Kyoto has the most glorious gardens in all of Japan. From karesansui Zen rock gardens to stroll gardens, the best exemplars of the art of Japanese gardening can be found in Kyoto. In this post, I’ll share my favorite gardens in Kyoto.
Fair warning: it was difficult to narrow down Kyoto’s garden highlights to a mere top 10 list. Realistically, you’re not going to have time to visit 10 gardens during your visit to Kyoto, but you should pick a few from this list (of different styles) to get a taste of this quintessential Kyoto experience.
Japan’s gardens are largely not what Westerners might picture when first envisioning the topic. For the most part, these are not bursting with flowers. Kyoto’s gardens usually include some plants and might include various floral displays, but just as often are defined by their arrangement of rocks and raked gravel. To us, gardening is synonymous with horticulture. In Japan, it’s more about design, meditation, and even religion.
Gardens in Japan are thoughtful, and worthy of scholarly reflection. They’re also so exquisite that dozens of photo books have been devoted to the topic of Kyoto’s gardens. My two favorite English books are Kyoto Gardens: Masterworks of the Japanese Gardener’s Art and Houses and Gardens of Kyoto. These provide great background information, and also glimpses inside some gardens that aren’t often open to the general public.
The top two gardens on this list underscore one reason why I love Kyoto so much. It’s the first time either have been mentioned on this blog, and that’s because they are relatively recent ‘discoveries’ for us. While we had visited their main temples several times in the past, we had not previously been inside either garden–and this is after months of time spent in Kyoto.
These are now two of my favorite gardens, and the fact that they are places I didn’t visit until recently makes me excited for what other beauty in Kyoto I’ve yet to see. It’s a city that slowly reveals itself to you, and it’s both exciting and a little depressing to know I’ll never see all of the wonders that Kyoto beholds. But I digress; let’s discuss the 10 glorious gardens of Kyoto that I have seen…
Karesansui at Ryoanji Temple
If the success of a Japanese dry landscape garden is measured in how “Zen-like” it feels with the presence of large and obnoxious tour groups, Ryoanji’s karesansui is the LeBron of Zen gardens. This is the most famous Japanese Zen garden in the world, and the crowds it draws prove that.
A large part of this karesansui’s allure is its mystery. Little is known about its designer’s intentions or the garden’s meaning, which has led to rampant speculation and theorizing. Its simplicity is deceptive, and we both found ourselves interpreting it in different ways, which is part of the experience. The outer stroll garden at Ryoanji Temple is likewise beautiful, so don’t skip that, either.
Okay, so my photo above imparts a sense of bleakness more than it does beauty, but the landscape gardens here truly are stunning. Had I made the trek here during the heart of fall colors season rather than the start of winter, this scene would be bursting with fiery red momija.
While I’m due a return visit when the natural scenery is a bit more…alive…the design of the gardens themselves are stunning year-round. Sanboin Garden is perhaps my favorite part of the temple, as the 800 stones that dot the landscape appear at once haphazard and elegantly-arranged. It’s a lot to take in, and I spent nearly an hour here just sitting and observing.
Nanzenji Temple Gardens
I’m taking a liberal view of the gardens at Nanzenji, including both the free areas (which truthfully don’t meet any traditional definition of a Japanese garden but are nonetheless beautiful green spaces) and the paid sub-temples (that are absolutely gardens). Both categories have some wonderful highlights, and are worth visiting.
The paid Tenjuan is the most notable of these, and what you can see here depends upon the season. In the fall, the interior is open for nighttime illuminations of the rock and pond gardens. Other times, the exterior is open, and visitors can stroll around the pond. We’re also fond of the free areas, which likewise offer wonderful walking areas and beautiful landscaping.
Heian Jingu Shrine Garden
Heian Jingu Shrine offers excellent paid gardens behind the main shrine courtyard, and is a must-visit during cherry blossom season when the weeping trees provide a brilliant splash of color to the design. Outside of sakura season, these gardens would be further down my list of must-see gardens.
Built for Kyoto’s 1100th anniversary, four of the best traditional gardens in the city are “hidden” back in the paid area behind the main shrine building. These are each interesting and unique, and collectively make for a great stroll garden. Heian Shrine’s vibrant vermilion architecture provides a beautiful contrast to the changing scenery of all four seasons, whether that be the weeping cherry blossoms in spring, bright greens of summer, or reds of fall.
Okochi Sanso Villa Stroll Garden
Okochi Sanso Villa is the former residence of Denjirō Ōkōchi, a famous Japanese samurai actor who spent 30 years meticulously designing and constructing this villa and its gardens on the south side of Mount Ogura. His beautiful gardens evoke Kyoto’s four seasons, and feature sublime design.
Some visitors balk at the 1,000 yen price, but that includes a cup of matcha and sweet treat. The grounds at Okochi Sanso Villa make for a lovely stroll and a great opportunity to escape Arashiyama’s crowds. Additionally, if you’re unable to score reservations to Kyoto’s famed villas–Katsura Imperial Villa and Shugakuin Imperial Villa–Okochi Sanso might be your only alternative. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Okochi Sanso Villa.
Katsura Imperial Villa Stroll Garden
Katsura Imperial Villa is the holy grail of Japanese architecture, but its designs only succeed so well because of the way they are punctuated by the stroll garden. The architecture and garden effectively compliment one another, each enhancing the other and drawing out its beauty.
As we cover in our Katsura Imperial Palace: How to Visit post, the villa requires joining a free tour given by the Imperial Household Agency. The best option for joining one of these tours is via the online application (which should be done months in advance), but limited same day availability is also available. It also should be noted that Katsura Imperial Villa is somewhat isolated from other popular Kyoto points of interest, but as we cover in our 1-Day Southwestern Kyoto Itinerary, it’s worth jumping through the hoops to visit.
Zuihoin at Daitokuji Temple
The famed garden here is Daisenin, but for reasons discussed in our Daitokuji Temple post, I’m not a fan of the overall visitor experience there. Fortunately, nearby Zuihoin excels in every regard as Daisenin, and exceeds it in plenty of others. For a while, this was my favorite Zen garden in Kyoto.
For me, the highlight of Zuihoin is the zagged rocks coupled with the fusuma art, which together evoke Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in China. The result of this is an experience that “speaks to me” more than most rock gardens, but that’s obviously a personal reaction and your mileage may vary.
That’s one reason I recommend exploring and discovering places in Kyoto. You truly never know which under-the-radar temples or gardens will become your personal favorites thanks to a particular element or clever detail that captures your attention or imagination. Your favorite gardens might be totally different than mine.
Silver Pavilion Shogun Stroll Garden
The Shogun stroll garden at Ginkaku-ji Temple (Silver Pavilion) is one of the best traditional landscape gardens in Japan. The garden was reportedly designed by the great landscape artist Soami and features various styles including a dry sand garden and moss garden.
The Silver Pavilion is renowned for its manicured sand gardens, which are the distinguishing element of the Silver Pavilion, and what draws the big crowds to the temple. The “Sea of Silver Sand” with a massive sand cone called the “Moon Viewing Platform” (symbolizing Mount Fuji) are pretty cool. The stroll garden is enjoyed by walking along a one-way circuit that is usually extremely crowded, but it’s still stunning.
Taizo-in at Myoshinji Temple
My perception of Taizoin might be colored by the fact that we waited to visit until its famed weeping cherry tree was in full bloom. Standing under this try, surrounded by four Zen rock gardens offered a striking juxtaposition, and was downright magical. The above photo cannot even do it justice, and no matter how many photos I took (and I walked away with over 100!), I couldn’t effectively capture the aura of this scene.
It was more than just the beautiful weeping cherry tree flanked by four Zen gardens. Venturing into this subtemple of Myoshinji, there was something enchanting around every corner. It’s something of a hybrid garden, capturing the essence of a stroll garden with the contemplative atmosphere of a Zen garden. Taizoin packs a powerful punch, and is the reason to visit Myoshinji Temple.
Hojo Garden at Tofukuji Temple
We didn’t visit Hojo Garden at Tofukuji Temple until the end of our last one-month stay in Kyoto, which I twisted into a point of pride at the top of the post. It was also a point of embarrassment, as our previous month-long rental in Kyoto was within walking distance of Tofukuji, and we visited the temple many times for fall colors. However, we wanted to experience the garden sans tour bus crowds, so we put it off, not realizing just how amazing it would be.
At Tofukuji, you get 4 gardens for the price of one! The chamber of the chief priest is surrounded by gardens, with a distinct garden on each side of the building. The designer of these gardens, Shigemori Mirei, called them ‘concept gardens containing abstract expression’ with each evoking a different scene. You can “see” the Chinese mythology or rice fields or Big Dipper once these meanings have been explained to you, but even before then, the designs are visually-arresting and thought provoking. It’s a satisfying experience to sit before each of these, and peel back the layers, noticing the minutiae of their brilliant designs. Much like so many Kyoto gardens, these are ostensibly simple and cleanly designed, but there’s much more than meets the (superficial) eye.
If you’re planning a trip to the Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend starting by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit!
Have you visited any gardens in Kyoto? Which were your favorites–and least favorites? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting these gardens in Kyoto interest you? Any questions we can answer? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!