The quintessential zen garden

18 October, 2011 by

When thinking of karesansui or Japanese zen gardens, Ryoanji is often brought up as the primary example. Located at the northern edge of Kyoto, the temple is known for its rock garden thought to be built in the 15th or 16th century by a famous Japanese avant-garde artist of its time.

It takes 40 minutes and 220 yen to get to Ryoanji from Kyoto station by bus. It’s located just a short distance from Kinkuji, another one of Kyoto’s many publicized temples so many couple the two together when visiting. Entry to Ryoanji costs a 500 yen courtesy.

At the northern edge of Kyoto.

Small park area on the grounds.

Ryoanji began as the residence of a powerful Japanese clan but the property was willed to be converted into a temple after the death of its owner. Most of the space is now occupied by a small park and late at the front of the temple which makes for a peaceful stroll.

Toward the main building.

The temple itself is located at the back of the plot, with the garden laid out at the front of the building. Our first impression was that it wasn’t nearly as large as we had expected or seen in pictures.

Ryoanji attracts as many local as foreign tourists. The rock garden itself is shrouded in mystery, with many theorizing its purpose and origins.

The garden consists of 15 larger rocks laid out on a gravel floor. However, they are positioned in such a manner that only 14 can be seen from any particular angle. A popular story is that only those who have reached enlightenment would be able to see all 15 at one glance. Of course the only way to do that would be to view them from above. The more cynical might see the irony.

The famous rock garden.

While most are content with appreciating Ryoanji as it is, many have tried to find some scientific logic or purpose to explain the garden. There are two schools of thought when it comes to the analysis of the garden.

Researches have gone to great detail to explain the layout of stones in the rock garden, some citing deep psychological effects that the garden has on visitor’s perception. On the other hand, others have displayed evidence that the garden had been built by just simple manual laborers.

Another view.

Regardless of purpose, Ryoanji’s example has been used as the basis for many other modern rock gardens. It’s probably best not to think too much and simply appreciate it for its architectural beauty and serenity.

Your appreciation for the temple will vary based on how much you enjoy the dry landscape garden concept and its aesthetics.

If you’re traveling all the way to Kyoto for the purpose of visiting Ryoanji to be wowed, you might be disappointed. It isn’t one of the oldest or grandest temples by far but if you happen to be in Kyoto, it might still be worth your time to stop to relish the experience.

Planning your holiday? We recommend visiting Agoda for a full list of hotels with early bird specials.

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Supermerlion's Webmaster and Editor-in-Chief. Singaporean Nikkeijin with over 12 years of experience in the media industry. Producer at a Japanese entertainment company. Former Web Developer, Graphic Designer, Multimedia Programmer, Manager and Consultant. Shoots with a Canon 5Dmk2 and Sony RX100-2.