Karesansui: A Meditative Gaming Experience

Karesansui, or Stone Garden, as it is known in English (confusingly there is a different English game called Karesansui) is the most unique Japanese-themed board game I have had the privilege of playing—and yes, I've played quite a few in case you're wondering. Reviews abound on the Internet, and the place to go for those is Board Game Geek. This preamble aside, let's get on with the why you should buy it.

Karesansui Box

One of the striking things about this game is the sheer quality of the materials. From the artwork, to the recessed player game boards, to the durable plasticized cards, to the uniquely designed garden stones, it appears no expense was spared in the production of the game. In short, you won't regret paying a high price for this game when you see what's inside.

Karesansui Game Over

Another interesting aspect of the game is how it expresses the aesthetics and spirit of Zen gardening. Quite simply, this is a game you don't play to win, but to immerse yourself in the garden design experience. Yes, there is a point scoring mechanism that rewards certain design combinations that might even conflict with your personal tastes, but it somehow seems secondary once you get involved in matching the garden tiles you draw along the way. When the play concludes and the point scoring starts, I find that it doesn't really matter if I end up winning or losing by ten points because I just enjoyed the game experience itself.

Karesansui Ishikawa Jozan

Perhaps my personal favourite element is the use of real gardens and gardeners for the player cards. While Shisendo's garden isn't in the set, the ones that were chosen all merit inclusion. I was pleasantly surprised to see the lesser known garden of Entsuji included with such classics as Ryoanji. My biggest thrill was discovering Ishikawa Jozan in the gardener set. It was satisfying seeing him recognized alongside such garden masters as Muso Soseki and Kobori Enshu.

If a final proof is needed that this game transcends what you would normally expect from the genre, I can tell you that on more than one occasion my family has simply used the pieces to design gardens before or after the game itself. It is a game that invites creativity and facilitates a mood in which you get lost in the placement of tiles and stones in a pleasing manner. Karesansui is that rarest of game—one that I would recommend to people with no actual interest in gaming so long as their curiosity is piqued by the chance to explore the creative and meditative elements that it facilitates. I can think of no higher compliment to pay the game's designers.

A New Year's Movie Tradition

Many families have their go-to Christmas movie that they watch annually without ever getting bored. From It’s a Wonder Life to Christmas Vacation and every version of A Christmas Carol in between, it seems there’s a Christmas movie for everyone. In our house, it happens to be A Christmas Story, but that is not what this post is about today. In fact, it’s just a long wind up to discuss our New Year’s movie tradition, watching Koki Mitani's classic Suite Dreams (Uchoten Hotaru).

Suite Dreams Long Shot

Even though New Year’s is a far bigger holiday in Japan than Christmas, I suspect that the genre of New Year’s movies is far shallower there than that of Christmas movies on our side of the ocean. Not that it matters since this screwball comedy is scripted, acted, and directed to perfection. Any future directors will be hard pressed to top Suite Dreams in the New Year's category.

The movie features a stellar cast with a handful of actors that may be recognizable to Western audiences with even a passing acquaintance with contemporary Japanese film. Koji Yakusho (Shall We Dance) leads the way as an unflappable hotel manager whose demeanour will be tested on a night where everything goes wrong, including the arrival of his ex-wife. Shiro Ito (A Taxing Woman, Maiko Haaaan!!!) plays the vain hotel president, and Toshiyuki Nishida (Ramen Girl, Beyond Outrage) is a burnt out singer who offers some surprising mentorship to real life SMAP band member Shingo Katori.

Suite Dreams Takako Matsu

The female actors may be less recognizable in the West, but they are no less accomplished. Japanese cinephiles might recall the following cast members: Takako Matsu (Hidden Blade), Ryoko Shinohara (Red Shadow: Akakage), You (Nobody Knows), and Mieko Harada (Ran, Akira Kurosawa's Dreams). In fact, it's the women who either bring most of the comic energy to the movie or serve as its moral centre, with the men playing their foils as much as anything. That said, Mitani carefully ensures that every actor gets their memorable moment.

The movie is jam-packed with dozens of tiny comic incidents (often hidden in the background of extended tracking shots), some of which only reveal themselves after repeated viewings. The twists and turns of the multiple plots interweave until they are wrapped up in a wonderful finale as the clock strikes midnight. Given the nature of screwball comedies, there is guaranteed to be cases of mistaken identity and more coincidences than there are seconds in a Times Square countdown, but they only lead to more laughs as they accumulate over the course of the movie.

So if your family doesn’t have a New Year’s movie yet and you don’t mind subtitles, track down Suite Dreams. Hopefully it grows on you like it has grown on us. If you’re on twitter, let me know your thoughts if you check it out. @travisbelrose

Suite Dreams Koji Yakusho