A chronology of Vajrapani statues from 100 CE to 800 CE

Kyoto is full of history and is famous for it's Geisha's, tea houses and temples. When visiting Zen temples you will see Japan's famous dry gardens. Designed with carefully raked gravel.


Gardens in Kyoto:

Traditionally all Kyoto's villa's, temples and palace's where surrounded by beautiful gardens. In fact buildings where more or less viewing platforms open towards the gardens. These early gardens where secular and used for parties, poetry contests and stage-plays they probably formed the template of Japanese garden design.

Many temples arrange several types of gardens in and around their buildings. The traditional Pond gardens are dominated by a large artificial lake with small islands in it and used to have a leisure function. Then there are perfectly manicured moss gardens that are also found in Zen temples. The most iconic of Japanese gardens and is the rock garden or dry garden (kare sansui in Japanese) and are found at Zen Buddhist temples.


Temples and sub-temples :

Several temples are actually large complexes with many sub-temples on there premises. The main Temple is always indicated with "Ji" for example Daitoku-Ji.

Sub-temples have their own unique name with a extension that indicate their status or function, for example Ryogen-In is a sub-temple of Daitoku-Ji. Sub-temples can be fully equipped temples inside the premisses with their own auxiliary service buildings. Every sub-temple charges its own entrance fee to tourists.

Kyoto zen temple with view on garden

Kyoto is full of beautiful buildings and gardens both traditional and contemporary. It is impossible to see it all on an average trip. For a first time visit to Kyoto I would recommend to visit at least one of the following Zen temples with famous gardens.


Kyoto Zen temples with gardens:

• Daitoku-ji temple
                        - Ryogen-in
                        - Daisen-in
                        - Zuiho-in
                        - Sangen-in
                        - Korin-in
• Ryoan-ji temple
• Myoshin-ji temple (only partly open to public)
                        - Taizo-in
• Tenryu-ji temple
• Nanzen-ji temple
                        - Tenju-an
                        - Konchi-in
• Kennin-ji temple
• Tofuku-ji temple
• Shoden-ji temple
• Saiho-ji or Koke-Dera (only with formal invitation !)

Temples in Japan are still in active use so you might find some are not open to public or temporarily closed for a ritual.

Below map shows a selection important Zen temples with my suggested priorities if your visiting time is limited.

kyoto types of japanese gardens gallery
Japan Wakayama map


Zen Buddhism background:

Japanese Zen has its roots in China where it is called Chan Buddhism. Chan Buddhism is a Chinese innovation on the Indian forms of Buddhism that seeped into China.

The Chinese Chan monks rejected worshipping of objects and did not rely on extensive collections of texts to reach enlightenment. In their view enlightenment should be reached through meditation.

In China working in the fields to provide for there own food was also stimulated as a form of meditation. This was different from the Indian tradition of monks that begged for their food. However begging was culturally not acceptable in China.

Their iconoclastic attitude helped Chan Buddhism to survive persecutions during several Chinese dynasties. Being mostly self supporting they could not easily be accused as parasites of society.

And Chan was less vulnerable to destruction of paraphernalia too. This in contrast to other Buddhist schools in China that at some periods struggled to survive at the cost of Daoism.


What is the meaning of Gardens at Zen Temples?

The short answer is, nobody knows. All explanations you can find are interpretations made afterwards, there are no written accounts of that time explaining the meaning or purpose of dry gardens.

They are beautiful and aesthetically pleasing and many experts look at Shinto, Daoism (Geomancy), Buddhism and Chinese inspired ink-paintings to be the source of inspiration for the garden design.

But Zen meditation does not require a garden or even a Buddha statue. It could be at most a tool for contemplation. However the building and upkeep of the garden can be seen as a Zen activity, already in Chinese Chan labour was one of the principal paths to enlightenment. Following that logic a dry garden does not equal Zen garden see also Prof. Wybe Kuitert on this subject.

Chan/Zen Buddhism is in fact a late arrival in Japan. It was introduced from China in the 12th century almost 600 years after other (esoteric) Buddhist sects where established in Japan. Zen Buddhism was soon divided into different schools currently there are the Soto, Rinzai and Obaku sects.

Despite its popularity in the West, Zen Buddhism is actually a small movement in Japan itself. Most of Japanese Buddhism is based on the 'Pure Land' variant.

This new wave of Zen sects had different needs for their temples. Chan Buddhism put meditation central on the path to enlightenment, a building for meditation was needed.

Dry gardens are also a product of this era, they where build in Zen-temples and residences of the warrior class. Zen and its focus on self discipline was popular among the warrior elite that had taken over power from the aristocracy in this period. Zen Buddhism played an important role in the development of dry gardens.

Here is an overview of Kyoto's most famous gardens at Zen temples.

Buddhist temple layout:

East Asian Buddhist temples are composed from a range of functional buildings. The arrangement of these buildings changed in time and is slightly different per Buddhist sect. The scale and number of buildings changed depending on its importance and the landscape.

Considerable care went into the technology of the building that stored the Buddhist scriptures. Everything was focussed on fire prevention, considerable distance between the buildings helped prevent the spread of fire.

An ideal layout of a temple complex would result in a rectangular enclosure with the buildings arranged in symmetry along the central axe running South to North. All construction methods and layouts where based on Chinese design theory.

Temples had to facilitate several functions, foremost it is a place of study, meditation and preforming rituals but it also houses more pragmatic functions like administration, storage and the needs for daily life of the monks on the premises. Every part of this routine was given a separate building following the Chinese examples.

When Buddhism arrived in Japan its other religion Shinto was already established. Shinto performed rituals for marriages and rituals for new born. Death was not dealt with satisfactory in a religious context. Buddhism filled that niche in Japan and cemeteries and burial rituals became an important part of Buddhism and its acceptance in Japan.

Buildings found in a typical temple complex

  • Entrance Gate
  • Bell Tower
  • Drum Tower
  • Pagoda
  • Treasure Hall
  • East and West Auxiliary Halls
  • Lecture Hall
  • Hall for the Buddha's Statue
  • The Abbot's Room
  • Scripture Storage Building
  • Cemetery

Many Buddhist temples in modern Japan are hereditary whereby a son inherits the role of abbot from its parents. It can be a very lucrative business to own a temple and collect compensations for rituals performed at funerals. Combined with a tax-free status many temples collect large revenues.


If I only had time to visit one zen temple then I would choose this one. Daitoku-ji has many sub-temples with excellent dry gardens and also other garden types.

Visit the following sub-temples (each sub-temple charges its own entrance fee):

  • Ryogen-In sub-temple
  • Zuiho-In sub-temple
  • Koto-In sub-temple
  • Daisen-In sub-temple

  • 53 Murasakino Daitokuji-cho, Kita-ku, Kyoto, 603-8231.

     view on a map here.

  • 5-minute walk from City Bus Stop Daitokujimae
  • 5-minute walk from City Bus Stop Senbon-kitaoji

  • 9:00-16:30




Ryoan-Ji is a mid sized temple complex with a large pond garden in front of the building. It is set against the western hills of the Kyoto valley. It is conveniently close to Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) and Ninna-ji. Inside is the most famous of all dry gardens.(Ryoan-Ji is very popular with tourists and can be very crowded.)

  • 13 Ryoanji-Goryo-Sita-machi, Ukyo-ku.

     view on a map here.

  • 1-minute walk from City Bus Stop Ryoan-ji-mae, Bus no 59
  • 7-minute walk from Ryoan-ji-michi Station on the Keifuku Railway (walk North)

  • 8:00-17:00 (May-Nov) / 8:30-16:30 (Dec-Feb)




Nanzen-Ji is another very large Temple complex with many sub-temples build against the eastern hills that enclose Kyoto. Nanzen-Ji has some huge entrance gate's that you can enter for a fee. Its worth the climb for the view. The bottom two pictures are made at the Tenju-An sub-temple. This small sub-temple has a nice pond garden in the back.

  • Tenju-An sub-temple.

  • Fukuji-cho NanZenji Sakyo-ku.

     view on a map here.

  • Keage Station on the Tozai Subway Line.
  • City Bus NanZen-ji-eikan-ji-michi-mae stop

  • 8:40-17:00 (16:30 from Dec. through Feb.)




Tofuku-Ji is a very large Temple complex with many sub-temples on it's premises. Some of these are open to public most are not. The temple has many gardens both traditional and contemporary style.

  • 15-778 Honmachi Higashiyama-ku.

     view on a map here.

  • Tofuku-ji Station on the JR Nara Line. 10-minute walk.
  • City Bus Stop Tofuku-ji

  • 9:00-16:00 (8:30-16:30 in Nov.)




Tenryu-Ji is located in the Arashiyama area of Kyoto. Tenryu-Ji is famous for its monk painting and beautiful huge pond garden. From the back exit of the garden you can enter the well known Arashiyama bamboo grove. Arashiyama is a beautiful area with a more rural feel to it. You can spend a whole day here but keep an eye on closing times of the temples. There are good opportunities to eat too.

  • 68 Saga Tenryuji Susukinobaba-cho.

     view on a map here.

  • 5-10 minute walk from JR Saga-Arashiyama Station coming from Kyoto station.
  • Keifuku Arashiyama Train Station (also called Randen line)

  • 8:30 to 17:30




Shoden-Ji is build half way up a hill. Visiting this temple takes some travel time. The location of this temple is its best asset with views of hills in the distance. Bring a detailed map of the area because the temple is some distance from the bus station and not that easy to find.

  • 72 Kitachinjuan-cho Nishigamo Kita-ku

     view on a map here.

  • 15-minute walk from City Bus Stop Jinko-in-mae

  • 9:00-17:00



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