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8 Elegant Kyoto Gardens Rich in the Wabi-Sabi Aesthetic

There is a unique concept in Japanese aesthetics called “wabi-sabi,” and the city of Kyoto, filled with historic and traditional buildings, provides the traveler with many opportunities to experience this “beauty of transient imperfection.” This time around, we’ve prepared for you a selection that covers eight famous Japanese gardens in the city, and we hope what follows will help you out when planning your trip to Kyoto.

First and foremost, though, why not read a little more about wabi-sabi:


1. Katsura Imperial Villa



Praised as one of the great gardens of the world both domestically and internationally, the Katsura Imperial Villa (Katsura Rikyū) is arguably the most beautiful of all the gardens we’ll introduce today, and it has been used as a villa for noble families since the Heian period (794–1185). 
*Pre-visit application required


2. Shugakuin Imperial Villa



The forested mountain backdrop here melds the wabi-sabi landscape with an expansive mood, creating a richness of scenery that draw the viewer in.
*Pre-visit application required


3. Ryōan-ji

龍安寺, A World Heritage Site


Not only is this temple beautiful, it is also host to a famous mystery that has even received attention overseas. Also known as “Shichigosan (‘Seven-Five-Three’) no Niwa,” this garden is studded with 15 stones of varying sizes arranged in a 7:5:3 pattern going east to west. Interestingly enough, the position of these stones has been calculated so carefully that no matter what angle you stand and look at the garden from, there will always be at least one you can’t see.

Shichigosan: Japanese Love Numbers: From Superstitions to Proper Etiquette


4. Ninna-ji

仁和寺, A World Heritage Site


Ninna-ji is famous for its Niō-mon (two kings’ gate), which is one of the Great Three Gates of Kyoto. From the highest point in the temple precincts you can see the face of the five-story pagoda peeking out at you. Also, it’s only a short trip to Ryōan-ji from here.


5. Kennin-ji



As the oldest Zen temple in all of Kyoto, not only the garden but the spectacular architecture itself is sure to catch your eye.


6. Entsū-ji


Entsū-ji is representative of a type of gardening technique called “shakkei.” In this temple’s case, the scenery is provided by Mount Hiei.

*Shakkei: literally, “borrowed landscape.” This gardening technique utilizes the surrounding scenery as if it were part of the garden itself.


7. Saihō-ji

西芳寺, A World Heritage Site


Saihō-ji is also known as the “Temple of Moss”, and its garden has an otherworldly atmosphere that will make you feel as if you’ve lost your way in a labyrinthine sea of trees. Walking along the carpets of moss, you’ll forget that you’re still in Kyoto.
*Pre-visit application required


8. Tōfuku-ji


The Northern Hōjō Garden, One of Four,

Though most famous for its stunning autumn foliage, Tōfuku-ji is also home to another visual highlight: its four gardens, all done in different styles.


So what were your impressions? Once you saw the gardens in terms of their wabi-sabi aesthetic value, did you find you were able to see them from a different perspective, perhaps taking on a greater depth of beauty? Imagine how much more deeply you’d be moved when visiting these locations in person!

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