There is a mystique surrounding these beautiful Japanese rock gardens, aka Zen gardens, that originated in the Japanese culture hundreds of years ago. These artistic gardens consist mainly of fine gravel or sand that is raked in various artistic patterns, and larger rocks which are strategically placed throughout the gravel bed. These gardens are symbolic of the Buddhist belief that one can achieve Zen, or enlightenment, through meditation and deep relaxation. Traditional Zen gardens are interpreted differently by each individual, and nobody knows for sure what their true meaning is. Many people believe that the gravel of the garden represents water, and the larger rocks represents land or islands in that water.
The one thing that we do know for sure is that these Japanese rock gardens are visually stunning. Some of the most historic rock gardens also function as extremely popular meditation sites for people from around the world. People claim to get a sense of relaxation, or enlightenment, at these gardens that they can’t achieve anywhere else in the world. Furthermore, Zen gardens are becoming ever more popular in the Western World. Here’s a some photos of some of the most beautiful, and historic, Japanese rock gardens from around the world.
Zuiho-in: Located in Kyoto, Japan, Zuiho-in is one of the sub-temples of Daitoku-ji, which is one of the 14 branches of the Rinzai school of Japanese Zen. You can find multiple rock gardens at this temple including Zuiho-tei, and they are all world-renowned meditation sites. Visiting these 700 year old historical rock gardens is quite an enlighting experience according to those who have been there.
Shitenno-ji Honbo Garden
Shitenno-ji Honbo Garden: This extraordinary Zen garden was built at the oldest large-scale temple in Japan, way back in 593. The Honbo Garden features not only the traditional patterns of gravel and large rocks, but it also is made even more beautiful by the extensive plant life and small stream that outline this historical rock garden. This Japanese rock garden is located in Osaka, Japan.
Portland Japanese Garden
Portland Japanese Garden: This Zen garden is a Japanese style garden that is located in Portland, Oregon. The garden sits on a 5.5 acre site, and it was voted as the best Japanese garden located outside of Japan. The authentic-looking Zen garden in Portland was completed in 1967, and it actually consists of 5 major sub-gardens. The Japanese rock garden here consists of rippled sand that is symbolic of the ocean, and larger rocks that rise from the ocean.
Tofoku-ji Garden: The Zen gardens located at Tofuku-ji Temple in Kyoto, Japan, are some of the most amazing of their kind. This temple was constructed in 1236, and today it’s one of Japan’s busiest temples during the autumn because of it’s spectacularly colorful leaf viewing. Tourists flock here to view this historical temple, and the well-groomed Zen Garden. The gardens here are designed in traditional Japanese styling with the minimalistic gravel and stone construction.
Rozan-ji Temple: This temple was founded in 938, and features a beautiful moss and white gravel garden that is laced with small trees and large rocks. What makes this place so popular amongst tourists is that this site was once the residence of one of Japan’s most famous authors ever – Murasaki Shikibu. This elegant rock garden is located just east of the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, Japan.
Ginkaku-ji Temple: At this temple in Kyoto, Japan, you can find a unique rock garden that is most famous for its large mound of sand on the northwest side of the grounds. This carefully constructed pile of sand is said to symbolise Mt. Fuji. The rest of the Zen garden at Ginkaku-ji Temple is filled with a variety of mosses and beautifully groomed white gravel. The temple was built in 1474 by Ashikaga Yoshimasa, and the garden was supposedly designed by the famous landscape artist Soami.
Honen-in Temple: At the foot of Mt. Nyoigadake, you will find the Honen-in Temple and its exquisite Zen gardens. This Buddhist temple was created in 1680 in honor of Honen, who was the founder of Jodo Buddhism in Japan. Located in Kyoto, Japan, this rock garden is popular for its large, raised mounds of sand which sport various designs on them that are frequently changed according to the season. Surrounded by cherry trees, beautiful gardens, and a relaxing carp pond, this Japanese rock garden is the epitome of the word ‘tranquil’.
Daizen-ji Temple: Deep in the heart of Kyoto, Japan’s wine country, you’ll find the Daizen-ji Temple. A priest by the name of Gyoki had a vision of Yakushi (healing and medicine Buddha) holding grapes in one of his hands, and so he constructed his vision the next day, which later led to the contruction of the Daizen-ji Temple. This statue is famous in Japan. The gardens at Daizen-ji are beautifully constructed with nicely manicured white gravel, moss, and large stones creating this natural canvas of artwork.
Banryutei Rock Garden
Banryutei Rock Garden: This popular Japanese rock garden is located just south of Osaka on Mt. Koya. On the grounds of the Kongobu-ji Temple, the Banryutei Rock Garden is famous for being the largest of its kind in Japan. This huge Zen garden is 2340-square-meters in size, and it features 140 large granite stones that are set in a bed of fine gravel. These large stones are strategically placed to symbolise a pair of dragons emerging from the clouds to protect the temple.
Ryoan-ji: Perhaps Japan’s most popular Zen garden, Ryoan-ji is located in northwest Kyoto, Japan. The garden itself is rather basic, consisting of a 90ft by 30ft white gravel bed and 15 large irregular rocks that are surrounded by moss. This mystical rock garden is a bit of a mystery in terms of when it was made, and what it’s original purpose was. Many people believe that this Zen garden was originally laid-out sometime around the 15th Century, and has since then been modified throughout time. The meaning of the stones at Ryoan-ji are in the eye of the beholder.
Manshu-in Garden: This stunning rock garden is located on the grounds of the Manshu-in Temple in Japan. This temple was created in the 8th Century, and it was later moved during the Edo Period (1603-1868). The main garden is one of the temple’s main attractions, and it features a 400 year old Pinus pentaphylla tree. The garden also features a small island, surrounded by gravel, with a Pine tree in the center of a cluster of Azalea bushes – many people believe that this represents a Lord surrounded by his subjects.
Kamigamo Shrine: This famous shrine in Japan dates back to the 7th Century, and it’s a very important part of Japanese history. This location is actually a series of shrines with the most important ones surrounded by Japanese rock gardens. The most notable one is the Kamigamo Shrine, which features two enigmatic cones made of gravel. These cones are memorials to the holy trees that once served the purpose of welcoming spirits to this shrine.
Daisen-in Teien Garden
Daisen-in Teien Garden: This spectacular Zen garden is located at Daitokuji Temple, and it was created in 1509. The garden itself is rather confined, but it still contains many different elements for such a small space. Some of the metaphorical Zen elements included in this garden are a Mt. Horai “mountain”, crane and turtle islands, stone bridges, and a dry waterfall. The south garden is very reminiscent of the cone-shaped gravel mounds at Kamigamo Shrine, while the rest of the gardens feature other elements such as rocks, bushes, and moss.
Tenju-an Garden: Tenju-an is a sub-temple of Nanzen-ji Temple, and it was founded back in 1336. The most famous of the gardens here is the Zen garden located to the east of the main hall. The garden was constructed about 300 years after the construction of this temple. The Tenju-an rock garden consists path of square stones that are designed using a technique called ‘fish scale pavement’. This type of design uses stones that are turned at a 45° angle to every stone whose sides are parallel. It adds a very artistic flare to this already beautifully designed Japanese rock garden.
Taizo-in Dry Landscape
Taizo-in Dry Landscape: Taizo-in is the oldest (1404) sub-temple of the Myoshin-ji complex, and it’s located in Kyoto, Japan. Its most famous garden is the rock garden that is attributed to the painter Kano Motonobu, who was a resident here. The Zen garden here features an arrangement of foliage surrounded by a gravel ’stream’, and rocks set-up in various locations. Although this Zen temple is relatively small in size, the rock garden here is extraordinarily complex and beautiful.
Nanzen-ji Garden: This garden is located at one of the most powerful monasteries in all of Japan, which makes it one of the best locations in the world for people seeking enlightenment. Nanzen-ji was originally constructed in the 13th Century, and later rebuilt after it was destroyed during the Onin Wars of the 15th Century. The garden’s form as it is today was probably built sometime during the 1600’s. The rock garden at Nanzen-ji is called the ‘Leaping Tiger Garden’, because some people believe that the large rocks symbolise a tiger leaping over the water. The large rocks are surrounded with Azalea bushes, maples, pines, moss, and gravel which is meticulously manicured often.
Ryogen-in Zen Garden
Ryogen-in Zen Garden: Located in the Daitoku-ji complex, Ryogen-in is a sub-temple with several unique Zen gardens. The most famous of these rock gardens features beautifully manicured gravel with a mass of moss near the center of the garden with large stones protruding from the earth. This group of large stones is said to represent Mt. Horai, which is the mythical home of Taoist immortals – this symbolism is very common in a Zen garden. This garden was constructed back in 1502, and it’s located near other sub-temples including Zuiho-in Temple. While Ryogen-in may not be as popular amongst tourists as the Zuiho-in Temple, its gardens are equally as beautiful.
Saiho-ji Garden: The Zen garden at Saiho-ji Temple is one of the first-ever to be recognized as a true Zen garden. This place is a bit different than the other gardens in this list, because instead of having a bed of gravel, this place features a bed of moss. As a matter of fact, this garden is popularly known as ‘Kokedera’, or ‘moss temple’. There are over 120 varieties of moss at the Saiho-ji Garden, making it one of the most unique and colourful Zen gardens in the world. It’s also one of the most expensive for tourists to visit, and tourists must attend a thorough orientation in order to walk the grounds at Saiho-ji – these two factors make this garden one of the most exclusive of its kind for tourists. The unusually tough tourism restrictions at Saiho-ji were put into place in order to protect the delicate moss from being damaged by too many people walking on it.
Konchi-in Garden: This sub-temple of one of the most powerful monasteries in Japan, Nanzen-ji, was constructed in the 15th Century and later moved to its present location in Kyoto. The exquisite garden at this temple was created by famous designer Kobori Enshu. This garden is sometimes referred to as the ‘Garden of Tortoise and Crane’, because of the large rock formations that symbolise these creatures. In Japanese and Chinese thought, these symbols traditionally represent longevity. The large stones and various types of foliage are separated from the Temple by a large white gravel bed that is beautifully manicured. This Zen garden is very popular amongst tourists, because gazing at this garden from the steps at the foot of the Temple is almost like staring at a 2-dimensional painting in an art gallery.
Joei-ji Temple: This Zen temple, located in Yamaguchi, was designed and created during the 15th Century. It’s famous for its Zen garden, which is called ‘Sesshutei’. The designer of this Japanese rock garden was the famous monk and painter, Sesshu. This garden is based upon one of Sesshu’s landscape paintings. The Sesshutei Garden uses all the traditional Japanese rock garden design elements including gravel, large rocks, trees, and mosses.