Kyoto 2015 Garden Tour – Day 2

Day 2 was a great day for gardens – we visited so many very beautiful ones! It is hard to suppress writing about each one in great detail here…

We started with anotzenrin_overview_logoher relatively large temple, Eikando, and specifically its sub-temple Zenrin-ji. This is somewhere we haven’t written about yet, and I was excited to see it after recently reading about the history of Buddhism. This temple is the site at which Abbott Eikan (the chief priest of Eikando from 1033 to 1111), is said to have witnessed Buddha Amida speak to him on a freezing, icy morning of February 1082, over 900 years ago. Eikan recalled to others that the Buddha Amida had come to life from a statue in the temple, and as turning back towards Eikando, beckoned him to come. Now, the main statue is of course the Amida mid-turn, as if to beckon all of us towards enlightenment. Whilst walking upon the polished wood floorboards shoe-less, we could almost feel the same icy-cold on the soles of our feet that Eikan had that historic morning! This chief priest was also said to be very kind-hearted, and gave fruit from his plum trees to the poor.


In terms of the temple it is a grand place to visit. As in Ninna-ji on the previous day, there are many buildings to this complex, including a two-storey pagoda, grand Karamon gates, and the Amida-do, which houses the Buddha Amida turning statue. A fantastic view of Kyoto can be found from the summit of the hill on which the pagoda stands proud. Below, a set of perfectly crafted wooden stairs snakes downwards to the temple, which has been named garyuro, after the image of a sleeping dragon that they bring to mind.

Although somewhat sprawled around these buildings, I found the gardens to have several hidden treasures that can be found if you focus your eye and have a sense for the enchanted. For instance, the delicately carved figure of a deer pausing to look back over its pathway, upon a woolly, moss-coated lantern at the base of the sleeping dragon’s back. Perhaps it is hesitant at the thought of approaching the sleeping dragon… or was it carved in reference to the turning Amida? A captivating old pine tree (sanko-no-matsu) stands across the walkway to the silent serpentine, whose pine needles split into three (‘san’), and are said to give you the blessings of knowledge, mercy and sincerity. Even if you did not know this about the tree, its presence is somehow commanding and the attention of your mind and body are drawn towards it. Perhaps the Amida is hidden within such a wise being? Is this what the deer is considering?


A small waterfall tucked away beside the Amida-do stairway is protected by a collection of upright stones. This little cove felt somehow secretive and unknown – hidden from the visitors eagerly climbing to the temple. Further through the garden, a mix of lush grasses and olive mosses lining a small river, which flows from the main pond, were glowing through an emerging sun. The vivid greens looked especially magical against the orange-red maple leaves scattered upon the soft carpet-like mosses. In one section of the gardens, a magnificently gnarled, low silver-lichen coated tree grows slowly, sending its shoots upwards from the plume of acid-green moss at its base. Perhaps it’s a personal thing, but such trees really grasp my heart, reminding me of the wilder moorlands back home in England.

There is a lovely seating area (which I suppose gets crowded in peak times), around the large pond in the main temple garden. During this time, with the maples leaves blushing bright red, it really is a gorgeous place to soak up the grandeur of a traditional Japanese garden, temple and the wooded hills which frame this painting-like setting. If you are seeking colour-saturated momiji and enlightenment, this is definitely a place to explore.

A short walk from Zenrin-ji, we downsized to a smaller garden, which lies within the complex of Nanzen-ji. Due to its sheltered, tree-enfolded nature, it has a faery-like enchantment. This feeling may have been enhanced by the deep soul-stirring sounds of a monk chanting from within the enclosed temple walls. tenjuan_old_path_logo

Such resonating waves upon the air invite you to sit at the edge of the temple and contemplate the karesansui garden before you, as well as your place in the vast world beyond its shielding arms. An elderly lady must have thought the same, as she joined me upon entering. An ancient pathway still exists from before its destruction during the Ōnin war (1467-1477). The remainder of this adds another dimension to the rock garden, an overgrown layer of historical time and thought.

Past the white sand, beyond an ancient stone mausoleum-passageway, the next part of the gardepond_walkway_logon is enshrined. A grove of trees surrounds two ponds, the first which can be crossed via a narrow wooden walkway to reach the next. The second larger pond can be walked around via a small winding path.

Miniature wooden, moss layered huts sit upon the water, and I could not help but wonder what they are for. Could kodama (wood spirits – 木霊) reside within, only emerging at dusk to illuminate the glimmering water beneath? The path-separated ponds, and the stones laid by a small waterfall, reflect a late 14th century style of landscaping. As always in these intricate gardens, the thought that they are so considerately crafted by human hand and mind causes you to pause in awe.

The third temple of the second day is one of understated elegance, but with strong links to the Imperial family – Shoren-in. The main part of the garden contains a long, sleek pond with a small mound rising in a slight curve at the tip of the east end, and a single stone island. These features are said to be unusual and innovative – different from the common style of the garden’s period. The stone has a commanding presence and resembles the humped back of a serpentine, partially submerged below the calm slate-blue water. Through its colouring, it also emphasizes the clusters of white-tinged stones that lie to the back of the pond and upon the hill.


Upon entering the garden, this hill immediately pulls your attention: covered in bright mossy shades with a constellation of angular stones and low round bushes. Further east in the garden, encircled by a small path, a beautifully formed tree grows, reaching and twisting upward in silent motion. Back at the southern end of the garden, a small waterfall from the base of the low mount Awata runs with fresh clear spring water, and a semi-circle, granite bridge arcs over the pond. It is another garden that invites you to sit, ocha in hand, absorbing the emanating feeling of tranquility. Away from this garden, in front of the Shinden building, a setting reminiscent of the Heian period nantei (south garden) style exists. Two trees (here, weeping cherry and mikan) stand some distance apart, solitary and fenced off by wooden lattices on an expansive lawn of moss.


A second pair of beautifully big, ancient camphor trees stands before the entrance to this temple. They are thought to be around 800 years old. I really had to stop for quite some time both on entering and leaving the temple to admire them. I wonder what mysteries, incidents and treasures they have witnessed over the centuries of Kyoto’s rich history… And I wonder, have they been observed as much as they have been observers’?

CAMPHORTREE_logoIn the last of the daylight, we made our way to Entoku-in (part of the Kodai-ji complex). A garden of inherent twilight, it was designed whilst in mourning. After Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s passing in 1605 his wife, Nene, constructed a garden in his memory. The latter daimyo is infamous for bringing the ten year period of the Ōnin war to an end and restoring many of the affected temples. The stones in the garden dominate its landscape; they are a thought-provoking bunch, dedicated to Nene by various Samurai. Sitting in observation for some time, some of these stones really begin to develop personalities. This is a sign of great gardening skill, as traditional designers believe that deities may be hidden within the rocks themselves.

It is as if they are a frozen community, silently whispering to each other in muted conversation. Only if you sit for long enough can you start to see slight movements of crystalized lips and the shaking off of weathered minerals in agreement, laughter or disbelief. Just like gossiping elderly men… Perhaps the spirits of retired samurai dwell within! The characters of these stones emanate through the individuality of each one: some craggy and angular, others freckled with lichen. All are colorful mix of vein blues, rusty oranges and slate greys. Two in particular, huddled closely together, appeared to have a great secret. Long sinuous lines denote their mouths, jutting corners of boney-rock make up their chiseled jaws and cheeks, and rugged blocks their furrowed brows. I could have stayed for a long time, trying to decipher their clandestine chatter, but another appointment called…


To end the day we treated ourselves to a traditional tea ceremony. Our hostess, who we can only warmly recommend, beautifully and elegantly executed this. Please visit Camellia Tea Ceremony if you are in Kyoto! We then began our evening with a light-up viewing of the main Kodai-ji gardens. As is becoming ever more popular, there was a show of images mapped over the karesansui garden, alongside traditional music. A somewhat interesting display, however, I would personally prefer to see the garden in its natural state during the daylight. Nevertheless, the remainder of the garden was quite magical, especially the bamboo glowing bioluminescent-blue in the special lighting. Juxtaposed against a large, gold-tinted dragon’s head, there was an ancient, mythical feeling in the cool night air.

One day left…!

Jasmine dragonhead_illumine_logo

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