Ryogenin Temple1/3
Photo: Ryogenin Temple
Ryoanji2/3
Photo: kibaiyanse/photo-ac
Tofukuji 3/3
Photo: Ruby Lee/Unsplash

The most beautiful Japanese rock gardens in Kyoto

On your next trip to Kyoto, make sure you don’t miss these traditional Japanese Zen gardens

By Time Out Tokyo Editors and Emma Steen
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Most people head to Kyoto for the historical temples or the spring sakura (cherry blossoms), but Kyoto’s traditional rock gardens are a must-see. Lacking flowers doesn’t mean they lack beauty – the deliberate placement of the stones and the minimalist expressions in the sand, with pebbles placed to look like waves, are all carefully chosen to evoke a specific mood or mindset.

There’s much more than meets the eye in a traditional Japanese rock garden; many have abstract Zen dialogues hidden within their scenery, and some are stone re-creations of famous scenes from Japanese history. With a little bit of background knowledge, these static landscapes can come alive for you. Here are some of our favourite Kyoto rock gardens.

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Rock on

Daitokuji Temple
Daitokuji Temple
Photo: Daitokuji Temple

Daitokuji Temple, Kita

Attractions

If you’d like to learn a little more about Zen garden landscaping and history, Daitokuji Temple is the place to go first. This sprawling Zen temple complex in the north of the city has a range of rock gardens hidden away amongst several sub-temples.

From Daisenin’s interconnected rock gardens with their sea of white gravel to Ryogenin’s rock garden representing the universe, there’s no shortage of symbolic stones to see. Each sub-temple at Daitokuji has its own opening hours and entry fees, but most are open between 9am and 3pm.

Taizoin Temple
Taizoin Temple
Photo: Taizoin Temple

Taizoin Temple, Ukyo

Attractions

At Taizoin Temple – part of the Myoshinji Temple complex – you can see a range of gardens from different periods, including the Motonobu no Niwa, a rock garden with evergreen plants, which is designed as an expression of unchanging beauty, and Inyo no Niwa Garden, which is all about the interplay between shadow and sunlight. Each garden contrasts with and complements the others, like a rock garden sample set.

General admission is ¥600; however, the temple also offers a deal including admission, a Zen meditation session and a serving of morning rice porridge for ¥2,500, which is a great way to hone your mind and body before you head out.

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Ryoanji
Ryoanji
Photo: kibaiyanse/photo-ac

Ryoanji

Things to do

A Unesco World Heritage site, Ryoanji houses what is arguably the nation’s most famous rock garden. While the Zen temple itself was established in 1450 by Hosokawa Katsumoto, a deputy to the Ashikaga shogun dynasty, the year the garden was first built is still a matter of fierce debate. Some theories say Katsumoto’s son was the man behind the garden, others think the famous 16th century artist Soami was the one who created it.

Plus, the garden’s origin is not its only mystery. From a puzzling carving with the name ‘Kotaro’ behind one of the garden’s fifteen stones to its assymetrical formations, the garden is full of riddles that leave many visitors contemplating the meaning behind this serene space. Though the larger rocks are untouched, the garden’s gravel is raked daily by the monks at the temple.

Tofukuji Temple Kyoto
Tofukuji Temple Kyoto
Photo: Ruby Lee/Unsplash

Tofukuji

Things to do

The gardens at Tofukuji were built by the famous land architect Mirei Shigemori in 1939 and are arranged in the four quarters surrounding the Hojo (priest's living quarters). The southern garden is composed of jagged rocks surrounded by circular patterns formed in gravel. The rocks are said to symbolise heavenly islands named Eiji, Horai, Koryo and Hojo, whereas the gravel represents eight rough seas.

The eastern garden is characterised by seven cylindrical stones in a moss field that represents the constellation Ursa Major, otherwise known as the Big Dipper. The temple’s western and northern gardens, though also classified as stone gardens, diverge from the rigidity of the southern and western gardens by incorporating green formations of moss and azalea shrubs.

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Manshuin Monzeki Temple
Manshuin Monzeki Temple
Photo: Manshuin Monzeki Temple

Manshuin Monzeki Temple, Sakyo

Attractions

A little off the beaten track, the Manshuin Monzeki Temple offers a quieter rock garden experience, with a large rock turtle and a gravel ‘stream’. It also offers a unique activity: making your own 'rock garden' dessert. You can create an edible miniature rock garden by scattering candy created to look like pebbles on top of silken green tea tiramisu made by local confectioner Ichijo-ji Nakatani.

Enkoji Temple
Enkoji Temple
Photo: Hideki Nishiyam/Unsplash

Enkouji

Things to do

Enkouji is a prime viewing spot for autumn foliage, which shrouds the temple grounds in red, gold and orange in late November. Aside from the natural beauty surrounding the Buddhist temple, including a lush bamboo grove, there's also a Zen garden which is deliberately left unfinished.

Why the gardener decided not to mark the boundaries of the space with stones is left open to interpretation, but the temple suggests perhaps the gardener hoped visitors would complete the image of the garden in their own minds. The garden’s white gravel is raked in such a way that it resembles a cloudy sky and surrounds a stone set that represents a flying dragon.

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