I like nothing better than to go and explore gardens and to let my imagination ponder on what’s to be seen. Kyoto has plenty of places just waiting to be discovered, and the best way to go and see its gardens and temples is either on foot or by local bus.
Myoshinji Temple in the western part of the city belongs, like Tofukuji (featured in my March 14 column), to the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. A large complex with 57 sub-temples and chapels, Myoshinji was founded at the old Hagiwara Palace in 1337 by the retired emperor Hanazono.
The main buildings on the 13.5-hectare site — the entrance gate, main gate, Buddha Hall, lecture hall, bathhouse and toilet, and lotus pond — are aligned on a north-south axis consistent with ancient Chinese cosmology which, through Chinese Zen, was very influential in Japan during the Kamakura and Muromachi periods spanning 1192-1573.
As well as dictating the alignment of temples, gardens, palaces and even cities, those ancient cosmologists named the pole star “Great Heavenly Emperor,” as emperors were considered the sons of heaven.
Though it was razed during the Onin War of 1467-77, then restored by its ninth abbot, Sekko Sojin (1408-86), Myoshinji’s main temple is now home to the oldest bell in Japan, which was cast in 698.
However, besides these splendors, and its many noted art objects, the temple complex is rightly renowned for its wonderful gardens, three of which (or four, depending who you are) are open daily to the public.
Entering the complex through either its north or south gates, visitors will find many interesting little side paths to explore and, near the main temple, some beautiful kuro-matsu (Japanese black pine; Pinus thunbergii). The first garden you’ll likely come across is in Taizoin Temple, the oldest sub-temple in the complex, built in 1404 by Hatano Shigemichi, daimyo of Izumo Province in present-day Shimane Prefecture.
The garden was designed by Motonobu Kano (1476-1559), a landscape painter. It contains a miniature kare-san-sui (dry-landscape garden) representing in its stones the mythical island of Horai, a dry waterfall and crane islands. At the lower end there is also a scene that reminds visitors of mountains with a river running through to a carp-filled pond at their foot. Here, o-karikomi (tall trees clipped into rounded shapes) represent mountains and the lower hills are formed by satsuki-tsutsuji (satsuki azalea; Rhododendron indicum) that are best seen in bloom in May.
While taking their ease at this delightful sub-temple, visitors can also sample Japanese green tea and admire a national-treasure landscape painting by the 15th-century monk Josetsu, who popularized Chinese art in Japan and is considered an early master of suibokuga (ink painting).
Leaving Taizoin, a short stroll will take visitors to Keishunin sub-temple, whose garden is actually made up of three small ones. The first is a tiny tsubo-niwa (courtyard), known as Shojo, that is enclosed on two sides by whitewashed walls and on the others by narrow wooden corridors. The “dry waterfall” made of boulders stacked behind the stone well is attractive — and if you listen carefully you may be able to hear water flowing there! As well, there is an interesting bell-shaped window on the left, allowing a glimpse of the simple wabi-no-teien tea garden beyond. A tatami chashitsu (tearoom) with a nice fern-covered water basin outside it looks out onto this tiny garden dating from the early Edo Period (1603-1867). This is a pleasant place to relax, as tall ara-kashi (evergreen oaks; Quercus glauca) serve to screen off the garden from the outside world. There is also a fine iroha-momiji (Japanese maple; Acer palmatum) to admire to the right of the baiken-mon (plum-viewing gate).
Though this gate acts as a visual doorway to the next garden, visitors don’t actually walk through it, but instead view the garden from a wooden corridor. In fact, the gardens in many Zen temples were not designed for pleasure, but to be contemplated from fixed vantage points such as a tearoom or the abbot’s quarters. The rectangular garden designed for this purpose in front of an abbot’s quarters is known as a shinyo.
Refreshed and restored, visitors can now seek out Daishinin sub-temple, whose quaint little garden holds a couple of interesting surprises. In one of the tiny tsubo-no-niwa there is a 350-year-old Kirishima-tsutsuji (Rhododendron x obtusum) that is worth seeing, especially when the beautiful red flowers open in April.
Kirishima-tsutsuji is an evergreen hybrid with small elliptic-obovate leaves 1-3.5 cm long, and is thought to be a cross between yama-tsutsuji (R. kaempferi), Miyama-kirishima (R. kiusianum) and sata-tsutsuji (R. sateanse). It was first mentioned in Japan’s earliest garden magazine, Kadan Koumoku (Principles of Gardening), in 1681 after the plant was brought to the then-capital of Kyoto from the Satsuma domains around Kagoshima in southern Kyushu. The specimen here is 2 meters high and 4 meters wide, and growing beneath it there is an attractive yellow-berried senryo (Sarcandra glabra), a shade-loving shrub that cannot tolerate cold winds.
Across the wooden corridor is a splendid goyo matsu (five-needle pine; Pinus parviflora) that was planted at the same time as the kirishima-tsutsuji. There’s also a small rectangular kare-san-sui called Anu-tei, which is aligned from east to west and has tsukiyama (man-made hills) in its southeast section. The moss-covered stones that form these “hills,” with raked gravel curving round them, give the impression of a mountainous coastline.
To appreciate these delightful surroundings to the full, visitors might consider an overnight stay. With advanced booking by post (enclosing a return postcard) it costs a mere 4,000 yen per person per night, including a traditional evening meal and breakfast.
Finally, we come to the Torinin sub-temple at Myoshinji, where a fourth garden in the complex is supposedly open to the public, and where guidebooks enthusiastically direct visitors to view a beautiful 350-year-old shara-no-ki (Stewartia pseudo-camellia) growing there.
I went along to Torinin to see this tree. I rang the doorbell and the lady who answered said I could not enter. She then explained that only those who stay there can see the tree — and that foreigners cannot enter unless accompanied by a Japanese person! Foreigners do not have the same manners as Japanese, she declared unabashed. If that’s where Zen gets you . . .