Ryoanji Temple Kyoto
Ryoanji Temple Kyoto
Queen Elizabeth II visited in 1975. Since then, Ryoanji Temple has become Kyoto’s most famous Zen rock garden.
In 1450, Katsumoto Hosokawa received ownership of the imperial villa from the Tokutaiji clan (branch of Fujiwara clan). Katsumoto was a Shugo Daimyo (one of three powerful warlords in Shogun Yoshimasa Ashikaga’s court).
Many of Ryoanji’s buildings have burnt down and been rebuilt a number of times. The first time happened during the Onin War (1467-77), but Katsumoto’s son Yoshimoto and Tokuho Zenketsu rebuilt the main buildings in 1488. The original property was larger than the current grounds and reputedly stretched all the way to the Randen Train line to the south of Ryoanji. In 1797, a destructive fire burnt down the main hall and other important buildings, but the main hall from Nishigenin was dismantled and used to build Ryoanji’s current Hojo (Abbot’s Chamber). Ryoanji benefited from the financial support of the famous warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi and the Tokugawa clan (ruled 1600〜1868).
Inside the main hall is the Abbot’s Chamber where you’ll see fusuma (sliding doors) painted with pictures. They are not the original ones. There were 71 fusuma-e (painted sliding doors) painted by the preeminent artist Kano Takanobu (1571-1618) and it was his originals that once adorned the hall. However, these were lost after the Meiji Restoration (1868).
In 1895, Ryoanji suffered the indignation of having to sell off precious objects such as its fusuma-e. The present ones were brought in 1953 during the Showa period (1926〜1989). In spite of this, a few have recently surfaced.
Surrounded by the Abbot’s Chamber and the earthen wall, the rock garden is simplistic at first glance. The rock garden is based on the dry-landscape garden concept karesansui. It originates from China, but was made to suit the sensibilities of the Japanese.
The small raked white rocks are spread out to symbolize an expanse of water (ex. ocean) while the larger rocks dotting the surface represent small islands or mountains. Also, the lines or impressions left by the rake represent the flowing of water or in some cases ripples. The dry-landscape concept involves reverse psychology. By using water’s polar opposite, sand and rock, the Zen rock garden actually accentuates water by not having it physically there.
As in the case of the dry-landscape garden at Ginkakuji, there are impressive functional aspects to this garden too. The smaller rocks are also from the famous Shirakawa (white river) and the rocks contain a natural element that reflects light. This was used as a natural light source for the Abbot’s Chamber. In conjunction with the small white rocks, the earthen walls contain an oil (daily cooking oil) that actually absorbs reflected light to decrease blinding light reflected off of the rocks. Also, if you look closely at the wall in the far back you’ll notice it is not level, it actually slopes downward into the other wall running adjacent. The garden is sloped too, and together with the far wall and other features, acts as in ingenious drainage system.
Really Something to a Rock Missing?
In total, 15 larger rocks dot the surface of the smaller rocks, but when looked at from different angles, one is only able to see 14 at any one time. This has sparked controversy as to whether this was intentional or if it naturally occurred. Gert van Tonder and Michael Lyons contend the missing rock is simply a product of the alignment of rocks in relation to the Abbot’s Chamber. On the other hand, it could represent a deeper meaning. For example, in East Asia the full moon is represented by the number 15 and the 15 rocks could symbolize perfection. In this case, the significance of the missing rock represents imperfection. This is similar to a yin/yang dynamic that seems to be a major theme in Zen Buddhism. Since no one knows who actually built the garden, this quandary may never be resolved. Although the creator is unknown, the garden is believed to have been created sometime in the later part of the 16th century.
Chinese Myth or Make-up?
Since the middle of the 15th century, it appears a Chinese myth has become tied up with this puzzling zen rock garden. However, with no written records, it remains a story wrapped up in folklore and reveals powerful insight into our natural predisposition as humans. The tale is as follows.
Three small tigers and their mother came upon a large river. They soon arrived at a juncture where the small tributary opened up into a larger river. The mother wanted to bring them across to the riverbank on the other side, but within the three tigers, one was so fierce that when left alone he was liable to eat the others. Knowing this, the mother quickly surmised a plan to always keep the fierce one from the rest, while crossing the large river.
First, she took the fierce one over to the bank on the other side while the other two waited. Next, she returned and picked up the next small tiger and escorted it. However, before returning to the original riverbank where the last tiger was waiting, she took the fierce one with her. She leaves the fierce tiger at the original riverbank, and escorted the third small tiger halfway, then turned back to the original bank. Finally, she returned to pick up the fierce one and crossed to the side where they were all reunited. The point of the story is there were only three small tigers, but the mother ended up having to cross three and a half times, instead of a presumable three times.
Tsukubai were wash basins used as a way to clean and purify one’s hands and mouth before entering a tearoom. It is purposefully set low to the ground to make people bend to pick up the water and remember to be reverent. On this particular tsukubai 4 Chinese characters are inscribed on the outside 「五・隹・疋・矢」and at the centre of the basin is the Chinese character [口] for mouth. When every character is mixed with [口] they form [吾唯知足]. This means, “What one has is all one needs” (1). The basin is a replica of a basin that was supposedly donated by Shogun Mitsukuni Tokugawa
In 1975, Queen Elizabeth made an official visit to Japan. Apparently it was a desire of hers to visit the zen rock garden at Ryoanji. Until her visit, it had been little known. The mass media coverage created a massive boom overseas in Japanese Zen and brought Ryoanji into the spotlight.
Queen Elizabeth passed through this Kara-mon (Chinese style gate) and into the rock garden when she visited. Kara-mon refers to the gable like shape of the roof of the gate. The original gate burnt down in the 1797 fire, however the present Kara-mon was brought over from Nishito-in. It is called the Chokushi-mon. Usually, this area of the temple is not open to the public, but maybe they’ll let you pass if you tell them you know the queen!
The “Seven Imperial Tombs”
On the western section of the temple compound you will find a wooden structure next to the white pagoda dedicated to those who fell in Burma during WWII. This building holds the ashes of Emperors Uda, Kazan, Ichijo, Go-Suzaku,Go-Reizei, Go-Sanjo, and Horikawa. In an attempt to establish the emperor’s status as the political leader in the people’s consciousness, the Emperor Meiji ordered their tombs restored in the 19th century after the Meiji Restoration.
◊ Information referenced from Wikipedia and 京都の辞典
Kyoto’s northwest area. Approximately 20 minute walk from Kinkakuji Temple. #101 main bus drops you off near Kinkakuji, then walk. Alternative is Sanjo Keihan Bus Terminal downtown or taxi. #12 bus takes you to Ritsumeikan University and walk another 5-minutes or ride #59 bus takes you directly to Ryoanji Temple.
Hours of Operation
Open Year Round
Winter (December1-End of February) 8:30-16:30
Other (March 1-November 30) 8:00-17:00
Adult 500 Yen (15 yrs. & over)
Child 300 Yen (14 yrs. & under)
View Kinkakuji (Gold Temple) & Ryoanji in a larger map