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Practise your Kanji?

"What's so special about the garden at Ryoanji?" I asked him, naming the famous rock and sand garden in Kyoto's most brochured and pamphleted Zen temple.
"The spaces between the rocks," he replied, with his mouth full of toothpaste.
Alan Booth, Looking for the Lost.

In December 1994, this temple was designated as World Heritage by UNESCO. Ryoanji (Temple of the peaceful dragon) is in the northwest section of Kyoto, not far from Kinkakuji. This is a temple belonging to the Myoshinji school of the Rinzai branch of the Zen sect. The earliest temple recorded on this site dates from 983, though it was originally the estate of one of the branches of the Fujiwara family during the Heian period. After serving as the retirement home of an emperor it became a temple known as Tokudaiji (also referred to as Enyuji).

The rock garden
Hosokawa Katsumoto (1430-73), a military commander of the Muromachi Period (1336-1573) then built his estate on the ruins, but he was killed during the Onin Wars (1467-77) and left the 120 acres of the estate to become a temple - this was when Ryoanji was founded. The Onin wars however were not yet over, and along with almost the entire city of Kyoto, the original buildings were burnt to the ground as the city became a battlefield.

Reconstruction took place during the period 1488-1499 and it is generally thought that the temple's highly acclaimed rock garden, which fronts the hojo (superior's hall), was built soon thereafter.

Entering the temple grounds you first stroll past the beautiful Kyoyochi ("Mirror shaped") Pond. This pond was created by the Tokudaiji family in the 12th century. The pond is home to many waterbirds, and until relatively recently to many Mandarin ducks - so much so that the pond was generally known amongst Japanese as "Oshidori ike" - the pond of mandarin ducks. Oshidori ducks usually only choose 1 mate during their life. If the partner bird dies the duck does not mate with other birds. For Japanese, this fidelity has a romantic connotation so "Oshidori ike" is popular with couples.

Kyoyochi ("Mirror shaped") Pond
The pond has 2 small islands. The slightly large one is called Benten-jima and has a small causeway/bridge leading across to a shrine to Benten - the sole female deity among the 7 Shinto gods of good luck. The other island is Fushitora-jima ("Hiding tiger island").

Leave the pond for now and climb up the stairs through the Chinese style gateway (Kara-mon) and you will reach a building called the Kuri (monk's quarters). This is the largest building and one of the few that wasn't reconstructed in 1800. It is attached to the Hojo by a wide wooden corridor. The Hojo is the Abbot's quarters.

The Hojo has 6 tatami matted rooms each of which open onto the wide veranda that surrounds the building. The altar room is at the back in the center, so it is connected to each of the other 5 rooms. The altar room has a dragon painted on the ceiling and an image of Buddha as the veneration object. Beside the image there is are Ihai (grave tablets) for the Hosokawa family and to Giten (the first Abbot), as well as prayer tablets for the Emperor.

On the northeast side of the Hojo to the rear of the Kuri is a famous tearoom named Zorokuan, which is unfortunately closed to the public to protect it from damage by heavy tourist traffic. The design of the tea room is typical of the design favored by a tea master called Kishuza, a tea master in the early 17th century, although it appears not to have been one of his designs. Zoroku means to contain or hide "six". The six in this case refers to the head, tail and four legs of the tortoise - the symbol of the guardian god of the north known as Genbu. The camellia bushes beside the tea house are said to have been donated by Hideyoshi Toyotomi (1536-1598).

The rock garden
In front of Zorokuan there is a famous stone water basin. This is for rinsing one's hands and mouth before entering the tea room. It is called "Tsukubai", which translates literally as "crouch," from the fact that one must crouch down to use it. The Tsukubai is believed to have been contributed to the temple by a member of the powerful Tokugawa family - Mitsukuni Tokugawa (1628-1700). He was a feudal lord and member of the family that ruled Japan throughout the Edo Period (1603-1868). He is mostly famous for compiling the "Dai-Nippon-Shi" - the great history of Japan containing 397 volumes that he started in 1657.

Look closely at the water basin when you see it (or just look at the photo for now). It has a very unique description. There are four characters chiseled around its side which if read clockwise from the top are - (Click to enlarge). However if the square hole that holds the water in the middle of the Tsukubai is included as the radical (ie a component of the character), then the four characters are read as - (Click to enlarge). The pronunciation is - (Click to enlarge).

This inscription translates as "I learn only to be contented" or "I just know satisfaction" or "The knowledge that is given is sufficient". The concept is of utmost importance in Zen philosophy. In Zen, learning and knowledge do not need to be for practical use as skills - knowledge for its own sake is sufficient unto itself. It also means that someone who learns to be contented is rich in spirit and character, whereas someone who may be materially wealthy is spiritually poor if they do not learn contentment. To be content is to be generous, and to be free from greed. Water trickles into the basin and if you are lucky enough to visit on a quiet day you will be able to hear the peaceful sound of water flowing in various locations within the grounds.

The rock garden
The records contain more information about the temple buildings. The main building was destroyed by fire in 1789 and a substantially larger structure was relocated to Ryoanji from another site. Records suggest that the east side of the garden had to be shortened to make room for a new gate that was added at the same time. The veranda is also believed to be shortened, limiting the panoramic view. You may have heard of reconstructions at Ryoanji in 1977-1978. These refer to repairs to the roof of this replaced building and to the garden wall. The clay-tiled roof of the wall was replaced with cedar shingles, and the texture of the wall was substantially changed. The walls are made from a clay which was boiled in oil. The peculiar designs in the wall that you will see are not designed by artists but are the result of small seepages of oil through the clay. Beyond the wall are cedar, pine and cherry trees.

Which brings us to the Rock Garden, Ryoanji's major claim to superstar status. It is a simple rock garden, consisting of nothing but white gravel/sand and 15 rocks, laid out just after the Onin Wars in the late 15th century. Put simply, this rock garden is acknowledged to be one of the absolute masterpieces of Japanese culture.

The temple bell
The simple yet striking garden is just 30 meters long from east to west and 10 meters from north to south. There are no trees, just 15 irregularly shaped rocks of varying sizes, some surrounded by moss, arranged in a bed of white gravel/sand that is raked every day. The elimination of trees and plants and overall simplicity is reminiscent of abstract art. Conceptually it is as far from the ornate gardens of the contemporary court nobles in medieval feudal Japan as imaginable. It is sometimes hard to imagine that two such contrasting styles could emerge from the same 15th century culture.

The garden is constructed in the "dry landscape" style called Karesansui. The rocks of various sizes are arranged on small white pebbles in five groups, each comprising five, two, three, two, and three rocks. The garden contains 15 rocks arranged on the surface of white pebbles in such a manner that visitors can see only 14 of them at once, no matter what angle the garden is viewed from. It is said that only when you attain spiritual enlightment as a result of deep Zen meditation, can you see the last invisible stone.

Zorokuan teahouse
That is a description, but to understand its effect, and its purity, you have to go there. The design generates tension, drawing the viewer to contemplate the mystery of Zen. It can't be photographed in entirety, the dimensions could drive any photographer to distraction, but thats the beauty of it. All you can do is just put the camera away, sit down and contemplate it. Especially when you realize that no matter where you sit, you will only see 14 of the rocks at any one time.

The longer you sit, the more the garden fascinates. The branches of the trees beyond the earthen wall with its peculiar but natural designs are "borrowed scenery" - they bend and straighten, they cast fantastic shadows with the moss that fills the pocks and spaces in the rocks. The raked lines are circles around the rock groups and yet straight elsewhere - and you will love how the lines stop without a single misplaced pebble when they touch the circular patterns, and then resume unchanged beyond them as if the rocks are islands. It changes with the seasons - cherry trees beyond the wall blooming in spring, snow clinging to the moss in the winter. It is never the same twice. And although the rocks do not move, there is something about those spaces between the rocks.

Moss Garden
The garden is not attributed to any single designer, although it is commonly believed that a leading monochrome artist named Soami (1480?-1525), in association with Daisen-in, designed and laid the garden. However the temple records are contradictory and indicate some other makers, and the back of one of the 15 stones is inscribed with the names of Kotaro and Hikojiro, who might have been two of the workers that did the actual construction. Did they also help in designing it? Nobody really knows.

The design most probably comes from a mixture of ideas including the small tray gardens of China and Japan, the pure pebble ground coverings of sanctified Shinto precincts, and the style of landscape paintings favored by the Zen monks. Nobody is even sure if what we see today is the original layout and intention. Some experts allege that the garden used to have decorative trees and plants and was only reduced to its current design over time. Enjoy.

Thumbnails - click to enlarge photo...

Ryoanji Ryoanji Ryoanji Ryoanji

How to get to Ryoan-ji

1: From Kyoto Station:

Take bus XX and get off at the XXX stop.

2: From Okazaki:

Take the Kaisoku (Express) from JR Okazaki Station to JR Mikawa Anjo (10 minutes) or JR Nagoya Station (28 minutes). Change to a west bound Kodama shinkansen. Then take bus XX and get off at the XXX stop. As of writing, the tickets cost XXXX yen one way and the journey takes about XXXX minutes not including the train change.

Tours - The Japan Discovery Tours visits Ryoanji Temple
Click here for more information regarding when Discovery visits this destination.

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