Nanzen-ji Temple Complex, Kyoto

One of the many garden "rooms" of Nanzen-ji

During my time here in Japan, I’ve made it a point to spend my oh so infrequent days off experiencing temples, gardens, and other culturally important sites.  My breaks from the bonsai grind generally leave me even more tired than normal as I go into “tourist mode” and see as much as humanly possible. If planning a trip here, learn as much as you can about the sites you will see.  I guarantee your experience will be different in a positive way.  Bjorn Bjorholm really opened my eyes to this.  The brochure may say one thing, but the truth may be far more interesting.  The brochures from a variety of temples all seem to say they were designed by the same people and are all the “first Zen temple” or the “oldest this or that”.  One thing is always for certain; the structures you see and especially the gardens have changed in the last few hundred if not thousand years.  Fire and / or war are the usual culprits.  Funny that these Buddhist sites are so fraught with killing and scandal.  A caption may read “and then the Emperor Shomu decreed this temple the Rinzai headquarters in 754”.  It conveniently omitted the part about the previous owners’ or tenants’ fate.  History is written by the winner though.

My intention in showcasing my favorite gardens of Japan is to promote visitation by readers and their families to Japan.  Also, I never fail to leave a new or re-visited site without a new insight into Japanese aesthetics, historical reference that influenced Japanese culture, or a little time just to get away from whirring machine that is current Japanese city life. Truly excellent Japanese gardens are both infinitely complex and simple at the same time.  Bonsai at its highest levels of expression is the same.

This particular February day off consisted of a Special Hokusai Exhibition (36 Views of Mt. Fuji and his sketch books), Kennin-ji, and Nanzen-ji. I’ll save Kennin-ji for another post some time.  Many visitors to Kyoto see the main complex of Nanzen-ji but may not wander up the hill a bit further to see the smaller sub-temples and scenic beauty of the forest beyond.

Wild CamelliaThe wild camellia, known as Yabu tsubaki (forest camellia), is great for bonsai as the flowers are small. The hundreds if not thousands of cultivars of camellia aren't necessarily bad for bonsai, but humans tend to select for big and showy flowers for maximum impact.

I’ve been to Nanzen-ji many times, but upon exiting the train station, I decided to follow some “properly prepared” local hikers and see what happened.  This trip was taken duing prime Prunus mume and wild Camellia japonica bloom time; two of my favorite species for bonsai.    There’s a back trail that skirts a ridge and old aquaduct ending in an old-growth Chamaecyparis obtusa forest.  This is extremely rare to see so close to civilization so I was pretty sure it was protected as an important Shinto site.

And there's the Shinto site.....






The  feeling of this place was surreal. I have walked through a number of hinoki forests as they cover a great deal of Japan, but most were planted for future timber harvest and lack that special feeling.  The diameter of most trees was not the impressive part; it was the fire-engine red trunks all around and the high canopy that did it for me.

Photos of the forest do not do justice.  Exiting the forest, I found Nanzen-in; a small temple and garden.  The buildings were amazing and the little details of the garden were very cool.


A quick glance at a garden like this may yield the thought “oh that’s nice” and we move on.    Not everyone realizes there is a plan for every plant in this photo including the edge of the forest behind the garden proper.  Visual weight, a sense of balance throughout, and the highlighting of certain seasonal changes (mainly Spring and Fall) are considered.

Next was Saisho-en.  Smaller temples seem to fail to make the cut in tourist guides as they lack the clout of some of the more showy ones.  As shown in a previous post, the Pinus thunbergii / Lagerstromia fauriei  fusion blew my mind.


I passed on the tour inside.  Apparently a priest here was famous for carving Noh theater masks.  The last stop was the main temple at Nanzenji proper.  The karesansui (dry landscape gardens) here are not easy to photograph.  There are more photos in my Facebook album.  This temple also has some of the best preserved screen and wall paintings available for public viewing  I’ve ever seen.  Entoku-ji, a temple relatively close by, also has excellent paintings.  Unfortunately, no photos allowed at either…..  I was especially impressed with the utility of the gardens at Nanzenji; they were beautiful from multiple vantage point and botanically diverse but still simple and well laid-out.


The designers of Nanzen-ji used the "borrowed landscape" of the mountains and the effect is a seamless transition.


Another good example.
Pure genius



The ceiling of the main hall.

Thanks for reading.