Top 5 Zen Gardens for a Relaxing Kyoto Getaway
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 6 min read


  1. Ryōan-ji Temple
  2. Ginkaku-ji Temple
  3. Nanzen-ji Temple
  4. Tōfuku-ji Temple
  5. Kennin-ji Temple

Kyoto, a city renowned for its rich history and cultural heritage, is home to some of the most serene zen gardens in the world. If you're seeking peace and tranquility, these top 5 zen gardens in Kyoto offer an escape into nature's embrace, while letting you experience the beauty of traditional Japanese landscaping. So, let's embark on a virtual journey to these magnificent zen gardens in Kyoto.

Ryōan-ji Temple

Our first stop is the Ryōan-ji Temple. This World Heritage site is one of the most famous zen gardens in Kyoto, leaving visitors enchanted with its simplicity and elegance.

The Rock Garden

At the heart of Ryōan-ji Temple, you'll find a unique rock garden. Comprising of 15 rocks of different sizes, meticulously arranged on a bed of white gravel. The rocks are designed in such a way that from any angle you view, you can only see 14 out of 15 rocks. It's said that only when you attain spiritual enlightenment, can you view all 15 at once! This rock garden is a testament to the minimalist beauty inherent in zen design.

The Pond and Tsukubai

Aside from the rock garden, Ryōan-ji Temple also boasts a serene pond — Kyoyochi Pond. This pond, dating back to the 12th century, is surrounded by lush greenery and is home to beautiful water lilies. Nearby is the Tsukubai, a stone water basin often found in Japanese tea gardens. The Tsukubai at Ryōan-ji carries a profound Zen inscription: "I learn only to be contented".

Visitor Experience

Visiting Ryōan-ji Temple offers a calming effect that many describe as meditative. The simplicity of the rock garden, the serene pond, and the ambient temple environment combine to create a tranquil space that lets you relax and contemplate. If you're looking for a peaceful retreat in Kyoto, this zen garden is a must-visit!

So, that was a glimpse into the peaceful Ryōan-ji Temple. As we move to our next zen gardens in Kyoto, you'll find each one carries its own unique charm, offering a different perspective into the world of Zen. Stay tuned!

Ginkaku-ji Temple

Next on our list of top zen gardens in Kyoto is the Ginkaku-ji Temple. Also known as the Temple of the Silver Pavilion, it offers a mix of Zen and traditional Japanese gardening styles.

The Silver Pavilion

While the Silver Pavilion itself isn't covered in silver, its elegance lies in its simplicity. The two-story Kannon-den is a sight to behold, with its unique blend of traditional Japanese and Chinese architectural styles. It's a great spot for some peaceful reflection.

Ginshadan and Kogetsudai

The zen garden at Ginkaku-ji is a beautiful mix of sand and moss. The Ginshadan, or the "Sea of Silver Sand", is a large sand garden meticulously shaped to resemble the sea. Adjacent to it, you'll find the Kogetsudai, a cone-shaped mound of sand said to symbolize Mount Fuji. The way the sand glistens in the moonlight is a truly mesmerizing sight.

The Moss Garden and Path

The moss garden at Ginkaku-ji is another notable feature. Vibrant green moss covers the ground, punctuated by small ponds and streams. As you wander along the path, you'll find yourself surrounded by a variety of plants and trees, adding to the serene atmosphere.

Visitor Experience

Visitors often describe their experience at Ginkaku-ji as one of peaceful contemplation. Whether it's the captivating Silver Pavilion, the shimmering sand formations, or the lush moss garden — the Ginkaku-ji Temple is another Zen garden in Kyoto that promises a tranquil experience.

We've now explored two of the top Zen gardens in Kyoto. Each one offers a unique experience, immersing you in the tranquility and peace that Zen gardens are known for. Let's continue our journey to the next Zen garden — Nanzen-ji Temple.

Nanzen-ji Temple

As we explore the Zen gardens in Kyoto, let's not miss the Nanzen-ji Temple. This temple, known for its spacious precincts and impressive gate, offers a stunning Zen garden that's brimming with natural beauty.

Southern Zen Garden

As you step into the southern Zen garden, the first thing you'll notice is the grandeur of the stone walls. This 'dry landscape' style garden is an artistic representation of mountains and valleys, using only rocks and sand. The tranquility of this space makes it a favorite spot for meditation.

The Sanmon Gate

The Sanmon Gate, a significant cultural symbol, is another attraction here. This towering wooden gate has a rich history, and visitors can climb to its upper deck for an unforgettable view of Kyoto city. How about a moment of Zen as you enjoy the cityscape?

Aqueduct and Waterfall

One unique feature of the Nanzen-ji Temple is its brick aqueduct. Yes, you heard that right — a Roman-style aqueduct in the heart of a Zen garden! This aqueduct is part of a canal system, and the sight of water calmly flowing over it adds to the peaceful ambiance. Nearby, a small waterfall cascades quietly, drawing the gaze of passerby.

Visitor Experience

With its blend of history, architecture, and natural beauty, the Nanzen-ji Temple offers a unique experience. It's no wonder it's considered one of the top Zen gardens in Kyoto. The tranquility of the southern Zen garden, the majesty of the Sanmon Gate, and the soothing sound of the waterfall — all these elements make visiting Nanzen-ji a truly enriching experience.

Exploring these Zen gardens in Kyoto is like walking through a living painting, where every element has a story to tell. As we move on to the next Zen garden, Tōfuku-ji Temple, let's keep our hearts open to the serene beauty it has to offer.

Tōfuku-ji Temple

Next on our journey through the Zen gardens in Kyoto, we find ourselves at the Tōfuku-ji Temple. This historic temple, with its four gardens and picturesque bridge, offers a peaceful retreat in the heart of the city.

Hojo Garden

Let's start with the Hojo Garden, a masterpiece of modern Zen garden design. Its unique blend of traditional and contemporary elements is truly a sight to behold. The garden is divided into four sections, each with its distinct style and atmosphere. From moss-covered stones to checkered ground patterns, every detail in the Hojo Garden is meticulously designed to inspire tranquility and contemplation.

Tsutenkyo Bridge

Walking through the temple grounds, you will come across the Tsutenkyo Bridge. This covered bridge offers fantastic views of the maple-filled valley below. Imagine the sight during autumn—when the leaves turn vibrant red and orange—it's like a scene straight from a painting!

The Eastern and Western Gardens

Next, we have the Eastern and Western gardens. These gardens are smaller but no less impressive. The Eastern garden is known for its moss and azalea bushes, while the Western garden features a dry rock landscape resembling a waterfall. Each garden offers a unique perspective on the Zen concept.

Visitor Experience

Visiting the Tōfuku-ji Temple is like stepping into a serene oasis in the bustling city. The peaceful ambiance of the Hojo Garden, the stunning views from the Tsutenkyo Bridge, and the distinct beauty of the Eastern and Western gardens—all these make your visit an unforgettable experience. This temple is, without a doubt, one of the top Zen gardens in Kyoto.

As we continue our journey through Kyoto's Zen gardens, let's keep our minds open to the tranquility and peace that these sacred spaces have to offer. Next on our list is the Kennin-ji Temple. Ready for more Zen?

Kennin-ji Temple

We've now arrived at the final stop on our Kyoto Zen garden tour: the renowned Kennin-ji Temple. As one of the oldest Zen temples in Kyoto, Kennin-ji offers a unique blend of history, architecture, and beautifully designed gardens that are sure to leave you feeling calm and refreshed.

The Twin Dragons Ceiling Painting

Before we explore the gardens, let's take a moment to appreciate the temple's interior. Look up, and you'll see the Twin Dragons ceiling painting. Crafted by artist Koizumi Junsaku for the temple's 800th anniversary, it's a sight that truly enhances the spiritual ambiance of the place.

The Main Garden

Now, let's step outside to the main garden. Designed in the classic karesansui style, this rock garden is a stunning representation of Zen philosophy. With its raked gravel and thoughtfully placed rocks, the garden symbolizes a tranquil sea dotted with islands. It's a perfect spot for quiet introspection—just what you'd expect from a Zen garden in Kyoto.

The Chō-on-tei Garden

Next, let's meander over to the Chō-on-tei, or the 'Sound of Waves' Garden. It's a smaller space, but no less inspiring. The garden's name comes from the sound of the wind rustling through the bamboo grove nearby—like waves gently breaking on the shore.

Visitor Experience

From the beautiful gardens to the impressive artwork, visiting Kennin-ji is a truly immersive experience. It's not just about viewing the gardens—it's about feeling the Zen spirit, soaking in the tranquility, and appreciating the beauty in simplicity. As we wrap up our tour of Zen gardens in Kyoto, we hope you've been inspired by the peaceful landscapes and spiritual heritage of these remarkable temples.

There you have it—our top five Zen gardens in Kyoto. Each one offers a unique experience, a chance to pause and reflect in the midst of life's hustle and bustle. So, when in Kyoto, why not take a break, visit these gardens, and find your Zen?

If you're inspired by our list of the top 5 zen gardens in Kyoto and want to enhance your experience by incorporating meditation and photography, check out 'Using Nature and Photography as a Form of Meditation' workshop by louisbever. This workshop will teach you how to use the beauty of nature and the art of photography to relax, refocus, and achieve a meditative state.