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Ryōan-ji Temple 竜安寺

Ryōan-ji Temple in autumn, Kyoto (© SeanPavonePhoto - Fotolia.com)
Ryōan-ji Temple in autumn

Ryōan-ji is a Zen temple belonging to Myōshin-ji school of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. Its dry landscape garden is one of the most famous in Japan and attracts hundreds of visitors daily.

History

Originally a Fujiwara estate, the site of Ryōan-ji was acquired in 1450 by Hosokawa Katsumoto (1430-1473), one of the shōgun's deputies, who also happened to be related to the ruling Ashikaga clan. The residence was soon to be destroyed by a fire in the midst of the calamitous Ōnin War (1467-77). Hosokawa Katsumoto bequeathed for the ruined estate to be converted into a Zen temple after his death. Ryōan-ji was therefore founded in 1473, although the actual construction took place between 1488 and 1499.

The old Fujiwara estate contained another temple, the Tokudai-ji (also known as Enryū-ji), which dated back to 983. Seven Heian-era Japanese emperors were entombed on its grounds. The emperors in question are: Uda (867-931), Kazan (968-1008), Ichijō (980-1011), Go-Suzaku (1009-1045), Go-Reizei (1025-1068), Go-Sanjō (1034-1073), and Horikawa (1079-1107). The necropolis is now known as the Seven Imperial Tombs of Ryōanji.

Huge bronze bell, Ryōanji Temple, Kyōto
Karesansui (dry garden), Ryōanji Temple, Kyōto

Grounds

The temple's prime attraction is its fame Karesansui (枯山水 ; "dry landscape") garden. It consists of a rectangular courtyard with 15 rocks set on patches of moss amidst a sea of white gravel enclosed by a tawny earthen wall. The dry landscape capture the essence of Zen Buddhism's quiet meditation and is considered a masterpiece of Japanese culture. However, the 15th-century designer and its interpretation remain unknown. Some attribute the garden to Sōami, who designed the rock garden of the Ginkaku-ji.

One particularity of the rocks' layout is that, no matter where one sits, one can only see 14 of them at a time. The garden also changes with the seasons and the shadows brought by the branches reaching over its walls. The longer one stares at it and the more fascinating it becomes. For example, the garden looks perfectly level, but is actually inclined towards the south-east corner to allow drainage. The western wall is slightly higher on its northern end to create an optical illusion of depth and perspective.

The garden can be envisaged as a riddle made up of four mysteries: Who designed the garden ? How should it be interpreted ? How does it trick the eye ? How does the original eathen wall resist so well the test of time ?

Feel free to imagine what the rocks might represent. Try to come early the morning to avoid the crowds, especially if you visit it during the "school trip" season or during the school holidays/vacations.

Garden of the Ryōanji Temple in autumn, Kyōto

The rock garden opens on the Hōjō (方丈 ; Abbot's residence), a handsome wooden structure with tatami-covered rooms partitioned by painted fusuma (paper sliding doors). Visitors enter the Hōjō through the Kuri, the former temple's kitchen.

Also of interest is the tsukubai (蹲踞), a carved stone washbasin where water flows continously. It is used for the ritual washing of hands and rinsing of the mouth before entering the temple. The basin is inscribed with four kanji (吾, 唯, 足, 知), the central bowl representing a fifth (口). Put together it roughly translate as "Contend yourself with what you have", one of the the basic teachings of Buddhism's anti-materialistic doctrine.

The vast temple precincts is endowed with a large pond known as the Kyōyō-chi (鏡容池 ; "Mirror-shaped Pond"), or more informally as Oshidori ike, the "pond of mandarin ducks", due to the presence of a large number of these birds. The pond garden is the remnant of a 12th-century villa owned by a member of the Fujiwara clan. Still within the temple's boundaries, you will find a traditional restaurant serving boiled tofu in tatami rooms overlooking the garden.

Opening Hours & Admission

The temple is open daily from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm (Dec-Mar 8:30 am to 4:30 pm). Admission is ¥500.

How to get there

There are many ways to reach Ryōan-ji. From Kyōto station take bus No 50 until Ritsumeikan Daigaku-mae, from where it is a 7-minute walk. If you are coming from the Gion area, take bus 59 from Sanjō station, which stops in front of the temple grounds (Ryōanji-mae). From the Arashiyama district, the easiest way is to go by train on the Keifuku Kitano line to Ryoanji Station (you might need to transfer at Katabira-no-tsuji Station).

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