6 October 2023 · Mazda Stories

Connect The Past And The Present


The Ryoanji temple in Kyoto, Japan, offers visitors the chance for self-reflection and to appreciate the distraction-free aesthetic of traditional Japanese architecture and design.

Words Louise George Kittaka / Images Mark Parren Taylor


A 30-minute bus ride from Kyoto Station brings visitors to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ryoanji, a Zen temple widely considered to have Japan’s finest example of sekitei, a dry landscape garden. Gravel is meticulously raked into patterns resembling flowing water, accented with 15 strategically placed stones that appear to float on the surface. Intriguingly, no matter which angle the garden is viewed from, all 15 stones can never be seen at once.

Image 1


Azby Brown, a writer, architect, and artist who has lived in Japan for over 35 years, is the author of Just Enough: Lessons from Japan for Sustainable Living, Architecture, and Design. He points out that Ryoanji’s sekitei garden invites silent introspection, as visitors ponder the relationships between the 15 stones and the possible rationale for the groupings.

“In the process, the stones simultaneously become more than just stones, while remaining simply the kinds of inert rocks found everywhere in nature.  Most importantly, the design of Ryoanji, both its buildings and gardens, encourages us to pause and reflect for a few moments, and to experience something potent outside of our daily routine,” says Brown. “Much of the most ‘simple-appearing’ Japanese architecture, Ryoanji included, is actually instructing us to learn to observe the richness and complexity of the natural world.”

Image 2


These concepts in observation transcend international borders and inspire contemporary designers – including those behind Mazda’s cars. Ikuo Maeda revolutionised Mazda’s cars when he took on the role of General Manager for Design in 2009. Searching for a concept that would guide Mazda’s future, he drew on the traditional wisdom of the past and connected it with car design. In a 2020 interview with The Japan Journal, Maeda explained, “When speaking of Japanese aesthetics, people often think of shoji, sliding paper doors, and bamboo. But such simplistic expression spoils their essence. We thought that we had to take the approach of spiritualism.”

Image 3
With distinct Japanese aesthetics, the Mazda CX-60 epitomises the passion of Mazda's talented designers.

Maeda discovered the appeal of emptiness from Zen and Ryoanji’s garden, which draws on the traditional Japanese concepts of ma (interval or space) and yohaku (empty space or margins). While Western sensibility usually seeks to fill spaces and silence, the opposite is true with Zen.

“Ma and yohaku are sensibilities of emptiness which call attention to the relationships among things that exist in the real world, and by extension, in the aesthetic and spiritual worlds,” notes Brown. “ Both ma and yohaku are connected to Zen Buddhist concepts of transformative emptiness – the beauty of nothingness.”

Blurring the boundaries between what is there and what is not, these traditional ideas are now being incorporated into international architecture and interior design, lending a characteristically Japanese aesthetic. In a similar vein, Mazda’s philosophy is based on the beauty of subtraction, homing in on the design theme and bringing it centre stage. To this end, ma and yohaku are integral to car design, too.

“Based on these concepts, design can stimulate the viewer’s imagination and appeal to the senses, allowing the features the designer wants to emphasise to stand out more strongly,” says Akira Tamatani, Chief Designer of the Mazda CX-60. “The car’s exterior surface, where all superfluous elements have been eliminated, is like the ultimate expression of yohaku, or blank space, with the surrounding environment reflected on its surface.” In this way, the overall expression of beauty goes beyond that of just the car, allowing it to be considered in the greater context of its surroundings.

Image 4
The Mazda VISION COUPE, pictured above, expresses the essence of Japanese aesthetics and was awarded "Most Beautiful Concept Car of the Year" at the 33rd Festival Automobile International.

“On the inside, elements in the car’s interior are arranged in an extremely precise manner to create ma, or space, where the light coming in from outside the car is fully utilised,” says Tamatani, noting that Ryoanji serves as a great source of inspiration in this aspect too. “Light connects to the passing of time and the changing of the seasons in the garden. Similarly, our design uses light not only to enhance the car’s interior shape and space, but also to express the beauty of the passing of time at any given moment – through the surrounding light reflected in the car, or shining through the car,” he explains.

Image 5


In contrast to industry design trends that focus on strength of expression and impact, Mazda continues to draw on Japan’s classic sensibilities. “I feel that our cars particularly appeal to people who are attracted to and value this authenticity in manufacturing, based on traditional Japanese aesthetics,” says Tamatani.

The timeless qualities of Japanese design offer valuable opportunities for reflecting on and connecting with our surroundings while making new discoveries in the process. They can be found everywhere from contemplation in a centuries-old stone garden at Ryoanji to Mazda’s cars—the reflections on the Mazda3, for example, convey a sense of tranquillity and can change depending on where the car is and the time of day. Small wonder it was crowned the winner at the World Car Design of the Year. 

Image 6
The Mazda3 is inspired by the “bold movements of light”, Tamatani says.


find out more