Six of the best: Kyoto gardens, Japan

SHIN-EN GARDEN

A giant orange gateway ushers you towards Heian Shrine, built only in 1895 but in the style of the medieval Heian Period. But it's the gardens that are the drawcard, with their lily ponds and roofed wooden bridge, where you can sit and hear frogs plop. This type of garden is designed for strolling, opening up unexpected vistas among the trees. It's a prime cherry-blossom destination in spring, especially notable for beautiful weeping cherry trees; the teahouse hosts a blossom-viewing tea ceremony throughout April. Iris in summer and maples in autumn are also wonderful. See www.heianjingu.or.jp

RYOAN TEMPLE

This 15th-century temple features Japan's most famous rock garden. Such dry gardens, characterised by raked gravel, the odd patch of moss and well-placed stones, are deeply influenced by Zen Buddhism and intended for meditation. This one is particularly clever: it has 15 rocks, but only 14 can be seen from any one vantage point. Some say it represents infinity, or a seascape, or an allegory of a tigress with its cubs. "Foreigners always want to know the meaning of Japanese gardens, but sometimes you should just sit there and react," says Aussie expert Mark Hovane of Kyoto Garden Experience. See www.ryoanji.jp

NIJO CASTLE

Nijo Castle marks Japan's transition from shogunates to unified imperial state and is built more as residence than fortress, with walls that fold back to catch the breezes. Kyoto's shogun could sense his era's end: it's said he planted a treeless garden so falling autumn leaves wouldn't remind him of the transience of life. Today there are splendid maple, plum, cherry and ginko trees, while evergreen pines lean drunkenly from the ramparts. This is a landscape garden of ponds and carefully placed rocks designed to represent a natural landscape, and accessed by meandering walking paths. See www.city.kyoto.lg.jp

GINKAKU-JI (SILVER TEMPLE)

Neither silver-coloured nor originally temple, this famous Kyoto landmark is a wooden pavilion set amid raked sand and trees, with an attached wet garden of freeform ponds. One particularly perfect, conical pile of sand represents Mount Fuji. A wonderful moss gardens takes the Japanese liking for the miniature to the extreme. Each element in the garden is unassuming, but the whole is immensely satisfying, creating a tranquil sanctuary out of a small space, cupped in the embrace of a mossy, wooded hillside. The Silver Temple sits at the start of the perennially popular Philosopher's Path, so arrive early. See www.shokoku-ji.jp

KINKAKU-JI (GOLDEN TEMPLE)

The walls of this pavilion, built as a samurai's villa and converted into a Buddhist temple, are covered in 200,000 foils of gold leaf, reflected in a pond below. The pavilion veers towards the kitschy, but the surrounding gardens are classically elegant with iris-studded ponds and the gnarled pine trees that symbolise longevity. It's another strolling garden, dotted with rocks, bridges and vistas meant to recall famous literary locations. "Gardens like this create a sense of journey, perhaps towards a mountain hermitage or sanctuary, as if you're a poet or a sage," says Mark Hovane. "It's meant to provide a wondrous experience." See www.shokoku-ji.jp

TENRYU TEMPLE

The most important temple of Kyoto's eastern Arashiyama district has a garden created by one of Japan's best garden designers, the poet-monk Muso Soseki, and retains its original 14th-century appearance. Its large central pond is backed by rocks, trees and a small hill, and demonstrates the cleverness of oriental "borrowed landscapes" by blending into the Arashiyama mountains in the background. It's a small-scale landscape offering vantage points meant to evoke lofty thoughts. The garden is at its most sensational in autumn, when yellow ginkgos, red maples and orange zelkova trees provide brazen colour on the hillside. See www.tenryuji.com

Brian Johnston travelled courtesy of the Kyoto Convention & Visitors Bureau.

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