Long famed for their austere beauty, the gardens of Kyoto range from ancient parks depicting the Buddhist paradise to austere Zen karesansui or dry landscape gardens. In Kyoto the gardens have something for everyone, and can be a place to stroll or simply somewhere to sit in contemplation.
This temple combines Heian Pure Land style Buddhist gardens with Chinese-influenced architecture. The Phoenix hall was built in 1053 and is famously printed on the 10 yen coin. Various treasures are on display throughout the temple and garden complex.
Within this Shingon Buddhist temple is one of Kyoto’s best small examples of tsukiyama gardening, with elements evocative of a mountain landscape, complete with cascade, bridge, and azalea bushes pruned to represent rolling hills.
Located on the site of a 9th century palace, Daikakuji was converted to a Shingon Buddhist temple in 876. Although the original buildings are long gone, the architecture and courtyard gardens retain the Heian Period style described in the Tale of Genji, and a large lake creates sweeping views across to the nearby mountains.
Founded in 1326, the great temple complex of Daitokuji was the centre of Rinzai Zen culture until the early Edo period. Tea ceremony in particular is associated with Daitokuji, and the great tea master Sen-no-Rikyu is said to have built many of the temple’s tea rooms.
A sub-temple of the large Daitokuji complex, Daisen-In is home to one of the most famous Zen gardens is the world. Completed in 1513 and restored in 1961, the tiny Daisen-In garden is a splendid representation of karesansui or dry landscape gardening, a style in which rock suggests water features.
Constructed in 1502, this sub-temple of Daitokuji was once an abbot’s residence. The five connected gardens include Daitokuji’s oldest- a rectangle of moss and stones known as the Shining Dragon Garden or ryugintei.
In the Daitokuji precincts, this small sub-temple has a lovely mossy garden, famous for the scarlet colour of its maple or momiji trees in autumn.
Originally dating from the Heian period, Eikando’s large garden is well known for its interesting raked sand, and, in the autumn, for the coloured leaves.
Founded in 806, Enryakuji is a giant of Tendai Buddhism, and the precincts reflect this with numerous sub-temples and vast gardens. Perched on Mt Hiei, the present temple is only a fraction of its original size, but the towering cedars and cooler air make a pleasant place to spend a hot summer day. In spring, cherry trees bloom on the mountain, and in the autumn Japanese maple or momiji paint the mountain crimson.
The second retirement home of Emperor Gomizumo-o, for whom Sento Gosho was also built, the garden was begun in 1629 and only later became a Zen temple. The stone and moss garden was designed to be viewed from the veranda.
Ginkakuji The Silver Pavilion
More properly called Jishoji, the Silver Pavilion was, like the similarly named Golden Pavilion, built as a retirement villa and only later converted into a Zen temple. During its time as a residence in the late 15th century, Ginkakuji was, again like the Golden Pavilion a century earlier, the very heart of aesthetic Kyoto. Tea ceremony and flower arranging both flourished here.
The garden contains one of Japan’s most famous pond gardens, modelled on the older Zen pond garden at Kyoto’s Sahoji temple. Though for the most part an informal Zen garden, formal elements of raked gravel and a conical moon viewing hill were added during the 17th century.
Known for its tree-framed gate, the most interesting feature of this small Jodo temple garden is the karesansui sand mounds, decorated with seasonally changing patterns.
Imperial Palace* Sento Gosho
All that remains of a 17th century palace within the larger Imperial Palace precincts, the Sento Gosho gardens were built to surround the palace of the retired Emperor Gomizumo-o. A series of paths around the two large ponds make for a delightful stroll. There is an unusual stony beach on the western and southern shores of the south pond- though uncommon in extant Japanese gardens there is archaeological evidence for similar beaches being a feature of the earliest gardens in Asuka and Nara.
A beautiful pond garden in the south end of the Imperial Palace Gardens, the Shusui-tei tea house itself provides the best views of the garden, and a bridge spanning the pond gives remarkable views of the Imperial Palace.
*Permission to join a tour to all Imperial Palace Gardens must be obtained in advance through the Imperial Household Agency. Into Japan is happy to complete the application for you.
An early Edo Imperial Villa, the gorgeous garden at Katsura features a stroll garden and boating garden with a pond large enough for small boats. One of the finest examples of purely Japanese garden design, mythical and real landscapes are referenced in the landscaping. The villa itself was built in the 17th Century and is famous for its spare, minimalist design.
*Permission to view the garden must be obtained in advance through the Imperial Household Agency. Into Japan is happy to apply for you.
Kinkakuji - Golden Pavilion
Properly known as Rokuonji, or the Temple of the Deer Park, Kinkakuji was originally Shogun Ashikaga’s residence and flourished as a centre of the arts during the late 14th and early 15th centuries. Though the present pavilion is a faithful but recent reconstruction, the pond garden to the south of the pavilion dates back to the area’s pre-temple days as a shinden estate.
This cleverly-designed Meji period garden was completed 1894. Superb use of borrowed scenery from the nearby hills of Higashiyama, and borrowed water from the Biwa canal is attributed to the famous landscape architect Ogawa Jihei. The lawn, noticeably absent from most Japanese gardens, reflects the influence of English landscape architecture, and this fusion is no less evident in the house itself, which combines Western and Japanese styles.
The oldest sub-temple of the Myoshinji complex, Taizo-In was built in 1404, and the famous dry landscape garden is attributed to painter Kano Motonobu. The garden itself is true to the spirit of Muromachi Period landscape painting, and features a beautifully understated dry streambed and artistically placed rocks. A later wet garden was added in the 20th century. Taizo-In is a remarkably accessible Zen temple, and Into Japan is delighted to be able to arrange English language Zen meditation, Japanese ikebana flower arranging, chanoyu tea ceremony, shodo calligraphy or a night in a temple for you here.
Founded in 888 as an Imperial Residence, this now-temple’s elegant palatial buildings and pagoda are surrounded by peaceful gardens. Combining elements of karesansui dry landscapes and stroll gardens, Ninnaji is most famous for its special omuro cherry trees which bloom especially late, and for its beautiful walled garden.
Even to the casual observer it is obvious that Nanzenji is one of the most powerful temples in Japan - in 1381 was named the principle Zen temple in Kyoto. The Karesansui garden of crushed rocks and shrubs with a backdrop of borrowed scenery from the nearby hillside is said to be designed by Kobori Enshu. Nanzenji’s garden is most spectacular when viewed with the November backdrop of autumn leaves.
This sub-temple of the larger Nanzenji structure is famous for its formal Edo period garden, irrefutably and beautifully designed by Kobori Enshu. Raked gravel is backed by rock islands representing two Japanese symbols of longevity, the turtle and the crane.
Built in 1336 and reconstructed in 1602, this sub-temple originally commemorated the construction of Nanzenji itself. The more famous dry garden is augmented by a delightful stroll and pond garden with a lovely staggered plank bridge backed by a stand of blue iris, referencing a famous Japanese poem.
Completed by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1603, Nijo castle is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. The most famous garden adjoins the Ninomaru palace. Attributed to the famous landscape architect Kobori Enshu, the garden features islands in a pond, and is said to by typical of the excessive designs of the Edo period.
Ryoanji’s karesansui or dry rock garden is the most famous of its kind in Japan. 15 rocks are so cunningly arranged in an area of raked gravel that it is impossible to see all of the rocks from any one viewing point.
The temple complex also contains the large Kyoyochi pond garden which dates from an 11th century Fujiwara estate.
Saihoji, the Moss Temple or kokedera is possibly the earliest Zen garden, and, as in many Zen gardens, elements of the landscape are reflective of Buddhist philosophy. A large pond and landscaped environs are designed to represent the Western Paradise of Amida. Arrangements of rock in the garden appear to be the earliest examples of karesansui, or dry landscape gardening. The gardens at Saihoji were deeply influential on the gardens of the Silver Pavilion or Ginkakuji.
Completed in 1641 by the exiled poet Ishikawa Jozan, Shisendo is an ideal mountain retreat, full of peace and quiet. The landscaping expertly blurs the lines between inside and outside, and the garden features a gorgeous camellia tree and borrowed scenery from the nearby hills.
A Monzeki temple of the Tendai sect, Shorenin priests are traditionally members of the imperial family. Though the temple was originally built on this site in 1144, the gardens are a 1909 reconstruction by Ogawa Jihei. The pond garden is known for its fine acoustics, and traditional concerts are still occasionally held here.
Listed as a world heritage site, Tenryuji is Arashiyama’s most famous garden and is ranked as one of the five great Zen temples of Kyoto. Though established in 1339, the current buildings date from the Meji period. The original gardens, designed by Muso Soseki, consist of a small pond garden and rocks, representing a miniature landscape.
Perhaps the most famous garden in Japan for momiji-gari, or autumn leaf viewing, Tofukuji dates back to 1236 and flourished in the 15th century as on of the five great temples of Kyoto. The gardens themselves were built in 1938 by Shigemori Mirei and are a fusion of Zen and modern abstract design. An unusual dry landscape or karesansui garden combines raked gravel and moss, while the western garden is a more traditional karesansui arrangement of rocks and pebbles. The most famous of Tofukuji’s gardens, however, is the checkerboard of moss and stone to the north of the Hojo building.
Also built by Shigemori Mirei, the Ryoginan garden is a spectacular example of Japanese modernist landscape design. This sub-temple of Tofukuji has karesansui gardens of both black and white gravel, arranged strikingly and raked in swirling patterns.
*Ryoginan is open only occasionally throughout the autumn, or by written permission. Into Japan Tours is happy to apply for you as part of your tailored tour.