Kyoto's secluded gardens you shouldn't miss

Photos by Nano Betts
Photos by Nano Betts

Kyoto's secluded gardens you shouldn't miss

by Nano Betts

Kyoto is like a sprawling open-air museum which captivates by its peaceful demeanor, cobblestoned alleys, and intricately raked sand gardens. Each visit provides for an opportunity to be surprised and have your breath taken away. On my last trip, I veered off the beaten path to visit a few secluded temples and bask in the meditative quietude of Japanese landscape gardens. As much as I love the floral scenes of spring and vibrant colors of autumn in Japan, Kyoto in summer was a different kind of beautiful – lush and verdant which was incredibly soothing to the eye. Even though it was my fourth visit (read all my Kyoto travel recommendations here), I couldn’t believe that I still managed to uncover new places, each with unique features, singular beauty, and distinct character. Who knows how many more hidden gems the former Imperial capital hides?!

Gio-ji Temple
Nestled deep into the forest of Arashiyama, in the Sagano district, this little temple is actually a former Buddhist nunnery. The olden thatched gate and stone-paved path lead the way to a spectacular secluded moss garden which awakens all senses and makes the rest of the world fall away for you. Punctuated by maple trees and sprouting fern, the velvety moss is carefully and lovingly manicured to create a space so enchantingly beautiful it leaves you speechless. The birds chirping in the surrounding forest, rustling sound of bamboo and trickle of tiny creeks that wind through and feed the moss add to the soothing atmosphere.  If you’re fascinated by moss gardens, then see if you can get access to Saiho-ji Temple, also known as Koke-dera or Moss Temple. Located south of Arashiyama, it one of the most difficult to access UNESCO World Heritage Sites, not because of a remote location, but because of a cumbersome mail-only reservation process which I never managed to time properly. The heart-shaped garden, laid out in 1339 by Musō Kokushi, surrounds a tranquil pond and is said to be simply stunning. For what it’s worth, this garden was also Steve Jobs’ favorite place in Japan. But I digress. Gio-ji Temple is every bit as spectacular. Most importantly, the garden was a delight to photograph, with various textures, shapes and details filling up the cozy space, so excuse the abundance of images.

Adashino Nenbutsu-ji Temple
Also located in Arashiyama, this hilltop Buddhist temple features thousands of carved stone statues, as well as a picturesque bamboo forest. The temple was founded in the early 9th century when the famous monk Kobo Daishi placed stone statues for the souls of the dead here. The temple links to Saga Toriimoto Preserved Street, an untapped historic street lined by traditional machiya which have been converted into shops and restaurants. It is an atmospheric little spot which provides a glimpse of a merchant town in the Meiji period.

Daigo-ji Temple
Daigo-ji Temple, a World Heritage Site, spreads across Daigo-san Mountain and is well-known as the “Temple of Flowers”. It is a spectacular spot to see cherry blossoms as well as autumn colors in Kyoto. Since I visited in summer, all maple trees were green and contrasted beautifully with the vermillion pagoda, the temple’s main draw. The five-story pagoda, Goju-no-to is now the oldest building in Kyoto having survived the Onin War in the 1400’s. Interestingly, the feudal lords of Sengoku period held hanami party here in 16th century and on the second Sunday in April, the temple still hosts a feast to commemorate this tradition. The temple site is divided into 3 areas, Kami Daigo (upper grounds), Shimo Daigo(lower grounds) and Sanboin. Daigo literally translates as “ghee” and is used figuratively to mean “crème de la crème” as a metaphor of the most profound part of Buddhist thoughts. The temple is located quite far out of the downtown Kyoto so I highly recommend to allocate ample time to wondering the grounds.

Rurikio-in Temple
This gorgeous, two-storied temple attracts crowds during fall when the views of its maple garden are at its best. The highlight is the view from the second floor where the trees are mirrored on the carefully polished large table. Don’t expect to find zen here, as tourists elbow each other to take the best shot. Instead, head down to the first floor, where the peaceful tatami room doors are open and offer an unobstructed view of The Land of Happiness in Buddhism, the temple’s moss garden.  You can even enjoy matcha tea and wagashi as you marvel at the beauty of this place.

Unknown Temple
This has never happened to me before, but right as I was looking for Gio-ji Temple, I mistakenly stepped into a wrong temple which also turned out to have a small stunning and serene moss garden surrounding a tiny moss. Sadly, I didn’t write down the name and was not able to identify it on Google Maps, so you will have to simply enjoy the photos. Perhaps you’ll stumble upon it too some day.

I hope you enjoyed this little summertime journey through Kyoto’s secluded moss gardens. I’m also putting together posts about my visit to Uji as well as curating the list of recommendations for visiting Kyoto in summer. So stay tuned, lots of Japan posts still coming your way.

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