Page 1

The Garden at Nanzen-in Temple

2017 Š K. W. Bridges

Fall in Kyoto, Happy people fill the streets; Did they time this right?

This photo essay describes a small part of a trip that Nancy Furumoto and I took to Kyoto in 2017. We did all of the photography. Technical information about the panoramic photos is found at the end of the essay. For additional stories about this trip and other expeditions, please follow the links at

南禅院 We’re spending four days of wandering the hillsides of Kyoto. What a place! There are so many temples and shrines! And we’ve got crowds. Lots of people. This is the right day. This is the right place. Kyoto’s trees are exploding in red, orange, and yellow. Most of what we’re seeing is in the context of the ancient Japanese culture as Kyoto was the cultural center of the nation for more than a thousand years. The character of this city comes from its secular and sacred institutions. Kyoto was the seat of the National government. Important religious institutions established headquarters here. Kyoto’s heritage sites show the remarkable development of architecture and the art of Japanese garden. 南禅院 (Nanzen-in Temple) has a Japanese garden that is well worth visiting. Come along with us.

Historic Japanese gardens have peak displays during the two key seasons. The first season is spring; Japan’s cherry blossoms are world famous. The other season is less well known. But the tree colors in the fall is important to the local inhabitants. We’ve timed our trip so we are here at the end of November 2017. We got it right; autumn colors are on full display in Kyoto. Other people figured it out. Thousands of eyes. Everyone looking at the same scenes. Japanese have a tradition of looking for the autumn colors. They call this momiji-gari. Momiji refers to maple trees and translates to “become crimson leaves” and “baby's hands.” Gari is Japanese for “hunt.” The nobility started this practice in the Heian Period (794-1185). It is now an established event during the fall period when the trees change color. The “hunt” has a symbolic meaning that transcends the visual spectacle.

Certain natural phenomena because of their splendor and singular beauty, developed almost a religious significance in ancient Japanese culture, where Shinto beliefs held that nature was the home of spirits who lived in the water, the land, and the trees. The mysterious transformation of green leaves into fiery reds and frosty yellows around the time of the harvest every year inspired awe among superstitious farmers. Just as a protocol around making tea ‌ or painting calligraphy ‌ so a proper form of viewing nature eventually evolved. According to the Shinto code, the viewer on a proper leafviewing excursion should try to achieve a personal communion with the leaves, in a bond akin to the private communication between man and god at the heart of many Western religions. Bruce Feiler (2004)

There is variety in the maple trees. That’s not a surprise. Three subspecies of the Japanese maple trees (Acer palmatum) created at least 1,000 named varieties. This diversity produces a full range of leaf sizes and colors. We can’t focus just on the maple trees. There are 26 different deciduous species that contribute to the colorful landscape. Together, these trees are the Kōyō (autumn foliage).

うらを見せ おもてを見せて 散るもみぢ

Showing its back showing its front— falling maple leaf Ryōkan Taigu (良寛大愚) (1758–1831)

This photo essay centers on a large, very important Zen Buddhist temple. It is Nanzen-ji Temple. The specific focus is on a small piece of real estate, the Nanzen-in Sub-temple (which we’ll refer to as a temple). Two suffixes, “-in” and “-ji,” have a similar meaning in the Japanese language. Both refer to “temple.” The entire name of the big temple, Nanzen-ji, means “Southern Zen Temple.”

Inside the Nanzen-ji Temple grounds near the Sanmon Gate.

Nanzen-ji Temple has a long history. It is at the top of the hierarchy of Zen Buddhist temples in Kyoto. Years ago, this center of the Rinzai Zen Buddhism, was much larger. There were 62 sub-temples in the period from 1616 to 1868. Now, you find but a dozen sub-temples occupying only 100 acres (40 ha). The reason: the Meiji government (1868-1910) favored Shintoism over Buddhism. The result: they shut most of the Nanzen-ji sub-temples.

行く秋や松の木の間の南禅寺 autumn is leaving temple Nanzen-Ji between the pine trees Masaoka Shiki (正岡子規) (1867-1902)

You reach Nanzen-in by going under a large brick aqueduct called the Suirokaku. The aqueduct is part of the Lake Biwa Canal that connects Kyoto to Lake Biwa. Construction of this red-brick structure began in 1890, with completion nine years later. We consider this a beautiful part of the temple ground. The red bricks have taken on an “ancient� appearance. The aqueduct colors blend in with the surroundings. This immense aqueduct, 93m long, 4m wide and 14m high, serves as an entrance to Nanzen-in.

Many people have remarked that the aqueduct looks like a misplaced Roman construction. Was it acceptable to build this huge structure? Did the monks appreciate this incursion through the temple property? Consider that this water/transportation route cuts across the temple ground and stands near important religious buildings. It must have been a rude intrusion on the serene location that is the center of one of the two major Zen Buddhist sects. Water still runs in the canal, from the lake to the city, but the waterway is no longer home to the boats that carried goods to the city.

南禅院 Nanzen-in is a special place. The government designated this Buddhist temple and its associated garden a National Historic Site and Scenic Site in 1923 and, today, the Nanzenin garden is one of Kyoto’s three scenic and historic spots. Nanzen-ji Temple, one of Japan’s largest temple complexes, began its development at the site of the Nanzen-in Temple. Nanzen-in’s location is a raised area alongside a forest. It was there that Emperor Kameyama built a retirement villa in 1264. Kameyama abdicated the throne in 1274 and thirteen years later became a monk in the Zen Buddhist order. He was the first Japanese emperor to embrace Zen Buddhism. The Emperor’s villa became a temple after he died in 1291. There are three distinct views from the main building, each in a different direction. On the north side, an open view looks over the top of the aqueduct toward the main Nanzen-ji buildings. Toward the west, the view includes a sloping ridgeline. The south view, the most important in this garden, confronts a steep mountain with ravines on each side. A small waterfall flows down the mountain. The stream enters the upper pond. The name of this pond is Sogen-chi as it forms (or, more likely, once formed) the shape of a dragon. Legends say the Emperor himself designed this pond.

Enter the grounds of Nanzen-in Temple. This is your first sight as you look through the temple’s hōjō (living quarters of the head priest). Fires, first in 1393 and again in 1447, damaged the Nanzen-ji temples. Ōnin Wars (1467-1477) resulted in even more destruction. The buildings you see at Nanzen-in today are reconstructions built in 1703.


Ground plan of Nanzen-in Temple. The temple (gray) has viewing from three sides (red). The ponds are shown in blue. Landscape contours range from gray through yellow/orange to green as elevation increases (4 m increments).

Creation of the Nanzen-in garden began late in the Kamakura Period (1185–1333). Chisen Kaiyu (pond strolling) was the garden’s specific style. This first garden did not survive the fires and destruction. No record of its design remain.

The present garden comes from the Namboku-cho Period (1336-1392). There is evidence, such as the general garden plan and the rocks that serve as islands, that MusĹ? Kokushi (1275-1351, aka MusĹ? Soseki) was the garden’s designer. Further evidence is that he lived in the temple for a year. (This talented Rinzai Buddhist Monk deserves a separate story as he was instrumental for many developments in both his religious and secular activities.)

Redevelopment of the garden came in the early Edo Period (1603 and 1868). The temple keeps the pond and stroll garden design. Walk around the entire garden. This lets you view the pond and adjacent buildings from different perspectives. We view most gardens from one side. The mountain in the south is only 120-200 feet (36-60 m) away from the start of the garden. Today, you see a dense forest covering the hillside. Before, it was a bamboo grove. There have been other changes. Kuck’s 1936 description criticizes the state of the vegetation and stonework, concluding with “the stroll part of the garden has almost deteriorated into nothing and the garden is now for viewing alone. It has a secluded feeling of age about it and secrecy as one sees it unexpectedly from the bank above.� Now, the garden and the stroll path look well tended.


Lower Pond

Main Temple Building

South View

1 8

2 3 4


Mausoleum Upper Pond




Approximate locations (numbered circles) of the panorama photos.

The strolling pathway circles the upper pond. The route starts at the main building. It turns south and passes the mausoleum. Turn right at the waterfall. The path crosses through the trees on the lower section of the slope. At the end, the path bends back toward the main building as it crosses a rock bridge.









色付くや 豆腐に落ちて 薄紅葉 Changed the red color, Fallen on the tofu, The leaf of the light crimson maple. Matsuo Bashō (松尾 芭蕉) (1644-1694)

Resources Websites • • • • • • • • • • •

Books Feiler, B. (2004) Learning to Bow: Inside the Heart of Japan, Perennial (Harper/Collins Publishers). Kuck, L. (1936). One Hundred Kyoto Gardens. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Company Yamaguchi, K., I. Nakajima, and M. Kawasaki (2008) The Application of the Surrounding Landform to the Landscape Design in Japanese Gardens. WSEAS Trans. On Environment and Development 4: 655-665.

Panoramic Photos Eight panoramic photos document the views from the strolling path around the upper pond at Nanzen-in Temple. An additional panoramic photo shows the entrance to the south view. Each panoramic image combines up to ten individual photos. These shots were taken with a Sony RX1R II camera. This is a fixedlens 35mm full-frame camera with a 40 Mpixel sensor. This garden, as well as most gardens in Kyoto, forbid the use of a tripod or monopod. Our photos were taken handheld. The individual photos were combined using Kolor’s Autopano Giga 4.4 software. Panoramas produced this way can be huge. Resizing was done in Photoshop CC 2017. Small image enhancements were done with Photoshop.

The garden at nanzen-in temple  

A photo essay about a beautiful garden in the Zen Buddhist Temple, Nanzen-ji, in Kyoto, Japan. The fall foliage is spectacular. The garden a...

The garden at nanzen-in temple  

A photo essay about a beautiful garden in the Zen Buddhist Temple, Nanzen-ji, in Kyoto, Japan. The fall foliage is spectacular. The garden a...