Ryoanji Temple Rock Garden is one of Kyoto's most famous attractions. So famous, in fact, that the name has become synonymous with Japanese rock gardens worldwide. The iconic temple and its gardens are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and should be part of any visit to Kyoto.
Ryoanji has been the subject of a great number of books, photographs and even music by composer John Cage
The gate to the left of the garden is reserved exclusively for the Emperor but was used by Queen Elizabeth during her 1975 visit
The temple can be accessed by train or bus.
Ryoanji is a 10-minute walk north from Ryoan-ji Station on the Keifuku Kitano Line. Alternatively, take the #59 bus from Sanjo Keihan Station to the Ryoan-ji-mae bus stop. There are one- and two-day passes available that offer unlimited bus and subway rides within the city.
The origins and creator of the rock garden are a mystery, but the temple itself was originally a villa for the Fujiwara family. It was then converted into a temple in 1450, affiliated with the Myoshin-ji school of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism.
There is reason to believe that there was a different garden here before a fire destroyed the temple in 1779 since the current garden was laid out at the end of the 18th century.
Featuring a deceptively simple layout of fifteen stones of various sizes set atop white sand, the meaning of the garden has been a riddle since its conception.
One theory is that it expresses an array of mountains rising from a vast sea. Others think it represents a tigress and her cubs crossing a river. Many Zen practitioners would simply tell you that it is just stones and sand, placed to encourage free thought.
The garden's fifteen stones are cleverly arranged so that there is always one rock that is hidden from view, regardless of where the viewer stands. This is a reference to the Chinese concept of fifteen as the number of perfection. No person is perfect, so we are unable to see all the stones due to our limited perspective.
A further riddle can be found in the small garden at the back of the temple. A small stone water basin sits low down, forcing all those who drew water for tea ceremony to crouch low, expressing humility.
The round basin is made to look like an old Chinese coin, with four characters written along the side, which mean nothing when read alone. However, combining each of them to the square at the center (which is the shape for a Japanese character meaning “mouth”), the four characters' meaning shifts to form the idea that “one knows that they have just what they need.”
If you want to enjoy a quiet moment of meditation in the garden, arrive just before it opens in the morning, since large numbers of tourists flock here during the day. After your contemplation, enjoy a stroll through the large traditional gardens or even stop by the nearby restaurant to savor a purifying meal of Kyoto-style tofu.