Discover The Ryoan-ji Zen Garden In Kyoto

The Ryoan-ji Zen Garden is part of one of the most iconic monuments in the city of Kyoto. Know its origin and its unique disposition.
Discover the Ryoan-ji Zen Garden in Kyoto

The Ryoan-ji Garden is possibly the most famous of the Japanese gardens  due to the formal perfection of its karesansui , or dry garden. The unknown of its true meaning, like its unknown author, constitute an attractive enigma for scholars and visitors.

This garden invites the meditation of locals and strangers. It is considered a fundamental piece of all the historical monuments of Kyoto and has been part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994.

The Origin of the Zen Garden of Ryoan-ji Temple

Kyoto’s Ryoan-ji Temple, which means Temple of the Dragon of Peace, was originally the home of an aristocrat during the Heian period. At the end of the 14th century the town became a Zen temple of the Myoshinji, one of the sects of Zen Buddhism. However, the author of the garden remains to date a mystery.

Zen garden of Ryoan-ji temple
Zen garden

Not only is the origin of Ryoan-ji’s garden unknown, its meaning is as well. For this reason, the garden is considered the quintessence of Zen culture and is the object of study by psychology faculties, which have theorized for decades about the positive effects of contemplating the dry landscape of Ryoan-ji.

However, after years of research, some studies claim that the raked gravel is a clear representation of the sea. In the same way, the stones are attributed the meaning of the land or, spinning even finer, of the islands that make up the country. Finally, the moss that surrounds the stones would be the vegetation typical of the area.

Scholars claim that although the stones do not appear to follow a clear pattern, they are not randomly placed either. These are arranged following one of the three concepts of Japanese beauty: the Wabi. This concept, also included in Zen culture, represents simplicity and asymmetry.

Recent studies speak of the silhouette of a tree hidden among the gravel clearings that make up the garden. They even attribute it to that effect of peace that the place transmits when visualizing, almost unconsciously, a clear reference of nature.

Contemplating Ryoan-ji’s garden

The garden is divided into two sections, one external and one internal. The external section is developed around the Kyoyochi pond, while the second, more secluded and minimalist, houses the main hall and the stone garden.

Ryoan-ji's garden stones
Zen garden detail

Walking through a succession of natural and artificial lagoons, you can see a great variety of native plants, as well as various types of birds. The tour will take us to the ceremonial islets Fushitorajima and Bentenjima, ending at the residence of the monks and the abbot of the temple, Kuri and Hojo, respectively.

This last building is the one that serves as access to the stone garden, located in front of the south façade. In it, in addition to the main garden of the temple, you can see paintings, the old tatami and sliding doors, or shoji, as well as other smaller Zen gardens.

Ryoan-ji’s Zen Garden is 30 meters long by 10 meters wide. On it are arranged fifteen stones grouped into five islets surrounded by a low stone wall.

It should be noted that the arrangement of the stones makes it impossible to see all of them at a glance. There is only a single angle from which they are seen in their entirety, while in any other the elements overlap and hide. For this reason, the visitor will always see only 14 of the 15 rocks that make it up.

Things to keep in mind during the visit

Ryoan-ji Temple Gardens
Ryoan-ji Temple Gardens

As it is one of the most visited places in the city of Kyoto, the former Japanese capital, it is recommended that the visit take place first thing in the morning. During the tour, there is a cry for silence and peace, since there are many who come to the garden as a place of prayer or meditation.

Another detail is that, when entering the enclosure, we must remove our shoes. The sensation of walking barefoot on the tatami will be a unique experience. Near the temple, in addition to having a shop of typical products such as tea and pieces of traditional tableware, there are several restaurants with typical cuisine of the region.

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