Kyoto is Japan's number one destination for learning about the country's history and traditional culture. The ex-capital boasts some of the country's most famous Zen gardens. Here are 4 of the best-known and most-visited.
Ryoanji – 竜安寺
Ryoanji's name means 'temple of the peaceful dragon.' It's one of several of the city's temples that has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Ryoanji contains 15 boulders all of different shapes. Some are moss-covered but most are bare. Although seemingly random, there is a reason behind the placement of the boulders. At any given point in the garden, only 14 are visible. It's said that the 15th rock can only be seen when one has attained enlightenment.
Tenryuji – 天龍寺
Tenryuji is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its name means 'heavenly dragon temple' and it is considered the most important temple in the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. The garden is designed around Sogen Pond (曹源池). It uses both the pond and the surrounding 'borrowed scenery' of the nearby mountain ranges to create a stunning bit of natural scenery. There is also raked sand and a dry waterfall that runs into the pond. Tenryuji is one of the oldest Zen gardens in Kyoto.
Zuiho-in is part of the Daitoku-ji (大徳寺) temple complex in Kyoto. The most remarkable feature of Zuiho-in is its raked sand that's reminiscent of flowing water and the moss-covered rocks that are arranged to create a mini-landscape of the nearby Mt. Horai (蓬莱山). The raked sand suggests the ripples of waves lapping against the rocks.
Zuiho-in is also interesting because in one part of the garden, a formation of 7 rocks creates a Christian cross. A Virgin Mary statue is also supposedly buried in the garden. This hidden statue symbolizes Japanese kakure kirishitan (隠れキリシタン) who were converted to the forbidden religion but forced to hide it. In traditional Japanese fashion, the new religion is placed right alongside the old.
Tofukuji – 東福寺
Tofukuji is a temple complex in the southeastern outskirts of Kyoto. It has a central meditation hall surrounded by four gardens in each of the cardinal directions. Although the temple complex was built during the Kamakura period, its gardens were designed in the Showa Era by Mirei Shigemori.
The eastern garden of Hojo is especially evocative of flowing water. The raked sand is broken up by circular swirls that remind you of eddies in the stream. Rocks are placed around the garden to give the appearance of islands. These gardens are especially popular during the autumn, when people visit them to see the changing colors of the leaves.
Zen gardens are used by monks for meditation. When you visit a Zen garden, you can sit quietly and reflect on its shapes and colors. It's a unique and unforgettable experience.