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Kyoto's best gardens

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15 August 2012 by Luke McCormick

Japan's former capital is loved the world over thanks to its heritage of temples, shrines and gardens. The city's religious landmarks, majestic palaces and Zen gardens, together with alluring geishas in brightly coloured kimonos are classic images of Japan.

Here's a round up of the city's best gardens.

Katsura Imperial Villa


The gardens of the Katsura Imperial Villa are a masterpiece of Japanese gardening. The villas strolling garden in western Kyoto is one of the finest of its kind. The villa itself is a national treasure of pure Japanese architecture, while the teahouses built to represent different qualities of the tea ceremony are a definite highlight. Advance bookings to visit the garden are essential.

Kokedera (Moss Temple)


The Kokedera is one of the country's most celebrated gardens and has been recognised as a World Heritage site. Kokedera means Moss Temple and refers to the garden's more than 120 different varieties of moss.

Originally a Shinto shrine, it was converted into a Zen temple under the priest Muso Soseki, who is also credited with creating Kokedera's gardens. Entry to the temple requires advance reservation by mail and before admission each visitor is required to chant and copy passages of Buddhist scripture, know as sutra.



Kyoto's Ryoanji Temple is home to Japan's most famous rock garden. The temple was converted into a Zen temple in 1450 and now belongs to the Rinzai sect. The focus of the rectangular pebble-filled plot are 15 rocks, laid out in such a way that regardless of the vantage point at least one of them is hidden from the viewer.



Daitokuji is the head temple of the Rinzai sect's Daitokuji school of Zen Buddhism. There are almost two dozen sub-temples at the large walled temple complex in northern Kyoto, which is the best place to see a wide variety of Zen gardens. The small Zuihoin temple features a raked gravel garden reminiscent of rough seas, while there is a display of moss-covered rocks arranged to create a representation of nearby Mount Horai.



Tenryuji is considered first among Kyoto's five great Zen temples. Tenryuji has one of the oldest gardens in Kyoto, which was designed by Muso Soseki and has survived in its original form for centuries. A World Heritage site, Tenryuji means ‘Heavenly Dragon Temple' and is designed around the Sogen Pond with ‘borrowed scenery' from nearby mountain ranges used to incredible effect.

Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion)


The Silver Pavilion in Kyoto's eastern mountains consists of half a dozen fine temples, an attractive moss garden and a unique dry sand garden. The best way to view the complex is on a circular route around the grounds. Expect ponds, islands, bridges, streams and various plants. Among the architectural treasures is the Togudo, a celebrated structure of tatami mats that is considered the oldest surviving example of Shoin architecture.

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