Gardens, temples, and zazen in Kyoto


A view of Tofukuji’s Tsutenkyo Bridge


It is on every tourist’s itinerary to visit at least one/two karesansui (dry landscape garden) in Kyoto, but during the peak season, it is best to avoid the famous ones and head for the less crowded gardens. A few years ago, I visited Kyoto in February and did an intensive garden tour (with less visitors) in the Northwest Kyoto and Arashiyama, hence I decided to focus more around the central area on this trip.

Before my trip, I started to read books on Japanese zen gardens, but I don’t think learning the symbols or trying to understand the layout and design make much sense until you immerse yourself in that environment. I started studying and practising Zen Buddhism about 4 years ago (after trying out different practices with various organisations for years); its teachings emphasise that Zen is not an intellectual practice, but something that one has to experience to understand. Meanwhile, if you try really hard, you are likely to fail, too. I feel that one has to treat zen/dry landscape gardens as abstract art/ sculptures, and it is up to the viewers to ‘feel’ and find their own emotional connections with these gardens.


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Tofuku-ji Temple and garden


My previous experiences at the extremely touristy and crowded Kiyomizu-dera, Ginkaku-ji temple and Ryoan-ji Temple were anything but tranquil, which is a shame because the essence of these temples and gardens are somewhat ruined by tourists who only more concerned with picking boxes on their packed itineraries.

Luckily, there are thousands of temples and gardens in Kyoto, so you are likely to find some off the beaten track spots that have not been invaded by package tour groups. Located in southeast Kyoto, Tofuku-ji Temple is extremely popular during the fall season for its stunning foliage, but otherwise it is fairly quiet. Founded in 1236, it is the head temple of the Tofukuji School of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, and one of the five great temples in Kyoto. The Sammon Gate from 1425 was designated as one of the Japanese National Treasure Buildings, and the gardens are designated as a National Site of Scenic Beauty.




The Hojo gardens at Tofuku-ji Temple


The main building, Hojo, was was reconstructed in 1890, and has four gardens arranged around the building. These gardens were laid out in 1939 by the famous artist/landscape designer, Mirei Shigemori (who also created the gardens at Koyasan’s Saizen-in featured in my earlier entry), who intended to express the simplicity of Zen in the Kamakura period with the abstract construction of modern arts. The most unique and famous one has to be north garden featuring squared stones and moss arranged in a chequered pattern. It is intriguing and original; I love how moss is being used here, which creates a strong contrast against the solid grey stones.





Chishakuin temple and garden


Chishakuin Temple is another large temple complex that is visited more by Japanese visitors than foreign tourists. It is the headquarters of the Chisan School of the Shingon Sect of Buddhism, originally located in Koyasan.

This temple is best known for its mural paintings (National Treasures) and a beautiful garden that features a pond and artificial hills inspired by the area around Mt. Rozan in China. This temple was quiet and peaceful during my visit, and it was particularly interesting to see the monks playing musical instruments while striding towards the main hall.




Monks gathering and playing musical instruments outside of the Chishakuin temple


Although the Soto Zen school is the largest of three traditional sects in Japan, many of the well-known temples in central Kyoto belong to the Rinzai sect, and some of them also offer zazen sessions to the public. I wanted to attend a session at a temple, and even though I am a Soto Zen practitioner, I wasn’t too bothered about the lineage as long as it served the purpose.

I chose to attend an one-hour afternoon session at Shorin-ji Temple, a sub-temple of Tofuku-ji Temple. And to my surprise, the room was completely full with attendees including Japanese office workers, high school students, foreign visitors, and even young kids. It was especially encouraging to see young children sitting still for two 15-minute sessions. A monk priest conducted the session and gave instructions in Japanese, while foreign visitors were given some basic instructions on paper.





Zazen at Shorin-ji Temple


I have heard a lot about keisaku (awakening stick), which is a flat wooden stick used during periods of zazen to remedy sleepiness or lapses of concentration, but I have never been hit before ( nor did I want to). Here, it is possible to request the monk priest to hit your shoulder by putting the palms together, and then lowering the head and body forward slightly. I am no sadist, but I couldn’t resist my curiosity… when the priest struck me, it somewhat took me by surprise and all I could feel was pain. Then gradually the pain eased away and I felt more relaxed and alert at the same time. During the session, I asked to be hit twice (so did the young girl/kid opposite me) and did not mind it at all, which was quite a revelation to me. If you want to try a zazen session in Kyoto, I would recommend a visit to this temple.





Reikan-ji Temple


Along the Philosopher’s Path, there are some beautiful lesser known temples and gardens that offer serene settings with few visitors. Honenin temple (see my earlier post) is one of them and the other is the charming Reikan-ji temple, which is only open only for 2 weeks in spring and 2 weeks in autumn. This temple is famous for its camellias, and I arrived at the right time for it.

Reikan-ji is a monzeki (abbess-princess) nunnery of the and part of the Nanzen-ji School. It was established in 1654 for the tenth daughter of the retired Emperor Go-mizunoo. The temple houses screen paintings by Kano Eitoku and Kano Motonobu, numerous treasures related to the Imperial family and a collection of traditional Kyoto dolls (Gosho Ningyo). Yet  it was the wonderful garden that captivated me most. Not only visitors could admire camellias in full bloom, but the grounds were also covered in petals from the cherry and camellia trees. The sea of pink petals looked almost like snow in winter – it was a mesmersising sight. This is one of my favourite gardens on this trip.








Reikan-ji Temple


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Eikando Zenrin-ji


At the southern end of the Philosopher’s path lies Eikando Zenrin-ji temple, the head temple of the Seizan branch of Japan’s Jodo-shu Buddhist sect originally founded in 853. The temple has a long and complicated history, and houses many National Treasures including a famous Amida statue and Buddhist paintings since the Kamakura period (1185-1333).

The temple is famous for its autumn foliage, and it is less busy at other times. Nestled in Kyoto’s Eastern Mountain, Higashiyama, parts of the temple offer a nice view over the city. I was too exhausted to climb up to Tahoto, the pagoda that offers the best view at the compound.



Yudofu Hitotori (Boiled Tofu Set) lunch at Okutan in the grounds of Nanzen-ji Temple




Nanzenji Temple


Next to Eikando Zenrin-ji is Nanzenji Temple, the head temple of the Nanzen-ji branch of Rinzai Zen. This large complex contains many temple buildings including multiple sub-temples. Founded in the 13th century, the temple was burnt down and rebuilt many times over the centuries. Its famous Sanmon gate was originally constructed in the 13th century, destroyed in 1369 at the order of the government, and reconstructed in 1628. The hojo garden is considered to be one of the best examples of karesansui gardens, and was created by the notable feudal lord/gardener and tea ceremony master, Kobori Enshu, in the 17th century.

After a long day of visiting various temples and gardens along the Philosopher’s Path, I was feeling exhausted and templed out by the time I reached Nazenji. As much as I wanted to visit its famous garden, I decided to skip it (the crowd was also a bit off-putting) and headed straight to my last temple visit of the day – Konchi-in, a small sub-temple at the Nanzenji temple complex.





Why Konchi-in? While I was planning my trip, the “crane and turtle” garden at Konchi-in was mentioned in my Zen garden book and praised by various articles as one of the best examples of shakkei (borrowed scenery) in Kyoto. Also, the temple’s tea ceremony room is one of the three major tea rooms in Kyoto. And unlike Nanzenji temple, there were only a few visitors when I visited this temple and garden, so it was a refreshing break from the crowds.

Founded in the 15th century, this temple was relocated and made the residence of the Nanzenji’s Abbot, Ishin Suden, in 1626. As a connoisseur of the tea ceremony, he built a new hojo and created a new tea room. He commissioned Kobori Enshu (who was also responsible for the hojo garden at Nanzenji) to design a new garden that payed homage to the Tokugawa dynasty, which resulted in the “crane and turtle” garden.





Kochi-in Temple and its famous “crane and turtle” garden


I sat quietly opposite the garden to look for the crane and turtle but failed. However, it is a beautiful and tranquil garden, so even if you can’t read or understand the symbolic meaning of the garden, you could still appreciate its picturesque and relaxing setting.








Situated near Nanzen-ji temple, Murin-an is not a popular destination for tourists because it is not within a temple compound. It is a Meiji period strolling garden built between 1894 and 1896 by Yamagata Aritomo, a former two-time Prime Minister of Japan. He was a keen gardener, and worked with Japanese master gardener Ogawa Jihee on this plot of land bought from Nanzen-ji. Interestingly, it is in an East-meets-West style that is influenced by English landscape gardens and Western architecture.

The garden uses the eastern hills of Kyoto as a viewpoint, adopting the technique of shuzan – so that it appears as an extension of the mountain scenery. There is also a small stream that is fed by the waters of the nearby Lake Biwa, Japan’s biggest lake. I particularly liked this garden because the scenery is perpetually changing as you walk further away from the building. There is always something unexpected hidden from your view as you walk forward, and it gives you a sense of exploration and anticipation.


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There are two buildings here, and one of them is a Japanese style wooden villa with a tea room where visitors could rest and have tea opposite the scenic garden; the other is a Western brick building where meetings of foreign policy took place before the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-5.

If you are planning a trip to Kyoto, I urge you to look for some lesser-known temples and gardens where you are likely to be pleasantly surprised. And best of all, you could take your time and enjoy the garden quietly with very few visitors.





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