Golden temple reflected in a lake
Culture & tradition,  Gardens,  Japan,  Lens-Artists

Exploring the temple gardens of Kyoto

Japanese gardens are not beautiful by accident. Every detail is carefully considered, every plant and rock precisely placed. And the result is often stunning.

It was in Kyoto that I really came to appreciate the nuances of Japanese garden design. Gardens in Japan fall into two distinct categories: those that are to be experienced by walking around them, and those that are simply viewed from a building or veranda.

The former are usually called ‘strolling gardens’, Kaiyu-shiki teien. They incorporate a variety of elements, almost always including water in the shape of a ‘pond and island garden’. This is the oldest type of garden found in Japan. The islands in the pond are considered sacred spaces, representing heaven; they often have bridges linking them to the banks of the pond.

Gardens intended to be viewed from a veranda include ‘dry landscape gardens’, Karesansui. Sand or gravel is raked in a variety of ways to cover the ground, representing the ocean; Karesansui means ‘dry mountain water’. These gardens are particularly associated with Zen temples.

Another form of garden designed to be looked at rather than entered is the courtyard garden, Tsubo-niwa. These are usually very small, tucked between or even within buildings. You can see some examples of these in my post about the merchant houses of Takayama. Here I want to focus on the gardens we visited in Kyoto which illustrate many of the above styles.


Tenryu-ji in Arashiyama is one of the most important Zen temples in Kyoto and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was built in 1339 by the ruling shogun Ashikaga Takauji, who dedicated it to his predecessor, the Emperor Go-Daigo. These two were formerly allies but Takauji turned against the emperor in his struggle for supremacy over Japan. By building the temple, Takauji intended to appease the former emperor’s spirits. Many of the temple buildings were repeatedly lost in fires and wars over the centuries; and most of the current halls date from the relatively recent Meiji Period (1868-1912).

Japanese garden with ponds and rocks
In Tenryu-ji Temple gardens, Arashiyama

The main reason we came to Tenryu-ji was to see its gardens, which was just as well, as at the time of our visit its main halls were being renovated and it wasn’t possible to go inside. But in any case, the gardens are considered the main draw here. They are designated as a Special Place of Scenic Beauty, and were among the loveliest we saw in Japan, I thought.

Unlike the buildings they have survived unchanged through the centuries. At their heart, immediately in front of one of the main buildings, is a beautiful pond, Sogen Pond. Various rocks are artfully placed in and around the water to look completely natural, in a technique known as Ishigumi, literally ‘arranged rocks’; and large carp swim in the water. Paths meander among the trees past a number of little shrines and sculptures which are dotted around. This style of garden is known as a Chisen-kaiyu-shiki or pond-stroll garden, which sums it up perfectly.

The forested Mount Arashiyama and Mount Kameyama to the west form an attractive background to the garden. This is an excellent example of the Japanese garden design technique, Shakkei, usually translated as ‘borrowed scenery’. In this, the garden is designed in such a way that the surrounding scenery provides a background that complements and enhances the ambiance. Thus, the garden can be placed near an old forest or in front of an important landmark, such as a temple or a castle. But most frequently the garden designers used nearby hills or mountains, as here at Tenryu-ji.


The Zen style of garden dates from a period in Japanese history when interest in Zen Buddhism was at its height, in the late 14th-16th centuries. At this time gardens became smaller, simpler and more minimalist; but most retained many of the same elements as before, including ponds, islands, bridges and waterfalls. However, an extremely minimalist version emerged, the Karesansui dry garden. This uses nothing but rocks, gravel and sand to represent all the elements of the landscape. This example at Ryoan-ji is one of the most famous in the country.

Arrangement of rocks and raked gravel
Detail of the Zen garden

It is rectangular in shape, enclosed by a clay wall. Arranged within it are fifteen stones of different sizes, composed in five groups: one group of five stones, two groups of three, and two groups of two stones. These stones are surrounded by white gravel which is carefully raked each day by the monks. The only vegetation is some moss surrounding each group of stones. The garden is intended to be viewed from a seated position on the veranda of the hojo, the pavilion that serves as the residence of the head priest.

At first glance it may seem random, though elegant in its design. But everything is very deliberate. The stones are placed in such a way that it is impossible to see the entire composition at once from the veranda. They are also arranged so that when looking at the garden from any angle (other than from above) only fourteen are visible at a time. Tradition holds that only through attaining enlightenment could a person view all fifteen.

And the wall too is part of the design. The clay has been mixed with rapeseed oil to give these brown and rust-coloured tones. This is intended to set off the whiteness of the gravel by absorbing light, and to create a neutral background that focuses attention on the stones.

It isn’t known who designed this garden, and although there are many theories, no one can say for sure what it is intended to represent. Some say it is an abstraction of a tiger and her cubs crossing a river; but that appears to refer to an earlier version of the garden that had only nine stones. Some say these are small islands in the ocean, or mountain peaks emerging through a sea of cloud. Others have suggested that the arrangement of the rocks relates to the Japanese character for ‘heart’; or that there is some hidden geometry behind them. It is probably best to simply accept that they are as they are because someone wanted them to look exactly like this, rather than minimise their potential impact by straining to find an unintended meaning.

On the far side of the pavilion (that is, away from the garden) the building is surrounded by trees and moss. Here there is a famous stone washbasin known as Tsukubai, dating from the 17th century. It bears a simple four-character Zen inscription: ‘I learn only to be contented’.

Stone basin with bamboo water spout
Tsukubai, the washbasin
The pond garden

Although Ryoan-ji Temple is best known for its Zen dry garden, there is much more to it than that. It has a pretty pond garden which is also well worth exploring, its lush greenery all the more refreshing as a contrast to the white gravel and bare rocks of the former. This is Kyoyochi Pond, built in the 12th century when this site still served as an aristocrat’s villa. There are large carp, white ducks and pink water lilies. The path around the pond leads past the small stone bridge that will take you on to the islet with a little torii gate and shrine, and past a large stone Buddha statue.


Kinkaku-ji is best known for its pavilion, known as the Golden Pavilion. Some sights are so much talked about and so often visited that you wonder if they can really be that wonderful. The Golden Pavilion is one such sight – and yes, it really is that wonderful.

Like many of Kyoto’s temples, this was originally the site of a private villa; but it was converted to a Zen temple at the very start of the 15th century by the son of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, as a memorial to his father. Most of the buildings were lost in the Onin War later the same century, apart from the pavilion which survived. But in 1950 it too was lost, burned down by a novice monk, who tried to commit suicide as a result of what he had done. It was rebuilt in 1955 and that is the building we see today, a close copy of the original.

You can’t go inside the pavilion, only admire from outside, although a display panel does show some photos of the interior. It is unusual in that each floor has a different style.

Golden phoenix against the sky
The golden phoenix

The top floor is a Zen meditation hall, built in Karayo style or Zen temple style. It is called Kukkyo-cho and its interior walls are also gilded. The middle floor is a hall dedicated to Kannon Bodhisattva; it is built in Buke-zukuri, the style of the samurai house and is called Cho-on-do. It holds a seated statue of the Kannon surrounded by statues of the Four Heavenly Kings; although this is not on view to the public.

The lower, unpainted floor is a more secular space, designed for admiring the landscape. It is named Ho-sui-in and is Shinden-zukuri, or palace style. The building is topped with a wonderful golden phoenix.

The strolling garden

After viewing the Golden Temple of Kinkaku-ji from most sides, the path led us around the rest of the gardens. These have retained their original design from the days of Yoshimitsu, the Shogun who first built the temple on this spot. They are landscaped in a very natural way, with a variety of trees, bamboo, mosses and a stream, in the ‘strolling garden’ style.

There is a lot of symbolism in the garden, with the rocks, bridges and plants arranged in particular ways to represent famous places in Chinese and Japanese literature. The largest of the islets in the pond represents the islands that constitute Japan itself, while four rocks which form a straight line in the pond near the pavilion are said to represent sailboats anchored at night, bound for the Isle of Eternal Life of Chinese mythology.

Here and there in the grounds we came across statues and sculptures. The one in my photo stands on an island in another small pond, An-min-taku. It is called Hakuja-no-tsuka (the Mound in Memory of the White Snake). This pond is said to never dry up.

And a pond that never dries up is as good a place as any to finish our tour of Kyoto gardens, posted in response to Amy’s Lens-Artists Challenge theme of Gardens.

As a final image I want to share an effect created from a photo of berries taken in Tenryu-ji gardens. I learned how to make these twirls from John Steiner aka Photo by Johnbo, thanks to his interview with Marsha. I love the effect and can see myself getting a bit addicted and over-using it, but for now I’ll restrain myself to a single image!

Abstract green and purple image
Twirling berries in Tenryu-ji gardens

I visited Kyoto in 2013


  • Ju-Lyn

    Ah, what a satisfying dip into Kyoto – again, I am so taken by your eye and skill at capturing a scene & ambience with so much sensitivity.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Anne 🙂 And no worries about missing this, or anything else – I’ve been going a bit mad recently so you can’t possibly keep up with everything 😆

  • rkrontheroad

    I have been to many of the gardens in Kyoto when I lived in Japan, enjoyed seeing them in your post. My favorite, thought small, was Ryoan-ji, the Zen garden. I have some big rocks in my wild mountain yard these days, and I like to think of them as being a Zen garden (without the sand).

      • rkrontheroad

        Well, maybe not… the tall grasses surround the rocks so they tend to be less noticeable as the season progresses. It’s a big open space and on a mountain side where people let their yards grow wild. But I know they are there. 😉

      • Forestwood

        We visited the temple gardens early and were lucky enough to get photos without many people. I wasn’t aware of a lot of the background of the temple so thanks for sharing that detail.
        The Golden pavilion is incredible and enjoyed most I think with a quiet time for contemplation, not the busy group- stuffed mecca.
        How do you make that twirl effect?

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Teresa 🙂 Maybe my photos are deceptive, as ‘on your own’ is one thing that’s hard to manage here! These gardens are (in ‘normal’ times) very popular with tourists to Kyoto, for obvious reasons! Glad you liked the twirl – it was great fun to do!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Nancy – yes those gardens at Tenryu-ji in Arashiyama were my favourite too, as they were the most tranquil (we were there first thing in the morning) and had so much water 🙂

  • Ayuri Yuasa

    Excellent explanation about temples and gardens in Kyoto!
    The Golden pavilion is one of my most favorite historical sites in Kyoto .
    As you mentioned in your blog,
    the Golden pavilion is the hybrid of three different architectural styles. Like his pavilion, Yoshimitsu Ashikaga had a distinguished career … First, he became the Shogun (the highest title as a warrior), then, he got the highest title in the imperial court, then after that became a priest.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Ayuri, I’m really glad to have your endorsement of my explanation, as a local expert 😀 And that information about Yoshimitsu Ashikaga is really interesting – three layers to his career matching the three layers of the pavilion!

  • I. J. Khanewala

    You’ve got some of my favourite Japanese gardens there. My first visits to Kinkakuji and Ryoanji were at the height of Indian Ocean monsoon. Since then I’ve gone back in different seasons. Objectively, the season you seem to have visited in (late summer, autumn perhaps?) is probably the best, but the views in rain remain my favourite.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, we were there in October when some trees were starting to turn but there was still lots of green. I’d hoped for more autumn colour (we got some later in our trip, up in the mountains at Kamikochi) but the acers were vivid 🙂 I can see the gardens would look lovely in (gentle) rain but I suspect the reflections of the Golden Pavilion wouldn’t be as good – although on the plus side, I imagine there would be fewer visitors?

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Phil &/or Michaela 🙂 They are only serene in the more distant parts where you can get away from the many other tourists wanting to see them! [see my reply to Leighton below 😉 ]

  • leightontravels

    Beautifully presented information on Japanese garden design accompanied by fantastic photos. I have yet to visit Kyoto, my fiancee though spent days exploring temples and gardens. She enjoyed reading your article very much. Seems that she has fond memories of all three mentioned gardens with the exception of the selfie-stick armed crowds at Kinkaku-ji:).

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Leighton, I’m glad you enjoyed this and your fiancee too 🙂 I’m with her on the crowds at Kinkaku-ji, my initial impression there was jostling elbows in order to see this classic view. But once I was at the edge of the pond and it was my turn to stare and take photos I forgave them to some extent because I could see what all the fuss was about! And we found that we only had to walk a short distance from that first viewpoint for the crowds to thin out considerably. It seemed they all came to get their photos from that one spot and then left, hurrying off to the next sight 😉 The same thing happened last year at Ta Prohm – there was a queue of people with selfie sticks waiting to take a photo by the ‘Tomb Raider’ tree, but walk around the corner further into the temple and there were loads of similar trees and and we found only one other couple exploring!!

  • Amy

    Your beautiful garden series reminds me the two trips we made a few years. I love the tranquility of Janosnese garden.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Ah, you’ve been twice to Japan Amy? How wonderful! I assume you went to Kyoto on at least one of them? I’d love to go back and to see some other parts of the country too, but who knows if we will now with so many other unseen places yet to explore!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Jo, glad you enjoyed exploring with me 🙂 I find the Zen gardens interesting but it’s those stroll gardens I especially like as there’s always something lovely around the next bend!

  • Tina Schell

    Beautiful gardens Sarah, loved your choices this week and your explanations were great. Also a nice shout-out for John, one of my favorite bloggers! As for twirls, some of the best I’ve seen are on Ann-Christine’s Leya blog. She is really great at getting the twirl to emanate from a central point of interest, which remains clear in the center. Need to figure out how she does that!!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Tina 🙂 I only ‘met’ John through Marsha’s interview – I’m so glad she chose to feature him! I’ll certainly check out Ann-Christine’s swirls. You’ve laid down the challenge to get my central point of interest IN the centre, but I reckon a bit of judicious post-twirling cropping should do the trick 😉

  • margaret21

    I was interested, when we visited South Korea, to see how their own gardens are heavily influenced by Japanese thought. Is this true of North Korea too? It’s a bit hard to find a corner of that very desirable solitude though!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      We didn’t see any formal gardens of this kind in N Korea – I suspect they don’t have them. We did visit a large park and I could see hints of a Japanese influence in some areas although they would probably deny the connection!

  • CliffClaven

    The photos complement the intelligent and informative text. If you can avoid the crowds and find yourself alone in a Japanese temple garden, the experience is peaceful and restorative. I have stared at the stones in Ryoan-ji on several visits; I understand them differently every time.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Michael, and for the follow 🙂 Avoiding crowds didn’t seem to be an option in Kyoto apart from, surprisingly, at Kinkaku-ji. Everyone else only seemed interested in the Golden Pavilion and didn’t bother to walk around the rest of the gardens. We had several corners to ourselves!

  • photobyjohnbo

    Great background on Japanese gardens, and a worthy entry to this week’s Lens-Artists photo challenge!
    It’s good to see my post on twirls getting new life from Photoshop Elements users. Thanks for the shout out.

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