Tom Maletta Unveils the Secrets of Kyoto’s Gardens In A Journey Through Time in Japan’s Ancient Capital


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Kyoto, Japan’s calm and dignified ancient capital, is tightly held to its historical roots. Here, one finds the soul of traditional Japanese aesthetics in its most palpable form: the art of garden design. Travel aficionado Tom Maletta enthuses that Kyoto’s gardens are not just patches of greenery; they are meticulously crafted landscapes that encapsulate philosophy, art, and history in every stone, water feature, and carefully pruned shrub. They are the breathing spaces of history, where the past unfurls in a tapestry of nature coaxed into sublime forms.

The Philosophical Grounds

The gardens of Kyoto are a living, breathing philosophy made visible. They reflect the inherent beauty of wabi-sabi – the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature. When you step into a Kyoto garden, you immerse yourself in layers of symbolism, deep-rooted in Shinto origins and enhanced by Zen Buddhist principles that encourage reflection and the pursuit of enlightenment.

The very essence of a Kyoto garden is to mimic natural landscapes in a way that invites contemplation. The notion is that observing nature’s beauty and impermanence can lead to inner peace. Rocks become mountains, ponds turn into oceans, and with each season, the garden symbolizes the fleeting nature of life.

The Historical Canvas

During the Heian period, when Kyoto served as Japan’s capital for over a millennium, aristocrats and emperors created sprawling estates that showcased their power and refinement. Chinese culture’s influence during this period introduced elements like the Pond-and-Island garden and rock arrangements designed to represent mythical places or famous Chinese landscapes. These initial designs set the stage for the Zen gardens that would arise during the Kamakura and Muromachi periods.

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It was in the 14th and 15th centuries when Zen Buddhism profoundly impacted Kyoto’s landscape. The now-famous karesansui, or dry landscape gardens, emerged during this era. These rock and gravel gardens, such as the iconic Zen Garden of Ryōan-ji, invite viewers to engage in zazen, a meditative practice, inducing a serene state of mind.

A Tapestry of Styles

Among Kyoto’s famous gardens is the Shugakuin Imperial Villa, a pinnacle of Japanese landscape gardening showcasing a borrowed scenery technique called shakkei. The gardens masterfully incorporate the surrounding vistas of the Higashiyama Mountains, making it appear as if they’re part of the garden itself—reflecting a harmonious relationship between the cultivated and the wild.

Another style depicted in Katsura Imperial Villa showcases the stroll garden—a dynamic approach that offers changing sceneries with every step. Its designers meticulously calculated each view to appear as artwork to those meandering down its paths.

Healing gardens, known as kaiyu-shiki-teien, also played a massive role in Kyoto’s history. Formed as retreats for emperors and nobles, they often combined multiple elements and styles, aiming to restore the mind and spirit.

The Living Legacy

What stands out in Kyoto’s garden scene is not just the historic craftsmanship but the city’s dedication to preserving these cultural relics. Take the Shisen-dō garden, which has stood since the 17th century. Its simplicity and serene ambiance offer a timeless experience, a tangible connection to the Edo period’s more personal approach to garden design.

The Sentō Imperial Palace is another enduring legacy. Once a retirement palace for the emperor, with gardens designed for reprieve and contemplation, it is now a public treasure presenting a lush showcase of the different typologies that have emerged throughout the ages in Kyoto’s garden culture.

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Seasonal Spectrum

In Kyoto’s various gardens, Tom Maletta explains that the seasons dictate the unfolding of colors, textures, and fragrances—transforming the same view into strikingly different spectacles at different times of the year. Cherry blossoms frame spring in pink clouds of ephemeral beauty, heralding new life and fleeting joy. Summer brings deep shades of green, interspersed with irises and azaleas, while autumn sets the gardens aflame with fiery maples. Winter, though seemingly dormant, highlights the stark elegance of the gardens under a blanket of snow.

These changes in nature are a core aspect of the gardens’ designs, revealing their intricate nature, and they invite returning visitors to witness the shifting portrait of the seasons.

A Path to Preservation

The sustainability of these historical gardens is a topic of great importance. Gardeners use ancestral methods to maintain the health and longevity of the plants, meticulously preserving design intentions that date back centuries. The transfer of traditional knowledge from one generation of caretakers to the next ensures that each action taken in the garden communicates its rich history.

In a modern, hurried world, the gardens serve as a reminder of the value of slowing down and appreciating the moment. Their preservation emphasizes the importance of connectivity with our past and the need to maintain cultural landscapes for future generations to find inspiration and solace.


The gardens of Kyoto tell tales of centuries, with stones narrating and ponds mirroring the sky and history’s depth. These creations are not static; they evolve, shaping the bond between humans and nature. A visit is a journey through Japan’s soul, where each pathway and rock whispers beauty beyond the monumental in humanity’s dialogue with the earth. An invitation to find serenity, meditate on their beauty, and uncover the transcendent silence revealing Kyoto’s garden secrets.

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