The Most Beautiful Traditional Japanese Gardens in Kyoto

Combine a trip to the Golden Pavilion (above) with a visit to the Zen garden at the nearby Ryoan-ji Temple
Combine a trip to the Golden Pavilion (above) with a visit to the Zen garden at the nearby Ryoan-ji Temple | © Sean Pavone / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of John Asano
10 September 2021

In the cultural capital of Japan, you can experience some of the most sublime and tranquil gardens in the country. Every shape, size and type is on display, from dry stone Zen gardens designed for peace and relaxation to gorgeous stroll gardens designed for the recreation of lords and shoguns. Ready to explore? Here are the most beautiful traditional Japanese gardens in Kyoto.

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Ryoan-ji Temple

Buddhist Temple
Map View
Kyoto, Japan springtime at Ryoanji Temple's pond.
© Sean Pavone / Alamy Stock Photo
Home to the most famous Japanese Zen garden in the world, Ryoan-ji Temple is located close to the Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) in northwest Kyoto. The karesansui – dry landscape garden – is unlike any other garden you have seen, with 15 mystical rocks appearing to float in a sea of pure white sand. The garden is beautiful in its simplicity and its size – it measures just 25m (82ft) from east to west. Top tip: visit early morning or late afternoon to dodge the crowds.

Ginkaku-ji Temple

Botanical Garden, Park
Map View
Ginkaku-ji Silver Pavilion during the autumn season in Kyoto, Japan.
© Sean Pavone / Alamy Stock Photo
The Shogun stroll garden at Ginkaku-ji Temple (Silver Pavilion) is one of the best traditional landscape gardens in Japan. Reportedly designed by the great painter and landscape artist Sōami (1472-1525), it displays various styles including a dry sand garden, known as the Sea of Silver Sand. It is particularly well-known, distinguished by a massive cone of sand said to symbolize Mount Fuji. See also the beautiful moss garden for the ponds with islands and bridges, little streams and diverse plants. Top tip: to make the most of your visit, stroll in a circular route, following the walkway.

Saiho-ji Temple

Park, Botanical Garden
Map View
Autumn colours in the moss garden of Saiho-ji temple, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kyoto, Japan, Asia
© robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo
Saiho-ji Temple has one of the most celebrated gardens in Japan. Designated a national Special Place of Scenic Beauty, it is covered in moss (and also known as Koke-dera, or the Moss Temple). The gardens are arranged as a circular promenade centered on Golden Pond, and contain three teahouses where you can relax and reflect upon the world. Be sure to reserve in advance, as you can’t access the temple and gardens without a booking.

Heian Jingu Shrine

Bridge, Shrine, Park, Botanical Garden
Map View
Kyoto, Japan spring at Heian Shrine's pond garden and special events hall.
© Sean Pavone / Alamy Stock Photo
Built for the 1,100th anniversary of the city, Heian Jingu Shrine has some of the best traditional gardens in Kyoto – a beautiful contrast to the colourful architecture. Created in a style reminiscent of the golden age of the Heian Period (794-1185), it is known for its large pond with a Chinese-inspired bridge. The vermilion structure of the shrine is vibrant whatever the season, enhanced by weeping cherry blossoms in spring, and water lilies and irises in summer.

Tenryu-ji Temple

Botanical Garden, Park, Shrine
Map View
Garden near Tenryu-ji Temple in Kyoto, Japan
© Panther Media GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo
In Arashiyama district, on the western outskirts of the city, stands Tenryu-ji Temple, one of the great Zen temples in Kyoto. The spectacular Japanese stroll garden is framed by scenic mountains that appear to be part of it, creating a view that could almost be a painting. With a circular promenade around Sogen Pond, Tenryu-ji has also been designated a Special Place of Scenic Beauty in Japan. The best time to visit is spring for the cherry blossoms, or autumn for the fiery autumn foliage, proliferating in the garden and surrounding mountains.

Nijo Castle

Building
Map View
Japan, Kyoto, Nijo Castle, garden
© Tibor Bognar / Alamy Stock Photo
A grand wooden pile, ringed by a moat – no wonder visitors are drawn to the picturesque grounds of Nijo Castle, in the heart of historic Kyoto. The real highlight isn’t, arguably, the castle, but the adjoining gardens – landscaped with tranquil ponds, hundreds of stones and mature cherry and plum trees. Visit in March or April, when the branches are in full bloom, to experience the scene at its most magical.

Nanzen-ji

Architectural Landmark
Map View
KYOTO, JAPAN -18th  November 2019: Beautiful japanese garden in one of subtemples of Nanzen-ji display autumn colours
© Magdalena Bujak / Alamy Stock Photo
Set in the east of Kyoto, in the shadow of the lush Higashiyama Mountains, Nanzen-ji is one of Kyoto’s most impressive Buddhist temples; think multi-storied wooden structures, towering gates and a spectacular rock garden. Next to the Hojo, the former head priest’s residence, is the Zen garden, fringed by photo-worthy trees and boulders and regularly raked to perfection – a meditative process to watch if you catch it in action. After your visit, make for Junsei restaurant nearby for an epic tofu feast, overlooking a small but pretty landscaped garden.

Katsura Rikyu

Architectural Landmark, Park, Botanical Garden
Map View
Katsura Imperial Villa (Katsura Rikyu) in Kyoto, Japan. It is one of the finest examples of Japanese architecture and garden design and founded in1645
© beibaoke / Alamy Stock Photo
A visit to this imperial villa, perched on the Katsura River, delivers an insight into what it would have been like to live as Japanese royalty in the 17th century. Everything looks out upon the tranquil garden, clearly the centrepiece – and most meditative space – of the grounds. A serene pond, arching maple trees and a pretty bridge make the whole thing atmospheric. As does the tranquillity – because you’ll have to visit on a pre-booked tour, you’ll really escape the Kyoto crowds.

Kinkaku-ji

Botanical Garden, Park
Map View
The Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji) of Kyoto, Japan.
© Joshua Davenport / Alamy Stock Photo
Possibly the most famous sight in Kyoto, Kinkaku-ji – also known as the gold temple for the abundant use of metallic leaf on the exterior – attracts swarms of tourists, drawn to the blingy beauty and perfect mirrored reflection in the adjoining lake. Rather than rush to the main event, take time to appreciate the epic gardens in which the golden structure is set. Moss-covered stones, knobby mature fir and pine trees, plus ferns cropping out from rock walls are all worthy of your attention.

Murin-an

Botanical Garden, Park
Map View
Japan, by Jigei Ogawa 1894-96, Meiji Period, Japanese landscape design
© Jan Haenraets / Alamy Stock Photo
Created by a 19th-century politician with a fascination for Western culture, this lovely garden incorporates some distinctly un-Japanese elements – a villa with dark-painted walls and panelled ceilings, and large swathes of lawn (probably an influence from Britain). Of course, it’s also very Japanese, with tea rooms on the grounds, outbreaks of moss and a rambling stream fed by Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan. The surrounding mountainous landscape only adds to the enchanting scene.
These recommendations were updated on September 10, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh. This article is an updated version of a story created by John Asano

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