Built in 1450 by Hosokawa Katsumoto on the site of an 11th century temple and donated to the Myoshinji school of Zen Buddhism after his death, Ryōanji is one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyōto and is most famous for its excellent karesansui (rock garden). The temple also houses the graves of Hosokawa, his wife, his son Masamoto, and the temple founder Giten Gensho.
As with many buildings of its era, Ryōanji was burned down during the Ōnin war, after Katsumoto’s death. Masamoto rebuilt it in 1488, and it’s theorised that he built the rock garden at the same time, although this is heavily disputed. Regardless, the temple burned down again in 1797 and smothered the garden in ash and debris. Rather than sweep the detritus away, the new garden was placed on top of the remains, and this is the garden we see today.
The karesansui features fifteen boulders, laid out so that only fourteen can be seen at any one time. The meaning of this? That’s for the observer to decide as they meditate and reflect on the conflict between knowledge and observation. More than sand and boulders, the garden utilises forced perspective and shakkei (borrowed scenery) to be larger than life – literally and figuratively. The garden’s surface is sloped so as to seem level, but allow for natural drainage and contribute to the optical illusion inherent in the carefully-angled walls which present the viewer with more depth than physically exists. More than the boulders and walls, the garden consists of the buildings, the walls, the trees beyond them, the distant mountains, and even the sky overhead. All contribute to the comfortably serene nature of the karesansui.
“Ryōanji” means “Temple of the Dragon at Peace”, and is the is the final resting place of the later Hosokawa Emperors. These seven emperors were buried at Tokudai-ji, the temple’s grounds which Hosokawa purchased to build his villa on. Because these Heian-era Emperors were buried quite simply, Emperor Meiji instated misasagi (Imperial Mausoleums) during the Restoration as part of his PR campaign to boost the historical status of Imperial rule. Set a distance further up the mountain from the karesansui, the Mausoleums are not open to the public.
The karesansui is not the only garden at Ryōanji. The West Garden pictured above is accessible only to the temple’s monks, a place of retreat away from the hectic crowds of tourists. And as a counterpoint to the karesansui (literally “dry garden”), the temple grounds also feature a water garden. Named Kyōyōchi, “mirror-shaped pond”, it was once known as Oshidori ike, “Mandarin duck pond”, due to the large number of ducks which used to roost there before the Meiji Restoration. Perhaps Emperor Meiji had a taste for duck.
There are other gems dotted around the grounds, and it’s wonderful turning each corner to find another neat little sight, but in reality you come here for the garden and it’s the garden you take away with you. The peace is unlike anything I’ve found anywhere else on Earth, and if you take the time out to allow a little silence in to your life, you will leave here refreshed and relaxed.
From Kyoto station, take bus 50 or 55 to Ritsumeikan daigaku-mae stop. Ryōanji is about 5-10 minutes’ walk from the bus stop, but there are plenty of signs to follow. Head up a pathway from the main road which is opposite a small souvenir shop. There are also vending machines outside this shop, and a zebra crossing.