Ryōan-ji Dry Garden 龍安寺

Dry, nearly barren except for a few splashes of star moss, this garden has captured the attention of millions. Whether they admire it or are simply puzzled, few can resist a five centuries old allure that rests neither on the pleasure of strolling, nor on the beauty of seasonal blooms. A Zen garden in its…

Nijo Castle Garden

When the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu took control of Japan, he moved the capital to Edo, now named Tokyo. But in 1603, for administrative purposes and to retain his powerful connections to the court, Tokugawa built Nijo Castle in Kyoto. Not designed for military purposes, its buildings resemble no other fortress in Japan, where frequent warfare dictated…

Shinnyo-do Hermitage Garden

Buddhism, which reached Japan in the 6th century, was such a strong influence on Nara period Emperor Shotoku Taishi that he made this foreign belief system the state religion. The increasingly widespread acceptance of different sects, a new lexicon of saints, and the study of sutras contributed to a new culture that changed the social…

Tofuku Ji Zen Temple

Resting along the southern peaks of the Eastern Mountains, this Zen temple retains the compact gardening style that the newly arrived Rinzai sect was developing in the 13th century. Tofuku-ji has several notable gardens, but it is the brilliant autumn maples, filling a ravine spanned by a covered wooden bridge, that command the attention and draw…

Saiho-Ji Moss Garden

The moist embrace of Kyoto’s surrounding mountains brings long hours of shade that encourage a generous cover of thick moss. Overhead, bird songs resound through thickly forested hills. Saiho-ji, originally an estate, became the first garden designed as an aid to meditation. This innovative, signature work by Muso Soseki (also Muso Kokushi, 1275–1351) changed Japan’s…

Toji-In Temple Garden

This Renzai Zen temple combines styles not often seen in one complex. Ashikaga Takauji (1305–1358), the shogun who reestablished Kyoto as the capital after it had been moved to Kamakura, founded this temple in the 14th century. The third Ashikaga shogunate, Yoshimitsu, built the Golden Pavilion, and the eighth shogunate, Yoshimasa, built the Silver Pavilion….

Jisso-In Imperial Garden

Set near Kyoto’s northern foothills is the ancient imperial temple and garden of Jisso-in. The temple was moved to this northern suburb of Iwakura in the 15th century. The present structure, built in 1709, is the oldest of its kind in Japan. Known for its cool summers and frigid winters, Iwakura remained a detached and…

Tenryu Ji Zen Garden

The 13th and 14th centuries were a time of superb landscape design. Perhaps the greatest master was Muso Soseki (1275–1351), a Zen priest who is credited with many of the gardens in western Kyoto, including Tenryu-ji. Muso was the first to consider the garden as a place for and an aid to meditation. In the…

Daitoku-ji Temple Garden

This small Rinzai Zen temple was destroyed during the Onin Wars (1467–1477). But unlike Kyoto’s other Zen temples, which flourished under the patronage of the shogun, Daitoku-ji was supported by the wealthy merchants of Sakai who funded its rebuilding. It was here that drinking green powdered tea (matcha), became a popular pastime and a practice…

Hosen-in Temple Garden

Hosen-in is one of the subtemples at the foot of Mt. Hiei in Ohara where monks from the Tendai sect temple, Enryaku-ji, come to study Buddhist chanting. The temple was partly rebuilt in the 17th century with timber from Fushimi Castle, after its warlord was defeated. Floor- boards stained with blood from battle were reverently…

Sanzen-in Temple Garden

In former times, a day-long journey through a narrow, mountain pass along the Takano River was the only approach from Kyoto to Ohara. The village’s farmers, woodcutters, and charcoal makers supplied the city’s temples with food, lumber, and fuel. Shaded by the Eastern Mountains, Ohara is just elevated enough to be a bit cooler than…

Shugaku-in Imperial Villa

A border of terraced, imperial rice fields and a backdrop of the Eastern Mountains gives this imperial villa its distinctly rustic setting. The grounds are vast yet airy, with stretches of filtered sunlight highlighting the mossy groundcover. On the lower level is one of the garden’s horticultural marvels—maple trees that have been delicately grafted to…