Richly endowed with majestic natural features and an abundance of changing seasonal colours, it is only natural that Japan should be perfectly suited to the creation of beautiful gardens. These gardens, inspired by nature, religion and the intellect, are reflections of the people who created them and the societies in which they lived. The gardens of Japan provide a fascinating window into the wider spiritual and intellectual principles that underpin their creation.

Text : Yūji Fujinuma / Photos : 中田勝康 Katsuyasu Nakata / English Version : Judy Evans

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Japan’s First Designated Historic Site and Special Place of Scenic Beauty

Kyōto’s Sagano district where, in days gone by, the aristocracy built their summer villas among the mountains and woods. Emperor Go-Saga had his imperial villa, Kameyama-dono, here during the Kamakura Period (1185 – 1333) and it was on this site at the beginning of the Muromachi Period (1336 – 1573) that priest and garden designer Musō Soseki suggested shōgun Ashikaga Takauji build a Zen temple. This temple, Tenryū-ji, was to be a memorial to Ashikaga’s old rival, Emperor Go-Daigo who had recently died. Constructing the temple complex required considerable funds and when all other financial avenues had been exhausted, the cash-strapped shogunate commissioned two trading ships, the Tenryūji-bune, to ply the trade route between Japan and China. The idea proved a resounding success and and the temple was officially consecrated in 1345. The temple grounds at that time were vast, some four hundred hectares, encompassing what are today the entire Kameyama and Tōgetsu-kyō Bridge areas. Soseki determined to incorporate views of the surrounding landscape into the garden, creating ten distinct vistas. 

The garden, centred on the Sōgen-chi Pond, lies to the west of the Hōjō main temple hall. On the opposite side of the pond, at the base of a wooded slope, is the Ryūmon-baku (Dragon’s Gate Waterfall), an arrangement of rocks representing the Chinese fable of carp that swim upstream, leaping over the dragon’s gate at the top of a waterfall, whereupon they are transformed into powerful dragons – an allegory for the difficult path to enlightenment.  

The rigyoseki (carp fish stone), a rock in the centre of the group, represents those determined carp. Although this is now a dry rock formation, the garden once echoed with the sound of water splashing over the Ryūmon-baku.  

A small peninsula extends out into the pond in front of the Hōjō main hall. This middle distance detail adds depth to the view of the Ryūmon-baku rock grouping on the opposite side of the pond.

At the base of the waterfall is Sanbashi, a bridge formed by the placement of three flat rocks. This is thought to be the earliest example of a stone bridge in a Japanese garden. The three rocks of the Sanbashi bridge represent the teachings of the three philosophies of Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism. It is said that those who acquire a true understanding of these teachings will, freed from their earthly  desires, reach Nirvana. The Ryūmon-baku waterfall and Sanbashi stone bridge are more or less directly opposite the Hōjō hall. Intended to be viewed while seated here in meditation, it could be said that Tenryū-ji Teien garden embodies Soseki’s devotion to the strict practice of Zen Buddhism. 

The Ryūmon-baku dry waterfall, on the opposite side the pond from the Hōjō main hall. The gourd-shaped stone in the centre of the photograph is the “rigyoseki” (carp fish stone), making its way toward the top of the waterfall and into the world of enlightenment.

Tenryū-ji Teien Temple Garden

Pond garden; rock garden; historical landmark; place of special scenic beauty.

Address: Saga-Tenryūji 6-8, Susukinobaba-chō, Ukyō-ku, Kyōto City.

Phone: 075-991-1235


Hours: Summer8:30am-5:30pm(north gate entrance closes at 5:00pm); Winter (Oct.21-Mar.20)8:30am-5:00pm(north gate entrance closes at 4:30 pm)

Admission: Garden 500 yen; an extra 300 yen to visit the temple.


By rail: JR Sagano Line – 13 mins walk from Saga-Arashiyama Station; Keifuku Dentetsu Arashiyama Line – 3 mins walk from Arashiyama Station; Hankyū Line – 15 mins walk from Arashiyama Station.

By bus: Shi Bus Line – take bus numbers 11, 28, or 93 and get off at the Arashiyama Tenryu-ji Mae bus stop; Kyoto Bus Line – take bus numbers 61, 72, or 83 and get off at the Arashiyama Tenryu-ji Mae bus stop

Text: Yūji Fujinuma

Yūji Fujinuma works as a freelance editor and journalist. His main subject matter is plants and animals, nature, history and culture.

Photos: 中田勝康 Katsuyasu Nakata

Katsuyasu Nakata specialises in garden photography and Japanese garden research. He currently exhibits and lectures all over Japan on the artistry of Japanese garden design. He is a passionate advocate for the registration of the Mirei Shigemori Garden in Kyōto as a national monument. His photography can be viewed at the gallery in his historical family home, itself an important cultural property, in Matsumoto City, Nagano Prefecture.

English Version: Judy Evans

Editor and Japanese-English translator Judy Evans has a background in education, the arts, production horticulture and landscape design. A secondary school teacher of Japanese and English who spent many years living and working in Japan, Judy now lives on a small farm in rural New Zealand and remains a frequent visitor to Japan.