Selecting the top 5 temples and gardens in Japan is like choosing the top 5 art works in the Louvre: it’s no easy feat. The Kyoto area alone boasts more than 2,000 temples and shrines, many of which are designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites and national treasures. When it comes to gardens, Japan is equally famous for both its gorgeous landscape gardens and its rock gardens (also known as Zen gardens).
So we can’t say this list is the definitive top 5. For example, Horyu-ji Temple, the world’s oldest surviving wooden structure, and Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto’s gold leaf-covered Golden Pavilion, could easily find their way onto such a list. But the following 5 sites are definitely among the most extraordinary of Japan’s temples and gardens.
This temple is renowned for one of Japan’s most famous landmarks, the Great Buddha. This monumental bronze statue stands (or, more accurately, sits) more than 40 feet in height, and dates to the year 1252. It was originally enshrined inside a temple hall, but the building was washed away by a tsunami in 1498, and the Great Buddha (known as Daibutsu in Japan) has been exposed to the elements ever since. The cultural icon is a national treasure, and has been proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Built in 778 without a single nail, Kiyomizu-dera predates the establishment of Kyoto as Japan’s original capital. The temple, whose name means “clear water,” was built around the Otowa Waterfall, and it’s said that visitors who drink from the waterfall can get their wishes granted. The main hall is best known for a large wooden stage overlooking a hillside covered with cherry and maple trees, which burst with color in spring and fall. In Japanese, “to jump off the Kiyomizu stage” is the equivalent of the English expression “to take the plunge.”
In this shrine, known as the Peaceful Dragon Temple, you’ll find Japan’s most famous rock garden. Deceptively simple in design, it consists of 15 rocks surrounded by white sand that is raked carefully into patterns each day by the monks. The composition invites contemplation, and the meaning behind the placement of the 15 rocks has been debated for nearly all of the rock garden’s 500-year history. Both Ryoan-ji and Kiyomizu-dera temples are part of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The garden that surrounds this art museum upstages the paintings themselves. Named the best Japanese garden in the world 9 years in a row by The Journal of Japanese Gardening, Adachi raises the Japanese garden to an art form, right down to the way you interact with it: rather than strolling through the midst of it, you enjoy this garden from afar through a series of panoramic windows and outdoor observation posts, gazing at it just as you would a painting.
Unlike Adachi’s sit-and-view style of interaction, Kenroku-en was created as a “strolling garden,” one best enjoyed through direct immersion in its beauty. Generally considered one the top 3 gardens in Japan, Kenroku-en began as Kanazawa Castle’s outer garden in the 1620s. Amongst its lush trees and water features, you’ll find Japan’s oldest fountain.