Find Your Inner Peace at the 3 Best Zen Temples in Japan's Historic Capital

Discover tranquil gardens at Kennin-ji, Ryoan-ji, and Shisen-do Temples. Ryoan-ji Temple is one of Japan's 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Find Your Peace at the 3 Best Zen Temples in Japan's Historic Capital

Japanese Zen or rock gardens comprise just the right elements for that perfectly tranquil meditation space. It was first designed by Zen Buddhist monks in the sixth century solely for meditation and later used as Zen teaching hubs. “Is Zen a religion?” you may be wondering. The answer to that is yes, as Zen is simply an abbreviation for Zen Buddhism. 

Japanese Zen gardens were created in Kyoto’s Zen temples in the Muromachi Period from 1338-1573. Today, these sublime spaces are nothing short of structural masterpieces, with their dry rock and gravel landscapes. Find serenity here in a delicately controlled setting of rocks and raked sand. The gardens also boast elements like snipped shrubs, pruned trees, and exquisite water features. 

If you don’t know what to do in Kyoto and need an antidote for stress and impaired focus, why not try this Zen experience in Kyoto. Kyoto is renowned for its 17 UNESCO historical sites, which include mainly temples and shrines. We’ve highlighted three of the best Zen temples with gardens in Kyoto, plus several other historical sites. You can also discover how to travel to these Zen temples here.     

The oldest Zen temple in Kyoto: Kennin-ji

The oldest Zen temple in Kyoto: Kennin-ji

This immaculate Zen temple is situated south of the Gion Geisha district in Hanamkoji Street. It’s a mere 15 minutes from UNESCO site Kiyomizu-dera. However, the journey from there to Kennin-ji Temple could take up to an hour as you wander and take in all the sights. Many people flock to Kennin-ji, including Buddhist monks on pilgrimage, hordes of tourists, and spiritually oriented natives. 

Kennin-ji Temple is considered one of the main temples of Japanese Buddhism’s Rinzai Sect. It also forms part of the Kyoto Gozan. This includes the five most prestigious Zen temples in Kyoto.  Its construction dates as far back as 1202. The temple was funded by the Buddhist monk Yosai, who had learned about Zen Buddhism on his travels to China. 

Yosai also introduced tea drinking to Japan. He commenced his religious training at a young age as a junior monk. He then started learning about Tendai Buddhism at the sect’s primary temple on Mount Hie. Mount Hie lies between Lake Biwa and Kyoto.  

The temple has many huge halls and gates, with 24 tinier surrounding buildings. The area also showcases several beautifully manicured moss and raked gravel Zen gardens. The stone gardens have white sand with wavy lines. These lines represent the ocean. In essence, the gardens represent the ocean with islands.  

The temple’s interior sliding doors are adorned with paintings of dragons. The ceiling of the Dharma Hall boasts spectacular visuals of twin dragons. In addition, the temple showcases the artwork of Tawaraya Sotatsu of the wind and thunder god, displayed on a folding screen. 

Kennin-ji Temple is located in Gion near the southern end of Hanamikoji street. You can travel from Kyoto Station to Gion Shijo Station via the Keihan Line for 16 minutes and walk a few minutes to the temple. Or travel from Kyoto Station to Kawaramachi Station via the Hankyu Line, and walk for about 10 minutes until you reach the temple. 

Exquisite gardens at Shisen-do

Exquisite gardens at Shisen-do 

This temple is located in Northern Higashiyama. It lies off the beaten path, which is perfect for visitors who want to avoid large crowds. Its name suggests “hermit’s retreat.” The temple has a dry gravel Zen garden adorned with beautiful azaleas in the spring. The garden is filled with maples in autumn.  

Jozan Ishikawa constructed this Zen temple in Kyoto in 1671 at the age of 59 years. He was a landscape architect from a Samurai clan. He studied Chinese classics in the Edo period. He constructed this temple as a retreat for his retirement. The temple’s entrance is decked with bamboo walls, complementing surrounding foliage. You can enter the garden and primary building via a stone staircase. This stone staircase is also flanked by bamboo fencing. 

The Zen garden comprises a stone bridge. You can listen to sozu, the distinct sound from a bamboo tube here. Or view garden visuals from a separate room with tatami flooring. You’ll discover a dry Zen garden here, too.  

The garden focuses primarily on cut shrubs or karikomi. There is also an eye-catching hillside adjacent to the shrubs. The temple also boasts a wall with portraits of Japanese and Chinese poets.  You'll also find an ancient Japanese kitchen called a Kamado here.

Shisen-do Temple is situated approximately 38 minutes from JR Kyoto Station. You'll then need to travel to Ichijoji-Sagarimatsu-cho on Kyoto City Bus No. 5. The temple is a 10-minute walk from there.    

UNESCO World Heritage Site: Ryoan-ji

UNESCO World Heritage Site: Ryoan-ji

The Ryoan-ji Zen temple in Kyoto is renowned for its Zen rock garden. It was designated as one of the most famous UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto in 1994. In the Heian Period, the site was once an aristocrat’s villa. It belonged to the Fujiwara clan, one of the most affluent families of that era. The space was later transformed into a Zen temple by the high-ranking warlord Hosokawa Katsumoto in 1450. 

The Zen garden has 15 rocks secured across stretches of white sand. The garden spans 248 square meters. The space is interpreted in several ways. One of the theories is that the rocks spell the word “heart” in Chinese characters. Another theory is that the rocks depict a tigress carrying her cubs across water. 

The rear end of the Zen garden sports the Tsukabai philosophical water basin. Guests usually use these basins to wash their hands and mouths before entering teahouses. However, this basin is just a replica of the one at the Zoroku-an teahouse.  

The temple also boasts a huge strolling garden and Oshidori Pond. This pond is a remnant feature of the former aristocrat’s villa. Ryoan-ji Temple also hosts the Seven Imperial Tombs. These are the mausoleums of seven imperial clan members, including imperial Princess Teishi. 

From Kyoto Station, take Kyoto City Bus No. 50 bound for Ritsumeikan University from the bus terminal B2. After 30 minutes bus ride, get off at the Ryoanji-mae bus stop located in front of the temple. 

How to get around Kyoto city 

The nearest airport to Kyoto is Kansai International Airport (KIX) in Osaka. You could fly to KIX and use local transportation to get to the Zen temple of your choice.  The best way to travel from KIX to Kyoto station is via train. This train ride takes approximately 1.25 hours. You can travel via the Tokaido Shinkansen that  runs between Osaka, Tokyo, and Kyoto. There are departures every few minutes. 

If you travel from Tokyo, you could travel via the Shinkansen Hikari bullet train from Shinagawa Station in central Tokyo or Tokyo Station directly to Kyoto Station. Foreign travelers can also use the affordable Japan Rail Pass for unlimited long-distance rides between cities. 

You could also fly to Narita or Haneda Airports in Tokyo and then use local transportation to get to the temples. Foreign tourists can use the JAL Japan Explorer Pass to fly between 30 cities within JAL's domestic network. This lets you fly and explore Japan's rich cultural heritage and local life at special fares.  

Get your Zen experience in Kyoto

Whether you're exploring its ancient relics or trendy metropolises, a trip to Japan is a cultural adventure you shouldn't miss.  We can help you plan an unforgettable trip to Kyoto with our Guide to Japan travel tips. There's also no guesswork or running around trying to find discounted airfares with a JAL Japan Explorer Pass. 

Discover the benefits of flying with a JAL Japan Explorer Pass when you book today.

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