Hidden pleasures

Hidden pleasures

Kyoto’s little-visited gardens justify a trip all their own


Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on July 2005


With some 200 gardens in Kyoto, it’s inevitable that certain have become the destinations of large tour groups. While these important gardens are truly lovely creations, there is a cognoscenti of admirers who will tell of extraordinary landscape creations that receive little more than a respectful trickle of visitors, gardens tucked away into the folds of hills or concealed between residential lanes.

The Manshu-in is one such locale. Located in the lush hills of Higashiyama, its symbolic landscapes contrast stone and gravel foregrounds and turtle and crane islands with skillfully arranged peninsulas and promontories, reinforcing the sense of an infinitely wide sea. The silence of this garden and its exquisite temple architecture are as impressive as the landforms.

A 20-minute walk south of Manshu-in, Kompuku-ji rises in three tiers of azaleas and shrubbery from a bed of astringent white sand. The terracing of this little-visited garden provides an arresting contrast to the backdrop of Higashiyama.

In the suburbs southeast of Kyoto Station, Tofuku-ji is a temple complex with a number of exceedingly well-known gardens. Several little-visited sub-temples also have interesting tracts open to the public. The Komyo-in, a Showa-period garden, is the work of Shigemori Mirei. The nearby Kusen-Hakkai, with its well-placed stones and topiary, is tranquility itself, hardly a visitor in sight. Greatly undervalued, Funda-in is a garden attributed to the great designer, poet and painter Sesshu. The setting of this landscape, with its spherical topiary, moss, gravel, and wall of camellias and bamboo, speaks eloquently of a different age.


Southwest of Tofuku-ji, in the district known as Takeda, is an interesting modern landscape that combines a number of different styles and provides proof, if such a thing were needed, that Japanese garden design is alive and well. A 15-minute walk from Takeda station, past onion fields, love hotels and an ugly highway interchange, delivers you at the torii gate of Jonangu Shrine, where you enter into a different world.

North Kyoto’s most celebrated temple complex is Daitoku-ji. A stroll into the lanes south of here, however, reveals a number of intriguing temple gardens not on any tourist map. Constructed in 1436, Honpo-ji, with its mottled, lichen-covered stones and mature grace, is a time capsule that has weathered the centuries. Nearby Myokaku-ji, a simple garden with a central stone path and young maple trees, has matured well.

A stroll northwest is the largely overlooked Toji-in. Its steep, precise banks of bushes are interspersed with rocks that lend stability to a scene that looks like floating clouds topped by a teahouse. A few minutes’ walk south takes you to the large temple complex of Myoshin-ji. The sub-temple of Taizo-in has two gardens, a small 16th-century Zen garden and a modern one on a grander scale, replete with a pond, undulating banks and a flowing watercourse.

Directly north, you’ll need a taxi or cycle to reach Shoden-ji. Sitting on a graduated hillside at the end of a flight of stone steps rising through a forest, Shoden-ji is far enough into the outskirts of Kyoto to be quiet at all times. Contained within white walls capped by tiles, the garden faces a view of uninterrupted nature that includes the distant outline of Mt. Hie. A flat plane of raked gravel contrasts with azalea bushes divided into groups of 7-5-3, a pattern reflecting the Taoist notion of the harmony of odd numbers.

A true contemplation garden, this is a place where you can breathe deeply the slightly elevated woodland air.

A fitting place to end a day among the more obscure gardens of Kyoto.

Travel Tips
The great thing about accommodation in Kyoto is that almost every part of the city is well positioned for visiting gardens. Some gardens are not located on tourist maps to the city; for others, try the tourist offices in Kyoto Station. Buses go to within walking distance of most of the gardens, while some will have to be reached by bicycle or taxi. The newly revised edition of A Guide to the Gardens of Kyoto by Marc Treib and Ron Herman, is required reading. Mark P. Keane’s The Art of Setting Stones, a work of great beauty and depth, uses Kyoto gardens as a starting point for reflections on life, death, relations and nature.