Kyoto Temples // Dry Gardens
Every year, thousands of people travel to Kyoto with the intention to see what are called karesansui, or “dry landscape” gardens. You might know them as Zen gardens, and have some idea that these are spaces sapped of vegetation, with man-made grooves meticulously dragged into long sections of sand or gravel. Google “Zen garden” and you’ll come across a selection of small, portable sandboxes for $13.99, with claims that these mini-ephemera are helpful in inducing a meditative state, whether you rest them on your desktop or bedside table.
While there is debate as to whether or not these gardens are really “Zen,” the demand to see (or buy) karesansui really only became a thing in recent history. While most of these dry gardens were constructed in the Muromachi period (1336-1573), they didn’t receive widespread attention until international interest in Zen Buddhism exploded in the early part of the twentieth century. Up until then, historian Gouverneur Mosher writes, they were “still ignored by most of the world, omitted from guide and history books, bypassed in favor of more prominent and traditional relics of Kyoto’s past.”
Despite their frequent appearance in coffee table books or decorative posters worldwide, karesansui still have immense drawing power for Kyoto outsiders, as visits to these places constitute a huge flow of tourism traffic. The following make up some of Kyoto’s finest dry landscape gardens, and Maana guarantees that experiencing the real thing is so much better than mindfully scraping some sand in a hexagonal box on your desk at work.
By far Kyoto’s most famous, Ryoan-ji’s dry landscape garden appeared around the year 1500, when the temple was reconstructed by Hosokawa Katsumoto, a deputy to the shogun. It is usually said to have been designed by So-ami, a famous artist of that time period, but truly nothing is known for certain about the garden’s history. Carved into one partially buried stone towards the back of the garden are the two names Hirokojiro and Kotaro, and scholars have debated whether these names are those of the original stone workers, who would have been from Japan’s untouchable class, or kawaramono. Apart from its historical genesis, Ryoan-ji’s garden has been subject to endless speculation about its meaning – what are these rocks supposed to symbolize, if they’re supposed to symbolize anything? Why are they laid out this way?
Gouverneur Mosher, author of Kyoto: A Contemplative Guide, condemns the efforts of the so-called literalists who are anxious to pin down any meaning at all, arguing that calling the rocks “…islands, mountains, tigers, dragons, temples, and symbols,” and the raked gravel bed “clouds, rivers, and the sea,” distorts or creates an interpretation that the garden’s fifteenth-century designer never intended. While Mosher’s reading is a bit harsh, he’s probably right in that the real pleasure of interpretation should be left to the viewer. Worth the bus ride to northwest Kyoto, there truly is nothing like seeing this garden in person.
Recommended Time to Go: In the morning, before the crowds.
Address: 13 Ryōanji Goryōnoshitachō, Ukyō-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu 616-8001, Japan
Hours: 8AM - 5PM
For the time-pressed traveler unable to make the trek to Ryoan-ji, there are two stunning dry gardens at Kennin-ji, a temple in central Gion. Founded in 1202, Kennin-ji is the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto. Zen arrived on the scene fairly late in the transmission of Buddhism from China to Japan, bringing with it its own set of architectural conventions and philosophical attitudes based on existing Chinese monasteries and Chan Buddhist texts. One of Kennin-ji’s gardens, “Circle-Triangle-Square,” purportedly expresses the three fundamental forms of the universe. Another interpretation offers that these shapes represent water, fire, and earth, respectively.
Whatever the case may be, history suggests that early rock gardens like these were inspired by a style of Chinese black-and-white painting, trending in Japan during that time period. Keeping in tune with a monochrome approach, dry gardens were designed small enough to be symbolic – “lest its symbolism approach reality too closely and break down,” says Mosher. Because of their miniature size karesansui required a clear outline, so the gardens were usually placed next to buildings, to prevent them from getting lost in their natural surroundings. Today, you can stroll through Kennin-ji and observe these techniques in person, and soak in the temple’s quiet, contemplative charm.
Recommended Time to Go: After enjoying a decandent matcha parfait along Shijo street in Gion.
Address: 584 Komatsuchō, Higashiyama-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu 605-0811, Japan
Hours: 10AM - 4PM
Ginkaku-ji, or the Temple of the Silver Pavilion, is foremost known in guidebooks as the austere little sister of the more famous Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion. However, Ginkaku-ji is not actually silver – it was only intended to be. In the 1460s, shogun Yoshimasa Ashikaga commissioned this villa for his retirement, but for some reason or other never had the time to coat the pavilion with silver foil. Upon his death, the villa became a Buddhist temple. Despite (or because of) the lack of a sparkly patina, Ginkaku-ji is said to be even more beautiful than its ostentatious counterpart.
Entry into Ginkaku-ji requires walking past a stone wall, bamboo fence, and through a tall hedge, marking clear transitions from regular life to the world of its gardens. Emerging from the hedge, the visitor is immediately struck with the site of the karesansui, which contain two striking sand constructions, one a large plateau of rippled sand, the other a truncated cone of smooth sand. The latter is supposedly a representation of Japan’s most famous mountain, Mt. Fuji. Authors from the Edo period write that the plateau formation is a model of the legendary West Lake near Hangchow, China. These sandy depictions of real sites were designed “primarily to assist one’s imaginings under the moon.” Indeed, nighttime visitors to Ginkaku-ji attest that the garden sparkles in the moonlight, making up for any lack of silver foil.
Recommended Time to Go: Early afternoon, after walking the Philosopher’s Path.
Address: 2 Ginkakujicho, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto-fu 606-8402, Japan
Hours: 8:30AM - 5PM
The next two rock gardens are conveniently located inside the large complex of Daitoku-ji, a Buddhist temple with a long and important history. Although Daitoku-ji was founded in 1319, some sources say that Zen priest Ikkyu Sojun completely rebuilt the place after the ravages of the Onin War. Ikkyu was a bit of a wildcard in the history of Zen – apparently he once mused that “brothels are more suitable settings for meditation than temples” – but with all due respect to him, we think these dry gardens are a better bet for some quiet reflection.
The first karesansui Maana recommends is Ryogen-in. Built in 1502, the temple contains the oldest meditation hall in Japan, and five separate rock gardens – one of which, Totekiko, is the country’s smallest.
Next is Zuiho-in. Built in 1535, the gardens here were actually designed by artist Mirei Shigemori in the 1960s, and there is definitely something rather psychedelic about the swirling formations of Shigemori’s raked patterns. The temple here was originally founded by warlord Otomo Sorin, who converted to Christianity during the latter part of his life. Honoring this history, Shigemori created a “garden of the cross,” and the rocks, when viewed from the southeast corner, form two jagged, intersecting lines. Reportedly a statue of the Virgin Mary also lies buried underneath a stone lantern in an adjacent garden.
Recommended Time to Go: After seeing Kinkaku-ji in the morning, head to Daitoku-ji in the afternoon.
Address: 53 Murasakino Daitokujicho, Kita-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto-fu 603-8231, Japan
Hours: 9AM - 5 PM
This temple includes lots of smaller sub-temples, a few of which have some of the most stunning karesansui in all of Kyoto. Established in 1391, Komyo-in is one of the lesser-known dry gardens - which translates to fewer tourists most of the year. The stones here are arranged in such a way that they appear to emit their own iridescent light. Fittingly, the name of this Rinzai Zen temple consists of the two characters for “light” and “wisdom” in Buddhist terminology. This dry garden was also designed by Zuiho-in’s Mirei Shigemori, but a bit earlier in his career in 1939.
Ryogin-an is another temple with similarly stunning karesansui, designed by Shigemori in 1964. In addition, the hojo building (the head priest's quarters), built around 1387, has been designated a national treasure. This garden is another one of Kyoto’s best-kept secrets – a Zen respite after a day of heavy touristing.
Recommended Time to Go: Visit Tofuku-ji before or after seeing the red tori gates of Fushimi Inari.
Address: 15-778 Honmachi, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto-fu, 605-0981, Japan
Hours: 9AM - 5 PM