Shugakuin Imperial Palace (修学院離宮)
Located on a hill to the northeast of Kyoto city, Shugakuin Imperial Palace is likely the most picturesque of Kyoto’s many imperial residences. From its vantage point it overlooks the city. Built along the natural incline of a hill, the palace’s beautiful grounds are full of maple trees that turn red in the autumn, along with many other trees in the surroundings. You can only enter the palace and gardens on a guided tour, so check their website for more information regarding the tours, as you need to make a reservation.
Shugakuin Yabusoe, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 606-8052, +81-75-211-1215
Tenryu-ji Temple (天龍寺)
One of the most important temples in the Zen sect of Buddhism, the garden of the Tenryu-ji Temple is the best place to admire shakkei, the art of ‘borrowing scenery’ from the natural landscape into the view of a cultivated garden. Indeed, the cherry blossoms and other trees of the garden mingle with the pines and deciduous trees of the Arashiyama Mountains, where the temple is nestled.
68 Saga Tenryuji Susukinobabacho, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto 616-8385, +81 758811235
Murin-an Villa (無鄰菴)
One of Kyoto’s best-kept secrets, Murin-an Villa is a gorgeous garden perfect for strolling and admiring the landscape. The villa of 19th century Japanese Prime Minister Aritomo Yamagata, Murin-an Villa also uses shakkei to borrow the Higashiyama Hills as a background, and the streams, ponds and waterfalls in the garden are fed by Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake. This Japanese garden has Western elements to it, such as the open lawn in front of the villa. This hidden garden is located at the end of a narrow alleyway, near the Kyoto Municipal Zoo.
31 Nanzenji Kusagawacho, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto 606-8437, +81-075-771-3909
Saiho-ji Temple (西芳寺)
This secret garden is one of the loveliest in Japan, offering an escape from the hustle and bustle of the metropolis. The grounds of the Zen Buddhist Saiho-ji Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are famous for the moss garden. Over a hundred species of moss grow in the garden, covering the rocks, ground and even some other plants, giving the garden a magical atmosphere. This is one of Kyoto’s most tranquil gardens, and you must book months in advance to enter.
Mon-Sun 6am-4pm, 30 Goshonodan-cho, Shishigatani, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto, +81 075-771-2420
Ryoan-ji Temple (龍安寺)
One of Kyoto’s most unique UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Ryoan-ji Temple is famous for its special rock garden. Perhaps the most bizarre garden on this list, Ryoan-ji consists of 15 rocks of varying sizes on a sea of gravel. Supposedly, from every viewing angle at least one rock is hidden from view. The history and origin of the garden is unclear, as is its designer. This enigmatic garden has led to much debate as to the creator’s meaning, and everyone has a different interpretation of it.
Haradani-en Garden (原谷苑)
One of the best places to see cherry blossoms in Kyoto, Haradani-en Garden is famous for its shidare sakura trees, also called ‘weeping cherry blossoms’ as the flowers hang downwards from the branches. This 13,000m2, privately owned garden is located on the steep Okitayama Hills. You can spend a day there, as many Japanese families and couples do, picnicking, taking photos, and simply enjoying the spring, one of the most beautiful seasons in Kyoto. If you happen to be visiting outside of cherry blossom season, the garden has many other trees and plants, that make it a great place to be close to nature.
Mon-Sun 9am-5pm, 36 Okita-yama, Haradani Inui-cho, Kita-ku, Kyoto, +81-075-461-2924
By Elizabeth Lee