Best Zen Rock Garden Kyoto

Ellen Grant
• Saturday, 21 November, 2020
• 7 min read

Kyoto is the spiritual center of Zen Buddhism in Japan, and it’s only fitting that some of Japan’s most sublime Zen gardens can be found here. The correct term is “Kansans” (dry landscape garden) and Kansans gardens can be found at temples of all Buddhist sects.

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However, Kansans are particularly common at Zen temples and Kyoto, which has an abundance of Zen temples, is naturally home to some of the finest examples in the land. As the name suggests, Kansans gardens are devoid of water.

Some Kansans might have bits of greenery or even trees, while others adhere to the strict compositional elements of only gravel and rocks. The real pleasure of gazing at a Kansans garden is like looking at clouds in the sky: you can let your imagination run wild and imagine all sorts of “meanings” and shapes.

Needless to say, if you love Japanese gardens, you’ll almost certainly love Kansans gardens, which in many ways epitomize the most appealing characteristics of Japanese aesthetics: simplicity, elegance and restraint. While it’s extremely hard for me to list my favorite Kansans gardens in Kyoto, I’m going to make a stab of it.

Oh, make no mistake, it’s sublime, but it’s also almost always crowded and this type of garden should be enjoyed in silence. Go first thing on a Monday morning and enjoy the quiet while it lasts.

Click a Kyoto District for detailed info on attractions, places to eat and accommodation With over 1600 temples, Kyoto has long been a favorite destination for anyone looking for a cultural experience when visiting Japan.

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If you are looking to find some peace and quiet during your trip (which is not so easy during Sakura season or Autumn), add these Japanese Zen temples and gardens to your Kyoto itinerary. Zen is a branch of Japanese Buddhism that originated in China and was introduced in Japan sometime in the eleventh century.

The Japanese rock garden or “dry landscape” garden, often called a zen garden, creates a miniature stylized landscape with carefully composed arrangements of rocks, water features, moss, pruned trees and bushes, and uses gravel, smooth pebbles, or sand that is raked to represent ripples in water. A water feature where you cleanse your hands, this simple action helps clean both your body and mind before entering the temple.

Emoji is a temple of the Sinai Zen Sect, situated in northern Kyoto close to the Shugakuin Imperial Villa. A Buddha statue inside the Zen TempleEnkoji was founded in 1601 by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the shogun who brought about the Do Period (1603-1867).

You will find bamboo groves in Zen temples temple complex has a beautiful courtyard and a garden with a pond and many maple trees. There is a small patch of bamboo trees that you can walk through and be sure to climb up the hill behind the garden, from where a bird’s eye view of the temple and the city.

It was originally an estate of Oshawa Sumoto, a deputy of the shogun, and eventually became a temple after his death in 1473. It is often ranked first among Kyoto’s five great Zen temples and is also registered as a world heritage site.

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Tenryuji is the head temple of its own school within the Sinai Zen sect of Japanese Buddhism. The beautifully landscaped garden features a central pond surrounded by rocks, pine trees and the lushly forested Arashiyama mountains as a backdrop.

A huge pond that stands in the center acts as a giant reflecting pool mirroring the mountains and the surrounding trees. Constructed in 1202, Kenning is the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto and has one of the best zen gardens in the city.

Kenning was founded by EISA (who was also known as Rosie), a Buddhist monk who introduced both Zen Buddhism and tea cultivation to Japan after returning from study trips to China. Don’t miss the dragon murals painted on the ceiling of the Dharma Hall which was commissioned in 2002 to commemorate the temple’s 800th anniversary.

Founded in 1606 by a widow to honor her late husband, the Bodies temple has beautiful gardens. These include a small zen garden, a pond and a wooden bridge, as well as a tea house and a bamboo grove.

The Nansen temple complex and grounds are located at the base of Kyoto’s forested Higashiosaka mountains. It is the head temple of one of the schools within the Sinai sect of Japanese Zen Buddhism and includes multiple subtemples.

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(Source: www.dreamstime.com)

This Kansans masterpiece is often overlooked, the Zen garden shows the principles of shake (borrowed scenery), in this case, from the mountains behind the garden. The garden is said to have been designed as a two-dimensional picture, like a FSMA painting on the vertical wooden screen that often depicts landscape scenes and nature.

The temple richly adorned in gold leaf reflects beautifully in the water of Kyokochi, the mirror pond. The golden pagoda is said to house the sacred relics of the Buddha and the scenic Rokuon-ji garden is expansive and takes up 92,400 square meters of the temple grounds.

The central Kyoko-chi pond contains islands of various sizes including the famous rock formations, like these Katakana stones. If you want to appreciate ancient architecture, explore beautiful and natural surroundings, learn about the Japanese culture and Zen teachings, then truly a few of these temple visits are not to be missed.

Zen's gardens are usually small, surrounded by walls, and meant to be situated in direct sight of the monk’s residence. The purpose of zen gardens is to replicate the innermost essence of nature and to provide meditation about life’s existence and meaning.

It consists of 15 rocks carefully arranged on a patch of moss within the sea of gravel whose meaning and the designer’s motivation remains a mystery. And because Ryan is quite a popular spot, the garden could easily attract droves of local and foreign visitors alike.

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The Hobo Garden at Tofukuji boasts a breathtaking landscape designed in World War II by Signori Mira. The garden looks extremely stunning, especially in the fall foliage season, so it’s quite a famous spot for maple leaves viewing.

Inside the massive Moshing complex is the oldest and most famous sub-temple called Tiepin. On our Walking Tours you will learn about the Old and New Kyoto, tradition, religion, history, food, and culture.

Declared the smallest Japanese Zen garden, Totemic is a tiny rock garden inside Cryogenic, in Kyoto. On a few square meters, it illustrates a Zen koan that says “The harder a stone is thrown in, the bigger the ripples”.

They became more prevalent in the Main period (784–1185) and were influenced by gardens in China, where groups of rocks were often arranged to represent the island of the Immortals, Mount Bengali (J. Horai-san), and figures and places associated with Chinese Taoist beliefs. In the gardens of the Japanese nobility of the Main period, the cleverly placed rocks evoked dramatic mountains and gentler hills, and sand and gravel suggested streams, rivers, and the ocean.

In the late 12th century, Japanese Buddhists traveled to southern China to study a meditation form of Buddhism called Chan, which they brought back to Japan and renamed Zen.” The military elite, who had taken over the rule of the country from the imperial court, soon embraced this form of Buddhism because of its emphasis on simplicity, austerity, and living at the moment, a concept to which samurai warriors could well relate since they had to be prepared to face death at any time. Under warrior patronage, Zen Buddhist temples were founded in the first military capital of Katakana (near modern Tokyo) and later in Kyoto.

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However, in the 14th and 15th centuries, after the military capital had been moved to Kyoto, some of Japan’s major Zen temples began to feature spectacular dry gardens on their grounds, too. Zen Buddhists believe that representations of nature can assist a practitioner in his or her meditation and pursuit of satori, or sudden enlightenment in this life.

Bold ink landscape paintings created by some of the finest contemporary artists from China and Japan were used by Zen adepts to help in their practice. This provided practitioners with a focal point during seated meditation, or taken, allowing them to shed the material distractions of the world and access the truth of reality.

The Buddhist monk and garden designer Must Hokusai is credited with designing the first true Zen Gardens” of Kyoto, most famously the upper garden of the temple Shoji, which was originally designed in the 1330s as a dry rock garden featuring three rock “islands”: Kagoshima, the island of the turtle, which resembles a swimming turtle; Zazen-seki, a flat “meditation rock that radiates calm and silence; and Partake, a dry “waterfall” built of layered flat granite rocks. Beside the temple’s traditional pond garden, the temple grounds also feature an area of raked gravel with a mountain in the center (added to the gravel landscape in the 17th century), resembling Japan’s famous Mount Fuji surrounded by a tranquil ocean.

Combining the raked gravel seascape of Ginkaku-ji with the rock islands of Shoji, this highly abstracted landscape was set in a rectangular space next to the veranda of the abbot’s residence. Today, because of the hordes of tourists who file through the garden grounds every day, it is difficult to imagine being able to find peace and calm gazing upon the stone and gravel formations of Kyoto’s Zen temples.

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