Temples in Kyoto without the crowds? Seems an impossible task but yes, they can be found and I did just that on my last trip up to the city in April.
The temple complex of Daitoku-ji sits in northern Kyoto, a short bus ride from the Golden Pavilion but worlds away from the tourist masses. I say complex because the grounds here encompass some two dozen subtemples, all surrounding the main hall of Daitoku. It almost feels like you’ve entered an enclosed village, with cobbled lanes and gated entryways. You could spend at least half a day here (and drop a considerable amount of money as well on separate temple admission fees) just poking your head in to some of the temple – most have stunning gardens with hardly a soul in sight but you to enjoy them. Here are a few I found worthwhile:
Obai-in (¥600) – I really lucked out with this one. Obai-in is only able to be viewed by the public a few weeks a year and I happened to arrive during its spring opening. The garden is a cross between a moss garden and a dry rock garden, interspersed here and there with a few flowering plants (the camellias were in bloom while I was visiting) and said to have been designed by the famous tea master Sen no Rikyu. It’s all viewed from a villa on the property that dates from the 1500s in which Sen no Rikyu allegedly performed tea ceremonies. Helpful docents will give you a spiel in Japanese about each aspect of the house and garden but they will also just let you alone to soak up the atmosphere. I’d kill to come back here in November. (You can’t take pictures in the garden itself, only out front.)
Daisen-in (¥400) – Most people make a beeline straight for this temple, known for its dry rock garden and its famous abbot (who can often be found at a table near the entrance autographing his calligraphy 🙂 ) The garden itself is fractured – a few dry rock designs around the temple and a large raked area in the front – but rife with symbolism. Staff will take your camera at the front (apparently too many people have been using the garden images for their own monetary purposes) but will hand you a laminated booklet of explanations for each and every rock, tree and swirl, should you be so interested.
Ryogen-ji (¥350) – This isn’t one of the must-sees (my other “must-see” was closed that day) but I rather liked Ryogen-ji with its pocket-sized strip of raked gravel and then its much larger dry rock garden. Only a handful of other people had bothered to pay the admission to this temple so I was able to sit and “get my zen on” to my heart’s content without being too bothered.
Koto-in (¥400) – Frankly, I was a bit let down by Koto-in. Some guidebook writers and Kyoto afficianados have said that this is one of the best gardens in Kyoto. I was actually more taken with the stone walkway flanked by bamboo trees that led to the temple than I was by the temple garden itself. All of the posters show to come here in autumn and perhaps that would make a stroll around the garden more enjoyable. (And you can actually stroll around it – there are bright yellow garden slippers to wear for a putter around the grounds themselves.) But to me, the stellar photo would probably be captured before you enter the paid portion of the visit. So do, by all means, swing by Koto-in, but I feel the highlight of the temple is the path leading to it. (However, for those of you interested in history, Izumo no Okuni – the founder of Kabuki – is buried here.)