After getting to bed way to late last night, it was an absolute hell to get up at 6 this morning. My head was pounding from lack of sleep and I was nearly convinced that I was coming down with the flue. Nonetheless we took an early bus out to Ryōan-ji Temple. We had a busy schedule ahead of us and a dream to see the Rock Garden of Ryōan-ji without getting cramped by others with the same idea.
However, we might have been a bit enthusiastic because we got there way too early and without having thought of bringing breakfast, and after walking a bit from the nearest bus stop we ended up having to wait for half an hour. When we finally made our way to the entrance ten minutes before opening hours, the lady let us through acting as if they’d been open for hours.
At this time my headache was pounding, but the peaceful quietness of Ryōan-ji Temple gave me a chance to relax a bit.
Ryōan-ji Temple and Rock Garden
The temple was originally a country villa for the aristocratic Tokudaiji clan, but was converted into a Zen training temple in 1450 by Hosokawa Katsumoto. As many other temples and cultural buildings in Kyoto it was destroyed during the Onin war and rebuild in 1499. It is a rather large temple complex as it was expanded by Toyotomi Hideyashi and Tokugawa. At its peak the temple held 23 sub-temples.
But idyllic as the temple is, people come here for a rather specific reason and I managed to get out of bed so early this morning with the hope of experiencing it without anyone else around. Ryōan-ji is best known for its karesansui (dry landscape) style rock garden.
It was a misty morning and after we made our way around the Kyoyochi Pond and into the Kuri (the main hall) from where we walked through to the Hojo ( The Superior’s Hall). The Hojo opens up to the small 25 by 10 meter garden consisting only of 15 rocks, white pebbles and moss.
The 15 rocks arranged on a surface of white pebbles in a rectangular site symbolically represent nature, yet the garden contains neither a single tree nor blade of grass. It is also known as the “baby tiger crossing” because it resembles a tiger crossing a mountain stream with its cub.
Information plaque at Ryōan-ji Temple
There is no specific date or creator for the garden and it doesn’t show up in written sources until 1680, but most sources place the creation at the garden at some point in the 15th century. According to the pamphlet at the temple the garden is said to have been constructed by the Zen monk Tokuho Zenketsu during the end of the Muromachi Period. But I haven’t read this anywhere else. No matter what it is a masterpiece of a dry landscape garden and as another information plaque states: it is renowned throughout the world as the ultimate example of the karesansui […].
And yes, we got it all for ourselves. A peaceful twenty minutes of breathing in the misty morning and looking out into the Zen that is the Ryōan-ji temple rock garden.
Rokuen-ji Temple and the Golden Pavilion
We’d planed the day in regards to the opening hours of the different temples, and next on our list was one of Kyoto’s biggest tourist attractions Kinkakuji – The Golden Pavilion at Rokuen-ji Temple. But for some insane reason we managed to get on a bus which took a different route than the one we’d checked up on. Thus, rather than standing in a temple looking at a golden pavilion we ended up in a parking lot, looking at a golden M. I was near collapsing with my pounding head-ache and I needed a bit of air-con and breakfast. So we gave up on reaching Rokuen-ji early and settled in for some American pancakes with maple syrup.
After finishing a well needed breakfast, we headed out on food in the direction of The Golden Pavilion. When we finally arrived, crowds of other tourists had already descended on the place and we were by all means far away from the peace of the Ryōan-ji temple rock garden, or even the parking lot.
Having seen Ginkaku, The Silver Pavilion, yesterday, I was very eager to compare it to Kinkaku, the Golden Pavilion. The area was originally owned by the Saionji clan, but was acquired by Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the 3rd shogun of the Muromachi Period in 1397. Yoshimitsu built a villa on the premises which he named Kitayama-den, and when he died it was converted into a Zen Buddhist temple according to his will.
The most striking feature is in no doubt the beautiful Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku or the Shariden, which is a Buddhist hall containing relics of Buddha. It is a beautiful three storied structure covered in gold foil on lacquer, and I can’t help wondering if the gold foil originates in Kanazawa. It very well might as the present pavilion is from 1955 and the current gold foil on lacquer from 1987. The original pavilion was burned down by a mentally ill novice-monk in 1950. As such, there is also doubt as to whether the pavilion was truly covered in so much gold as at present. Nonetheless, the current structure was built as close to the original as possible and is a proof of the beauty of Muromachi-period architecture.
The garden and buildings of the temple, with the pavilion at its centre, is said to symbolise the Pure Land of Buddha in this world. All the original buildings apart from the pavilion were destroyed with the Onin War, which makes the 1950 burn down of the pavilion extraordinarily sad.
But present day Kinkaku is beautiful nonetheless, and it is a magnificent sight to see it reflecting in the pond. Unfortunately the morning was still a bit misty, making it difficult for the sun rays to catch the gold of the pavilion. In addition, we had to do quite an elbow dance to get into position for a photo, as several groups of Russians and Chinese had congregated on the small area across from the pavilion, where all the million-dollars shots are taken.
Ryogen-in and the five gardens of Zen
Getting away from the tourist masses at Rokuen-ji, we took a bus – the correct bus – towards the next stop of the day.
Before we left from home we came across a BBC program about gardens and an episode about the Chinese and Japanese gardens. This program had introduced us to our next stop, the small Ryogen-in Zen Temple and its five gardens. Fortunately, it seemed that not many others had seen the same program.
Ryogen-in is one of 23 sub-temples of the Daitoku-ji temple complex. Walking through the complex is like walking through a residential villa area, except the villas are temples. We found a tree stub where we had a bit of lunch before investigating a fraction of the many temples of the complex.
In the end we reached Ryogen-in which from the outside seemed insignificant. But I can tell you this. It has become one of the best experiences of this trip so far, and that is saying something.
The temple was constructed in 1502 and many of the buildings still stand from that time. The small temple has five distinctive gardens all of which are absolutely stunning in their own right.
The main garden Ryugin-tei (Dragon Singing Garden) is said to be the eldest in the Daitoku-ji Temple complex and claimed as the work of Sōami, a famous painter and landscape artist in the service of the Ashikaga shogunate, who has also been named as the creator of the garden at Jishō-ji Temple, which we visited yesterday.
I found the following description of the meaning behind the Ryugin-tei garden in The Art of the Japanese Garden by David and Michiko Young:
It represents the universe, consisting of mountains arising from the sea. The main stone grouping, close to the wall in the back, features a tall rock tilted to the east. It is generally thought to depict sacred Mount Shumisen, the center of the universe in Hindu and Buddhist thought. […] An alternative interpretation is that the grouping as a whole represents a dragon, the tilted stone serving as its head. In Zen, a dragon is the symbol of the Buddha nature or enlightenment. Originally the area covered with moss consisted of raked gravel.
The fact that these gardens are so full of symbolism is quite amazing. It adds to the mysticism of Japanese culture and reminds me of the many symbolic acts which are represented in Sumo. Though Sumo originates in Shintoism and the Zen Gardens are a part of Buddhist enlightenment, to me it all adds up to a culture where every little detail and gesture has meaning and is part of the larger order of things.
While Ryogin-tei is the most important of the five gardens of Ryogen-in it is not the first that a visitor meets. As we entered the small temple we were met with a long rock garden consisting of two large stones and white pebble. According to the pamphlet the stones were taken from Jurakudai Castle which was dismantle around 1615. The garden is called A-un, which means inhale and exhale, heaven and earth, positive and negative, male and female. Concepts which are inseparable from each other. As such, A-un shows the truth of the universe and the very essence of Zen.
Next to A-un lies Isshidan garden, which was re-modeled in 1980 after the tree in the garden withered away at age 700. Nothing lasts forever. Therefore, the garden is rather new, yet it makes a lasting impression on the visitor. The pamphlet once again aided us in understanding the symbolism of the garden, as we could read that the garden was reconstructed by the priest Katsudo as a horai-san style rock garden (whatever that is), where the centre rock represents Mt. Horai, while the two rocks in the right corner depict Crane Island, and the moss mound is Tortoise Island, with the white sand showing the sea.
I was very happy for the pamphlet because it offered an explanation to what we saw. Without it I don’t think we would have appreciated the beauty of the gardens to the same extend or felt the peaceful balance that they somehow created.
However, the next garden on the small walk around the Hojo was not explained in the pamphlet and even after returning home I could still not find any information on this particular garden. I wonder, with so much thought and symbolism put into the others, why is this left apart from the symbolic culture of Zen Buddhism.
The last of the five gardens was also the smallest. Totekiko was created by Nabeshima Gakusho in 1958, it is claimed as the smallest rock garden in Japan. Its symbolism is simple: the harder a stone is thrown in, the bigger the ripples. In the information pamphlet this is further explained:
On the right side of the garden, there is a flat sheet of rock, and the circular wave designs represent falling drops of water. Just as one drop of water becomes a small river, and then a larger river, and finally a large ocean, this garden expresses the preciousness of one drop, and the fact that one drop leads to a big sea.
But I am never one for simple explanations and after our visit, I found this passage in A History of Religion in 5½ Objects by S. Brent Plate:
Named Totekiko, this garden – like its older and better-known kare-sansui ancestor in nearby Ryoanji – can be seen as containing the entire cosmos in its small size. All the tensions, all the forces, all the important objects are reduced to the tight space of this enclosure. Many summaries of the garden claim that Totekiko represents a Zen adage about how “the harder a stone is thrown in, the bigger the ripples”. In this way, the carefully raked gravel represents a body of water while the larger stones are the stone thrown into the gravel.
Observers also see the five large stones as islands in the sea, with waves lapping against them. Three stones are on one end and two on the other, which also harkens back to Chinese mythology of the five isles of the Immortals. And then again, perhaps these are mountains, another vital component in Japanese mythology, emerging from a surrounding foggy landscape. More down to earth, as with the famous mother tiger and cubs interpretation of the stone garden at Ryoan-ji, the stones might be animals or humans crossing a stream, caught in the current of life
So many symbolic interpretations of such a small space tucked in between two buildings.
We stayed in Ryogen-in for almost an hour simply enjoying the peace of the temple gardens, sitting there watching the carved ripples of the grave lapping at the ancient stones. The misty morning had turned into a beautiful day and in this very moment, at this place I felt peaceful. It made me appreciate even more the wabi-sabi of Japanese culture.
After Ryogen-in we were heading towards Arashiyama, which is a famous area to the west of Kyoto. But my boyfriend who unlike me never seems to tire from hurting feet, suggested that we’d take a look at Ninna-ji on the way. I already felt pressured by time as we were nearing one o’clock and I’d hoped to have plenty of time in Arashiyama, but nonetheless I accepted. However, Ninna-ji might be on the way, but there was a long walk from the bus stop to the temple and when we arrived all the peace of the Zen gardens had left us as we were suffering the humid midday sun.
Perhaps that was why I wasn’t very fascinated by Ninna-ji and not to eager to wonder around too much. Shade was limited in the park surrounding the temple. However, we did meet a very friendly caretaker, who was making sure that none of the tourists stepped on a couple of cicadas mating on the stairs of the temple. I wonder if he could see how much I suffered from the heat and how tired I was, or if he was as friendly to all the tourists, but he made me a small origami crane as I was asking him questions about the place.
And while the walk from the bus to Ninna-ji had been rough, we were only a stone-throw away from the train to Arashiyama. And I am able to add one more temple to my temple count.
There is so much to see in Kyoto, and I really want to understand the background of the places and sights we visit. This constantly leads to very long blogs about Kyoto and probably not very light reading either. But this blog is mostly for me, so if everyone else falls asleep, then sleep tight. However, I am going to cut this blog into two as it is already proving to be quite extensive and we only just passed 1 o’clock. Next up, Arashiyama!
Temple count: 5 (I am including Kourin-in, another of the Daitoku-ji sub-temples)