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3 top serene Zen gardens in Kyoto, Japan 京都の枯山水庭園

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Overview

  • In this article, you can learn about top 3 Zen garden in Kyoto.
  • The word “Zen garden” does not exist in Japanese language. We use “Karesansui garden” instead.
  • You can understand the meaning of “Karesansui” with a short introduction of Japanese garden history.
  • I’ll show you the best 3 Zen/Karesansui gardens in Kyoto: Ryoanji, Komyoin, and Tenjuan.
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What does the word “Zen garden” mean?

The term “Zen garden” sounds strange to us because Japanese language doesn’t have the word. The gardens it intends to describe is “Karesansui (枯山水)” garden.

“Karessnsui (枯山水)” stands for “Dry garden.” “Kare” means dry and “sansui” does garden in old Japanese. Why is a garden dry? Let us make it clear with an introduction to Japanese Karesansui garden.

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A short history of Karesnsui garden

神泉苑の桜2017

Karesansui garden was invented in Muromachi period (1336 – 1573). Before the invasion of Karesansui, water, usually pond or stream, was indispensable to Japanese garden. In ancient time, Japanese people adored nature. Due to our traditional animism, water represented dignity and fertility of sea in garden.

In Kamakura period (1185 – 1333), Eisai, the founder of Rinzai school, introduced Zen to Japan from Son dynasty of China.  In its philosophy, “Wabi Sabi (侘びさび)” was worshiped. The word means “Solitude and poverty.” In this conception, things shall be simple to be prolific and profound. Typical Karesansui garden has no waterfall or stream, only small sand pebbles make pond or sea instead. We can find no plants except moss or evergreen. A glimpse of small rocks reminds of islets on vast ocean… Zanzan Johsui of garden sometimes it makes us wonder. “Zanzan Johsui (残山剰水) ” is an art of ancient Chinese painting. In this technique, artist depicts a part of subject to describe the whole.

In addition to it, our point of view was on the verge of changing: People enjoyed strolling around in garden before the introduction of Karesansui and when Zen gave birth to Karesansui, garden became a thing to be enjoyed from a room in Hojo building adjacent to it.

天龍寺の桜

The garden in Tenryuji temple was a good example of an intermediate of Karesansui and its ancestor: It has a pond and sand field. We can walk along the shore and admire a view of it in a room of Hojo. (It is designed to be seen from Hojo.)

In Kamakura and Muromachi period, Zen and Rinzai shool Buddhism was so popular among Samurai and commoners that many Zen temples with Karesansui garden was build.

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Ryoanji temple 龍安寺

The Zen garden/ The Rock garden

龍安寺の桜 2018

The “Zen rock garden” of Ryoanji is the most famous Karesansui garden in the world. In addition to it, the most mysterious garden: Ryoanji temple was burnt out many times in its history. I suppose documents about it and its garden was lost completely. As far as I know, the oldest one is a guidebook of Kyoto named Miayako Meisyo Zue in 1780. The book has no reference to the garden because Ryoanji was famous for mandarin ducks in the pond before Queen Elizabeth ll visit.

We have anther mystery: No one can tell what the garden means. Usually, Karesansui garden is has theme. For example, the garden of Korinin temple means a Buddhist creed. On the other hand, we are at a loss for it meaning of that of Ryoanji’s. It is commonly believed that it implies ancient Chinese anecdote called Toranoko watashi (A tiger mom crosses a river with her babies.). If you interested in the story, see the link below.)

The garden is extraordinary Karesansui. The view of it makes us fell as though we were in the center of the Universe. To our regrets, it is so famous that it always crowded with tourist. If you wanted admire it, it would be better to be the first or the last visitor of a day.

Enjoy Rryoanji in complete silence. I was the last visitor of the day.

Ryoanji: Zen rock garden facts 龍安寺英語
The rock garden in Ryoanji temple is the most famous dry garden in the world. Let us discuss about it in terms of Zen.

If you were interested in Ryoanji, see the link above.

How to get to Ryoanji temple?


Kyoto city bus: Ryoanji mae bus stop.

Randen: Ryoanji station

About Ryoanji temple

  • Phone 
  • Website Ryoanji official (English)
  • Entrance fee: 500 yen
  • Open hours: 8:00-17:00
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Komyoin temple 光明院

The Zen garden

光明院の紅葉2016 波心の庭

Komyoin has the most overlooked Karesansui garden in Kyoto. It is only known to so-called “Kyoto enthusiasts.”  The garden is designed by Mirei Shigemori, a famous garden designer in the 20th century.

The garden is named Hashin no niwa. It was named after a Zen riddle. An apprentice asked a Zen master what Buddhism. He answered “With calm mind,  the answer appears as it is as the moon appears on a surface of pond or sea.”

光明院波心の庭

It is also known as Niji no Kokedera (The moss garden over the rainbow). Mirei is famous for his technique of take advantage of moss in garden. The mosses on the garden stands for calm sea shore against roaring ocean.

There are 75 stones in the garden. 9 of them represent Buddhist statues.

光明院 波心の庭と桜/Komyoin Zen garden and cherry blossoms

Komyoin always has scarce visitors except in the season of Autumn leaves. It is one of the best place to meditate in Kyoto.

光明院のつつじ

It shows a good example of our attitude for nature. Traditional Japanese house has usually has sliding doors instead of walls. In warm season, we remove them to be in nature. Nature is always close to us and we show our gratitude for it.

光明院のツツジ

We always enjoy Gakubuchi Teian technique. It is an art to admire garden. We consider window as a picture frame.

Komyoin temple 光明院, the best Zen garden in Kyoto 京都
Komyoin is solemn, uderrated temple but has the best Zen garden to meditate in Kyoto. Let us visit there in four seasons and enjoy cherry blossoms, autumn leaves, and snow!

If you were interested in Ryoanji, see the link above.

How to get to Komyoin temple?

JR/Keihan Tofukuji station

About Komyoin temple

  • Phone 
  • Website Not available
  • Entrance fee: Not available (About 300 yen. )
  • Open hours: Not available
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Tenjuan temple 天授庵

天授庵の庭園

Tenjuan has also an underrated Karesausui garden. It is only know to Kyoto enthusiasts. In the season of Autumn leaves it welcomes many visitors as other landmarks do. In other season, it is one of the most calm place to visit. It is also the best place to meditate.

The garden is designed by Kobori Enshu, the famous artist/arsitcrat in the 16th century. There are passages there. They are made of stones on moss bed. One of them are made when Tenjuan was established in the 14th century.

天授庵の紅葉2017

It has evergreen (Japanese pine tree) as other Karesansui garden do but also has maple leaves. These trees are so warm. Without them, we get so tense: The garden has enormous strength despite its tranquility.

天授庵の枯山水庭園

The peculiar thing in Tenjuan is that the garden faces north. Usually, Karesausui garden faces south because white sands of it reflect the sun light to light the rooms in Hojo. In Tenjuan, we are able to admire the garden in shadow for a long time. Owing to the shadow, the garden has plenty of mosses. The mosses keep the garden alive and give the strength to it.

天授庵の庭園

Tenjuan also has a stroll garden. At the entrance, we can enjoy Gakubuchi Teien view of it.

永観堂のライトアップ2016

At Tenjuan, we can enjoy night illumination of Karesausui garden. Illumination of Karesansui is not usual. We can admire it in Kodaiji, Entokuin, Korinin, and Tenjuan.

19 night illumination spots of Autumn leaves in Kyoto 2018 紅葉ライトアップ
The top 19 sites to enjoy autumn leaves illumination in Kyoto; You can learn what to see in each site, opening hours, entrance fee, and the ways to get there.
雪の天授庵/Tenju-an in snow : 京都ヤギガイド

Enjoy the Zen and stroll garden in snow.

Tenjuan garden: Autumn leaves and night illumination in Kyoto. 天授庵の紅葉
The precise info on Tenjuan garden in fall; Autumn leaves, night illumination, zen garden, the best time to visit, and more!

If you were interested in Ryoanji, see the link above.

How to get to Tenjuan temple

About 10 minutes walk form Kyoto city subway Keage station.

About Tenjuan temple

  • Phone 075-771-0744
  • Website Not available
  • Entrance fee: 500 yen
  • Open hours: 8:40-17:00
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