Experience peaceful landscapes amidst a buzzing city strewn with tourists. Be seduced by holistic hideaways in the form of Kyoto’s most beautiful zen gardens, synonymous with the city’s status of Japan’s cultural heartland.
In a place where beautiful gardens number into their hundreds, you won’t be hard pressed to find a secret sanctuary, but here are my top three for those looking for a helping hand…
It would be easy to walk past Murin-an, hidden from sight behind an ancient wall adjacent to a busy road, no sign of what treasure is awaiting. I discovered the garden from a friend who hails from the States, but has called Kyoto home for more than thirty years. A vision of moss and water, streams meander through pristine rocks, framed with flora, placed perfectly to create a wild beauty that, on closer inspection, is manicured into a genteel setting whose scenery is constantly changing with the seasons. A wooden tea house rests on the grounds. Poised amongst the greenery, it offers a place to sit and sink into the aura of the surrounding nature, blissfully unaware of the cosmopolitan life taking place just outside its walls.
As can be commonplace in Japan, entry into various traditional establishments is via introduction or application. Saihoji, one of Kyoto’s most admired gardens, is no different. Access is granted solely by express permission obtained via postcard and, whilst not difficult, reservation will require some advanced planning and a return address in Japan (perhaps something that hotel concierge can arrange). Saiho-ji Temple, where the gardens are located, is one of Kyoto’s World Heritage Sites. Many years ago, in 1339, the gardens were renovated by Muso Soseki, a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk who gained considerable recognition during his lifetime as not only a garden designer, but calligrapher and poet. Muso Soseki’s poetry was not confined only to pages, with his gardens exuding an unrivaled beauty within a living form of art. Almost 120 varieties of moss grow inside the temple compound, spreading out over the ground in a velvet green carpet. Reservations to visit Saiho-ji can be made from one week to eight weeks in advance. On a postcard addressed to the temple, you will need to write your name, the desired date for your visit, the number of people in your group, as well as the name and address of your “group representative” (this can be you). You will also need to send a self-addressed stamped postcard or use a return postcard. This will be used to confirm your reservation by a representative from the temple and will then act as your unpaid ticket for entrance (the temple fee is paid upon arrival). Once inside you are able to participate in the Buddhist practice of copying sutras called shakyo, and you can wander freely in the tranquil gardens. For more information, follow this link.
Hakusa Sonso set amongst a backdrop of the city’s eastern mountains, awash with the pinks of sakura during spring and ochre-hued foliage in the autumn. On the site of an ancient villa, now converted to a fine museum and art gallery dedicated to the works of the celebrated artist and original owner of the site, Hashimoto Kansetsu, in an area previously packed full of paddy fields. The largest artist residence in Japan, Hakusa Sonso remains relatively unchanged from Kansetsu’s lifetime living within. The grounds designated a national site of scenic beauty, original buildings; a studio, personal temple and tea house, break through the blanket of greenery. The scenery in the garden is reshaped with the seasons, radiating a loveliness unique to each calendar month.