Ryoan-ji Temple contains what is widely considered to be the finest example of a Zen rock garden in the world. Laid out in the fifteenth century, its simple beauty is designed to inspire contemplation. It is a premiere example of a dry-landscape garden, called karesansui in Japanese. These gardens use raked gravel, sand and stones to create scenes meant to deepen meditation, both for those who view them and for those who rake the gravel slowly and mindfully.
These gardens have rightly been called works of abstract art. In gazing at them, their meaning shifts and shimmers, never coming into clear focus. They are perhaps the most profound expression of Zen philosophy that exist, both deceptively simple and beyond rational comprehension.
The garden at Ryoan-ji consists of fifteen rocks arranged in a sea of gravel. There is no single viewing point (other than from above) from which all the rocks can be seen at once. Tradition says that only one who has attained enlightenment can see the fifteenth boulder (alas, I didn’t see it).
Ginkaku-ji (The Silver Pavilion) was built in 1489 as the retirement villa for the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa. It is famous both for its architecture and its gardens, which include white waves of sand and two perfectly sculpted piles of sand: the Moon Mound and the Sea of Silver Sand, which are made to reflect moonlight and to enhance the appreciation of the garden on moon-lit evenings.
Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion) is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, set in a reflecting pond that perfectly reflects its loveliness. Like the Silver Pavilion, it was built as a retirement villa for a shogun. The lines are long and you will likely have to wade through a mass of people to see it, but it is truly worth it.
Ninna-ji Temple once served as an imperial palace and includes more than 50 sub-temples. Entered through a massive gate, it includes a number of National Treasure properties, including its main hall. Its five-story pagoda was built in the 1630s.
Myoshin-ji Temple was established in 1342 when a retired emperor converted his palace into a Zen temple. The large complex includes 47 sub-temples and offers guest accommodations. Shunko-in Temple (located within the Myoshin-ji complex) offers an English-language Zen Meditation and Temple Tour most days. It is led by an American-educated vice-abbot (reservations are recommended). More on Myoshin-ji.
Shisen-do Temple (The House of Great Poets) was built in 1641 at the foot of the Higashiyama Mountains by a former shogun. He used the home as his hermitage and named it after the classical Chinese poets he admired and studied. More on Shisen-do.
The one-mile Philosopher’s Walk follows a canal lined with cherry trees (naturally, the best time to visit is when they’re blooming in April). Located at the base of the Higashiyama foothills, the path was the favorite route for a Kyoto university professor, Nishida Kitaro (1870-1945), who walked it daily. Shops, restaurants, and cafes line the scenic route, which is still perfect for a contemplative stroll.
The Gion Corner offers an introduction to traditional Japanese arts and entertainment. Its one-hour program includes an overview of the tea ceremony, koto (Japanese harp), flower arranging, gagaku (ancient court music and dance), kyogen comedy, and dances performed by apprentice geisha.