Contemplating in Kyoto’s Zen gardens.

Gardeners of eternity,

Those who planted here

Made the garden in the 

image of a desert

And the desert in the image 

of a sea-

Then shrunk the seas to

the mind’s salt, and tasting

Dissolved all thought away.

-John M. Steadman

One of the things that excited me most about visiting the ancient capital of Japan was getting the opportunity to view some of the most tranquil, harmonious, simple, and stunning gardens that one can find. Kyoto is home to some of the infamous gardens of the world- strolling gardens, rock gardens, sand gardens- but also to some of those less noticed and more understated gardens of Japan.

While it is difficult to visit all of Kyoto’s gardens in one short visit, some with their temples, sub-temples, and expansive grounds, I have picked a few temple gardens to share here that made the top of my favorite list. It is not just because of their world-renowned popularity when I picked some of these, but rather the underlying meaning of the gardens, hidden finds, and the atmosphere you walk into when you experience them. It’s amazing how Kyoto’s temple gardens show how nature and age-old traditions in today’s modern world literally co-exist side by side.

Ryoan-ji Temple.

Ryoan-ji is literally translated as “the temple of dragon and peace.” Originally a country house of the Tokudaiji Clan, it was acquired in 1450 by Hosokawa Katsumoto for use as a zen training temple. The original building of Ryoan-ji was destroyed during the Onin Wars, along with thousands of temples and homes in Kyoto, but was rebuilt in 1499. The dry-rock garden was believed to be added at that time.

The Rock Garden

The karesansui dry-landscape garden at Ryoan-ji Temple is one of the best known examples of minimalist aesthetics in Japan. Its simplicity is remarkable. This meditation garden is meant to facilitate contemplation while seated on the engawa covered porch of this temple. Gardens such as this were designed by Zen monks to view and contemplate, not to enter. The purpose of these compositions was to nudge the mind away from the mundane and to allow it to enter a higher level of consciousness.

Panoramic view of Ryoan-ji's garden.
Panoramic view of Ryoan-ji’s garden.


Sitting, contemplating, on the engawa covered porch of the temple.
Sitting, contemplating, on the engawa covered porch of the temple.

The original designer of Ryoan-ji, as well as their true design intent, are still a mystery. It measures 25 meters from east to west and ten meters from south to north. The karesansui dry rock arrangement consists of fifteen irregularly shaped large rocks that arranged in five groups, perfectly balanced to charge the empty expanse of white raked pebbles around them. Interesting note: raking zen gardens is also an act of meditation, as it is quite hard to get lines that are completely straight and have consistent depth. At Ryoan-ji, a tool to help novice monks achieve this feat has been developed using a heavy weight, so that the depth of the rake’s teeth is not left to the possibly wavering mind of an apprentice monk. Zen Buddhism resists imagery and concepts that would get in the way of pure consciousness. Only fourteen of these rocks can be seen from any angle, often interpreted as symbolic of the fact that spiritual enlightenment is needed to perceive that which cannot be seen with the eyes. The walls are made of clay boiled in oil. As time has gone by, a peculiar design has appeared by itself from the oil that has seeped out.

IMG_1408        IMG_1416

IMG_1419        IMG_1402


Wash Basin, Tsukubai.

Tsukubai, or crouch basins (as one needs to crouch down to use it), is the stone wash-basin for the tea room. Crouching down, bowing, and purifying one’s hands and mouth are steps in humbling and preparing the mind before entering a tea hut. There are four kanji characters that read into a unique inscription: “I learn only to be contented.” He who learns only to be contented is spiritually rich, while the one who does not learn to be contented is spiritually poor even if he is materially wealthy. This concept is important in the Zen spirit. The Tsukubai is said to have been contributed by Mitsukuni Mito (1628-1700), a feudal lord and the compiler of the great History of Japan known as “Dai-nippon-shi.”


Kyoyochi Pond

The pond was made in the late twelfth century and is quite beautiful in itself. It is also known as Oshidoridera, the temple of mandarin ducks. Until recent years, these ducks used to inhibit the pond. The pond has two islets, the larger one houses a shrine to Sarasvati, one of the three Hindu deities that are part of the seven lucky gods in Japanese folk Buddhist tradition.

IMG_1397        IMG_1433

IMG_1434        IMG_1430


Tucked away in the hills of eastern Kyoto, not far from the Silver Pavilion, Honen-in is a good example of one the understated moss gardens that you’d expect in Kyoto. This very serene temple surely is a hidden treasure. At the beginning of the Kamakura Period (1192-1333), the saint Honen and his pupils Juren and Anraku lived in a hut and worshipped Amitabh Buddha six times every day and night (“six-time worship”). This hut came close to being abolished at one time. The abbot of Chion-in, a former pupil of Honen, restored it as a Buddhist invocation hall in 1680. This temple also houses the graves of important Japanese scholars: the novelist Junichiro Tanizaki, historian Konan Naito, philosopher Shuzo Kuki, economist Hajime Kawakami, and artist Heihachiro Fukuda.

Pathway up to the moss-covered thatched roof entrance.
Wooded pathway up to the entrance.

The path through the wooded greenland leads up to the entrance of the temple, marked by a moss-covered thatched roof gate. The short flight of stairs leading up on either side of the entrance gate, provides a good view of the raked pattern on the sand mounds as one enters the temple.

View of the sand mounds as you enter through the moss-covered thatched roof gate.
View of the sand mounds as you enter through the moss-covered thatched roof gate.

The two raised, rectangular white sand mounds, called byakusadan, are an intriguing part of this garden. The size and placement, although one may not notice it at first, is very important as well. Just like rock gardens such as Ryoan-ji, Zen temples are designed to rid the mind of the constant clutter of thought and offer the viewer a chance to rise above the mind. These sand mounds are meant to evoke water and cleansing of body and soul before entering the temple’s sacred precincts. As a result, the designs on top of the mounds incorporate the motif of water in the form of ripples, waves, or the Chinese character for water. Every two weeks or so, a young monk reworks these sand mounds early in the morning, finishing them up with a fresh raked design on top. The choice of design is left to the imagination of the monk assigned to the task, but the patterns are always abstract and restrained. The placement and asymmetrical size of the mounds is said to balance the asymmetrical size of the carp pond on either side of the bridge farther down the stone path. While the smaller sand mound on the right balances the smaller pond on the left of the bridge, the larger sand mound on the left is said to balance the larger pond and garden on the right of the bridge. The asymmetrical sizes  and raked design of the two mounds reflect the tradition in Japanese design that avoids symmetry and repetition.


View of the sand mounds when exiting the temple.
View of the sand mounds when exiting the temple.

The stone path from the entrance gate passes these two sand mounds and continues toward a bridge over a carp pond. A small waterfall on the far right side of the pond produces a pleasant sound, while all the trees around it give it a pleasantly dark feeling. The stone path and vegetation offer a good example of the Japanese ability to create a feeling of deep forests and shaded valleys in the narrow confines of an urban temple. And it did create quite an eerie feeling walking along the path, especially in the rain. The garden path continues on to the main hall built during the seventeenth century.

Bridge over the carp pond.
Eerie forest feeling around the pond in the rain.
Eerie forest feeling around the pond in the rain.
This stone water basin is made in the motif of the lotus flower. Lotus is the sacred flower of Buddhism since it grows in mud but is not sullied by it, thus symbolizing the possibility of being perfect in the imperfect world.
This stone water basin is made in the motif of the lotus flower. Lotus is the sacred flower of Buddhism since it grows in mud but is not sullied by it, thus symbolizing the possibility of being perfect in the imperfect world.

IMG_1348        IMG_1350



Nanzen-ji, a complex of Zen temples and sub-temples tucked against the Higashiyama (Eastern Mountains), has got it all: a fine little karesansui (Zen) garden, soaring main halls, great gardens, all in an incredibly scenic location. Nanzen-ji began as a retirement villa for Emperor Kameyama. Following his death in 1291, it was dedicated as a Zen temple. It now operates as the headquarters of the Rinzai school. At the entrance to the temple stands the San-mon gate (1628), its ceilings adorned with Tosa and Kano school murals of birds and angels. Beyond the San-mon is the Honden (main hall).


IMG_1674        IMG_1677

IMG_1678        IMG_1679

IMG_1682        IMG_1688

One of the several sub-temples surrounding the complex is Tenju-an. Tenjuan is one of the most historically important temples of Nanzenji. It was built as a dedication to the founder of Nanzenji, Daiminkokushi Mukanfumon. In 1267 the retired Emperor Kameyama, enchanted with the natural beauty of the spot, created a villa on the site where the Nanzenji Temple now stands. Around 1288 the emperor was vexed by the appearance of a ghost and asked for help from Daiminkokushi. The priest rid Emperor Kameyama of the ghost by merely performing Zazen meditations without reciting a single sutra. The emperor was deeply moved by this demonstration of the priests virtue and subsequently became his disciple. He later converted his villa into a zen temple and dedicated it to Daiminkokushi. However, the priest died before the conversion of the villa was complete, leaving the work to Daiminkokushi’s successor to finish and to inaugurate the zen temple. For this reason, little credit for the task is given to Daiminkokushi himself. In 1336, permission was requested to construct a building commemorating the founding of the temple by Daiminkokushi. Construction on the building was completed in the following year, hence the opening of Tenjuan. Tenjuan was destroyed in 1447 and it was more than 130 years later until reconstruction began again. It was then that the priests of Nanzenji agreed it be reconstructed by one of the most famous Zen priests of Kyoto, Genporeisan. The reconstruction of the Main Hall, the Main Gate, and the Old Study was completed in August 1602, and these are the Tenjuan buildings that stand today.


IMG_1692        IMG_1694

IMG_1695        IMG_1697


IMG_1698        IMG_1699


IMG_1700        IMG_1704

IMG_1707        IMG_1708


IMG_1712        IMG_1713


IMG_1718        IMG_1719

IMG_1724        IMG_1725


Lindsay View All →

Our roots will forever be from here, America, born and raised. Yet, life requires us to move more frequently than we care to count. Whether living stateside or abroad, you can always find us traveling somewhere. We scout out places that you only think you can dream of one day seeing and we seek out those that aren’t found in guidebooks. We then bring them to life here in our travel memos, so hopefully, one day you too can visit them or at least be able to live vicariously through us. This blog isn’t just about crossing off places from a bucket list. It’s about absorbing and learning how other cultures grow and fit into the same world that we do. Life is short and the world is big. Enjoy and get out there!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: