Beside the North Gate of Kyoto Botanical Garden and a hop, skip and jump away from Kitayama Station is another of Kyoto’s hidden gems. This sunken open-air water garden spirals down around a waterfall and central pond, with its walls and even some pond bottoms graced by reproductions of painting masterpieces.
There are replicas of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment,” Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” Vicnent Van Gogh’s “Road with Cypresses and Star,” Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “On the Terrace,” and more, ranging from the Renaissance to Modern periods. Very fittingly, Claude Monet’s “Waterlilies” is reproduced at the bottom of a shallow pond, giving it a constantly shimmering look as sunlight plays on the water.
Sure, these are just reproductions, but the life-size display on ground and eye-level of the Last Judgment, for example, affords us a chance to see it up close and personal. Better yet, you see the painting from multiple viewpoints as you walk down the spiraling ramps. This lets you focus and ponder on individual characters like the victorious Christ, and individual groups like the damned being pulled down to hell, and how they relate to the whole apocalyptic vision of Michelangelo.
For me however, the best part of this open air art museum is the reproduction of the Choju Jinbutsu Giga scroll from Kozanji temple, said to be the very first manga or comic strip. It was painted sometime around the 12th or 13th centuries AD, variously credited to the artist-monk Toba Sojo or to various other painters. The reproduction here is a massive but sharp blowup of the original and occupies about a half dozen panels along the walls, with no glass coverings, allowing you to examine and appreciate the scroll in minutest detail.
This is really great because the scroll, with its animal characters dressed in Heian-period court and country costumes, depicts slices of ancient Kyoto life including some highly comical ones. Here a frog falls into a pond, is fished out half-drowned by some rabbits, then revives, to the laughter of the other characters. There, a monkey thief runs away from some angry rabbits waving sticks. It’s a fantastic peek at the whimsier side of Japanese art, and well worth the minimal admission fee of 200 yen. (Note: The original scroll is now divided between the Kyoto and Tokyo National Museums, while Kozanji also exhibits a 1:1 scale reproduction. If you’re going to Kozanji to see the scroll, I’d point you to the Garden of Fine Arts instead; but do visit Kozanji for its autumn colors!)
There are other pieces tracing the development of Japanese painting, from the formal Chinese schools to the flowering of the minimalistic Zen styles. Again, these are blowups of scrolls so you can get up close and get a good look at the painstaking brushwork and little details. The Chinese and Japanese attention to minutiae is simply incredible. If you love art, this is fine place to relax, sit, and sip some vendo coffee or tea.
You can reach the Garden of Fine Arts Kyoto by taking the Karasuma subway to Kitayama Station, or by bus to Shokubutsuenkitamon-mae bus stop. It’s easily combined with a visit to Kyoto Botanical Garden. The Botanical Gardens, Garden of Fine Arts, and the cafes and boutiques along Kitayama-dori could make a nice break if you’re ever feeling templed-out and sushi-d out. Speaking for myself I’ve no idea how that could happen to me in Kyoto, but there you are. If you’re combining this with Kyoto Botanical, you can enter Kyoto Botanical through the south gate near Kitaoji-dori, then exit via the north gate. The museum is open everyday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
By the way, do you know why the Garden is belowground? It’s to preserve the view of the Higashiyama mountains from Kyoto Botanical Garden, using the shakkei borrowed scenery technique to enhance the Botanical Garden and make it feel more spacious.