Japan Travel Guide
The Yamasa Institute
Edited by: Declan Murphy
Favorite Kyoto moments...
Best ways to get there
fj.rec.travel.japan, Alt-FAQ Bulletin Boards:
"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|
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|
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|
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|
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 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.
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.
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...
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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Opening hours, prices, booking procedures, schedules etc are subject to changes beyond our control. This site is just a guide, and we advise that you always check and confirm in advance. Suggestions, additions and correction of errors are always welcome. Please contact us.
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