishō-ji after Yoshimasa's Buddhist name.

Ginkakuji KyotoIn addition to the temple's famous building, the property features wooded grounds covered with a variety of mosses. The Japanese garden is supposedly designed by the great landscape artist Sōami.

The sand garden of Ginkakuji has become particularly well known; and the carefully formed pile of sand which is said to symbolize Mount Fuji is an essential element in the garden.


V12 Tetsubachi

Tetsubachi Basin
Round basin
The bowl shape of this large basin is very popular for use as a garden accent and will be the focal point of any landscape.

Elements: 1 piece
Height: ca. 21 cm
Diameter: ca. 45 cm
Price: CHF 670.—  Currency Converter

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This page was last updated April 2022


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