Kyoto Gardens: Daitokuji Zen Temple (part 1)

Where does one go to experience the best gardens in Japan? Why, Kyoto, of course!

There are some very famous and beautiful gardens in other areas of Japan, but nowhere beats Kyoto in terms of the amount of world class traditional Japanese gardens in one spot. From contemplative dry Zen rock gardens to dynamic water landscapes, from moss to maples, from sunshine to rain to snow, from the ancient to the modern (and the VERY modern), Kyoto gardens have it all.

This blog entry focuses on two gardens in Daitokuji, a massive Zen temple complex in northwest Kyoto. The complex itself is quite impressive, with a large red gate leading to the main halls, but it's more famous for the collection of two dozen small Zen subtemples within the complex walls. Most of these temples are closed to the public so as not to disturb the strict training of the monks within, but a small number are open to visitors. the gardens featured in this blog series are all accessible on a private custom tour with KyoTours Japan.

One of the most celebrated Zen gardens in Japan in located within the walls of Daisen-in, a small temple located deep within the grounds of the Daitokuji Zen complex. This garden has remained untouched since its creation in 1509, and presents a snapshot of Zen philosophy and design in the Muromachi era. Luckily, Daisen-in is one of the few temples in Daitokuji that are open to the public year-round. No trip to Kyoto to experience traditional gardens is complete without seeing the impressive landscape at Daisen-in.

(Cameras aren't allowed in Daisen-in, so none of the pics below are actually mine. Thanks, Google!)

The immediate reaction upon encountering the rock garden is most possibly one of confusion. Rocks of all shapes and sizes are turned in odd directions, some piled together, others on their own in the white gravel. Only with some close investigation (or a helpful guide well versed in explaining this sort of thing in an easy to understand way) does a story start to emerge from the stones. As you can see in the sketch below, there's a lot going on in this garden!

Earlier gardens were made to admire the wildness of nature, and to stroll through it protected from wild beasts by four walls. It was only later that gardens took on a deeper meaning: to be seen from one angle that would tell a story and speak to man’s inner search for meaning. The garden at Daisen-in does just that through the symbol of flowing water. Out of the eternal mountain that acts as a source for all beings, water flows under the Bridge of Creation and down the River of Life, encountering hardships and pleasure on the way.


Each stone in the garden stands for a different point in life that all of us find ourselves washed up against. For example, the Tiger Head Stone symbolizes the tragedy and danger we face in life, while the Treasure Boat Stone reminds us that the current also carries enjoyment and happiness. Will your current be stopped by the Wall of Doubt, or will you realize that what looked to be a wall is actually a dam that allows some water to pass over it?

At the end of the River of Life, we pass into the Great Sea, the Ocean of Nothingness. The rocks that caused both joy and turbulence in life have disappeared, and all that is left are the white sands of purity. Two large cones of sand stand in the center the ocean drawing our focus to the vast empty space. Are they rising out of the sea to symbolize rebirth and regeneration, or perhaps sinking into the waves as human emotions are absorbed into the purifying ocean of eternity?

These are the fine details of existence and life that the garden at Daisen-in forces us to ponder, and exactly the sort of Zen philosophical questions that help Buddhist monks get in touch with their inner self. (Deep stuff, huh?)

The main hall of Daisen-in is a cultural treasure as well. As a prototype of many later forms of Japanese architecture, it serves as a wonderful freeze frame of an era that was in an artistic transition. The shape of columns, layout of rooms, and the sliding doors all illustrate the moment when Japanese culture went from the ancient to the classical, and took on many forms that we now consider uniquely Japanese. The reading room in the main hall features an incredibly important architectural relic: the very first tokonoma, a small alcove in the wall used for displaying scrolls that played a large role in tea house architecture in later years. Perhaps a visit to Daisen-in with KyoTours Japan would literally open doors to this famous room allowing for a glimpse at a rarely seen treasure…

There is an incredible amount of detail to absorb in the garden at Daisen-in, and to the untrained eye it can feel a little overwhelming. In fact, one of the books sold in the temple focuses on the question “What is Japan?” The answer – according the priests at Daisen-in – is complex, but can be expressed as the temple and garden itself. From the architecture to the fine details of the garden and the very philosophy the monks train in, all of it presents a picture of classic Japanese thought and culture that give an impressive look into the very fabric of the Japanese soul.

…or so they say. The average visitor isn’t going to pick up on the deep stuff that Zen priests spend lifetimes meditating on. For us, the temple and gardens are a beautiful reminder of the pieces of Japanese culture that are easy to appreciate, while also hinting at more mysterious and perhaps unknowable undercurrents that run beneath the surface. However, your Kyotours Japan guide is there to help you make sense of it all!

One of the other small joys of visiting Daisen-in is the possibly of meeting the head priest, Soen Ozeki. He's become something of a minor celebrity, publishing books and appearing on TV in an effort to make the mysteries of Zen Buddhism more accessible to the average person. If you purchase one of his books at the admissions counter – and yes, they have English ones – he will often personally come out of his study to say hello and autograph the title page for you!  One of his famous quotes is as follows:

Each day in life is training, though failure is possible
I am alive, I am this moment, my future is here and now
For if I cannot endure today, when will I?
— Soen Ozeki

I think this is an excellent summation of the meaning behind the journey down the River of Life at Daisen-in, and one that you should keep in mind when viewing this incredible temple. Join us at KyoTours for a private visit on a custom tour to this special garden.

Another impressive Zen temple open to the public in this complex is Ryogen-in. Founded in 1502, this temple is one of the most simple and austere in Daitokuji. One of the gardens is the oldest surviving example of Zen landscape the complex, and the hojo (abbot’s hall) is the oldest of its kind in the country!

Ryogen-in may be small, but it holds some unique surprises inside. Just inside the entry hall is a lavishly decorated board used for Go, a deceptively simple Japanese board game using black and white pieces similar to checkers. This particular board was used by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, two of Japan’s greatest warlords in the late 1500s. That’s kind of a big deal! Just imagine the discussions on strategy and politics between these two great men over this game. The future of Japan was shaped while these guys moved pieces around this very board!

Above the board is another display case holding… well, I’ll let you see this one for yourself without spoiling it. The object inside the case is another amazing piece of Japanese history, and it was the first its kind made in Japan. Any guesses?

The gardens in Ryogen-in are equally spectacular as its treasures. The Totekiko Garden is said to be the smallest dry rock garden in the country. This tiny space of peaceful calm wedged between the buildings and walkways is impressive in the sense that it commands such a presence despite its diminutive size. The use of balance - or lack thereof - is a stunning reversal of what most visitors are used to in symmetric Western design.

The hojo hall is surrounded by gardens on all sides, each a stunning example of Zen landscape. The south garden fits the average visitor’s idea of a Zen garden, with raked white gravel and stones placed in strategic patterns to evoke islands and mountains. On the north side, however, is a garden that has been completely overtaken by moss. A single tall stone juts upward from the sea of green to symbolize the mountain at the center of the Buddhist universe.

Looking into the hojo itself gives us a glimpse into the life of a Zen priest. The main hall is still used for daily prayers, and houses an impressive statue carved in 1250. It's hard to not be impressed with the detailed ink paintings decorating the walls of these private quarters. The other rooms in the building are related to the abbot and his daily life. Waiting rooms and conference rooms attest to his busy schedule, but we also get a look into his private life. Living quarters, a study, and a room for personal storage are all open for us to peer into these small, sparse Zen spaces.

Ryogen-in might not be the most glamorous of the temples in the Daitokuji complex, but it’s elegant simplicity and excellent use of space illustrate the Zen lifestyle perfectly. This temple is probably best seen last during a trip to Daitokuji, as it puts into perspective the goals and philosophy of Zen Buddhism in a way that the more vibrant and lively temples simply cannot communicate to a casual viewer.

KyoTours Japan doesn't usually include these two special temple gardens on our standard tours, but we are happy to add them to a custom tour where the itinerary is all up to YOU! (Don't worry, we'll help you decide what you should see if you're feeling a little lost) Click here to find out more.

See you in Kyoto, and keep your eyes open for part two of our blog series on the gardens of Daitokuji coming soon!