Rock gardens are an abstract garden that use white sand and small rocks to represent water and its movement. Here are 5 rock gardens in Kyoto that can't be missed.
Ryouanji, a Zen temple built in 1450, is internationally famous for its karesansui Zen garden. Karesansui is a kind of garden that uses rocks and sand to represent landscape such as mountain and water. This 25x10m garden is covered with white sand and has 15 rocks of different sizes in it. It expresses nature without using trees or water. It's very abstract, so there are various interpretations. This garden is famous because no matter where you are, there is always one rock that you won't be able to see. You should definitely try to see it from various angles.
Kenninji was built in 1202 by Eisai, a priest who spread Zen Buddhism throughout Japan, and it's Kyoto's oldest Buddhist temple. On the grounds there's Daiouen, a karesansui garden made with white sand, moss, and boulders, as well as the square karesansui gardens named Chouontei and ○△□ Garden. It's said that ○△□ represents all things in the universe, as well as symbols of Zen Buddhism's ideology: ○ is water, △ is fire, □ is earth. All of the gardens have their own taste, and it's a bewitching temple that will have you lose track of time.
Ninnaji is a temple famous for its Omuro cherry blossoms as well as its very long history, having been built in 886. It has deep ties to the imperial family, as shown by its other name Omuro Gosho ("gosho" means the imperial palace), and their head priest was a member of the royal family until the Meiji era. Ninnaji has 2 gardens, both surrounding the shinden (a palace building used for ceremonies and rites). The southern garden has cherry blossoms growing on the left and tachibana (inedible kind of citrus) on the right, and in front there is white sand as well as pine and cedar trees to make a simple garden. On the other hand, in contrast to the southern garden, the northern garden has a lake around which you can walk to enjoy the elegant view.
Toufukuji, a temple famous for its autumn foliage, is a huge temple that took 19 years starting in 1236 to build. The chamber of the chief priest in Toufukuji is surrounded by 4 gardens, one in each cardinal direction. There are many gardens in Kyoto, but Toufukuji's gardens are the only one surrounding the chief priest's room at all sides. The garden created by Shigemori Mirei in 1939 uses the unaffected and sincere garden style from the Kamakura era when the temple was first built to create a modern karesansui garden. All of the gardens have their own style but the particularly recommended gardens are the northern and western checkerboard-style gardens.
Daitokuji was built in 1325, and it's one of Kyoto's largest Zen temples. On the wide grounds, there are 24 sub-temples. Among them, the 4 temples Ryougenin, Zuihouin, Daisenin, and Koutouin, usually allow visitors. They each have gardens worth checking out, but the karesansui garden that's part of Daisenin is particularly famous. This garden, designated a national special place of scenic beauty, uses only rocks to express the waterfall that flows between Tsurushima and Kameshima from Mt. Horai becoming a large river and then a large ocean. On the other hand, the southern garden uses two piles of white sand to simply represent a large ocean.
There are plenty of gardens in Kyoto overflowing with expressions. It would be good to find a garden you like and spend some leisurely time there meditating.
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.