Ryoanji Temple: Kyoto’s Most Famous Stone Garden

Peaceful Dragon Temple

One of the most iconic places synonymous with Japan is the famous Zen Buddhist rock garden at Ryōanji Temple (龍安寺), or “Peaceful Dragon Temple.”

Hundreds of visitors flock here daily to observe the wonder and mystery of the temple. it has a long and mysterious history with a peaceful undertone.

Aristocratic Villa to Buddhist Temple

This was originally a villa for a high-ranking aristocrat during the Heian Period (794 AD to 1185 AD). But, it became a Zen temple in 1450 AD, belonging to the Myoshinji School of Rinzai Zen Buddhism.

From the 16th to 17th centuries, this was a hub of spiritual and religious activity.

Exploring Ryōanji Temple

Upon entering the grounds through the former temple kitchen, called the Kuri, the Mirror Pond, or Kyōyōchi, greets visitors with a picturesque panoramic view of the surrounding mountains.

Walking along the path and entering through the second gate, you come upon the Hōjo, or the head priest’s residence.

The famous rock garden is directly in front of the Hōjo, which is on the south side of the building. So, visitors can view the garden either from inside the room or from the wooden veranda.

The Famous Rock Garden

The rock garden, called karesansui, or “dry landscape garden,” has a number of pebbles and large stones.

These arrange atop a 2,691 square foot (250 square meters) rectangular plot in a courtyard surrounded by short earthen walls.

There are 15 rocks splayed in quaint groups on various patches of moss amid carefully raked white stones.

Rock gardening developed during the Muromachi Period (1392 AD to 1573 AD). Everything positioned within it has a specific meaning.

The white stones and pebbles represent flowing elements like water or air. Large rocks and stones are suggestive of shores, bridges, islands, or animals.

It’s an Eternal Mystery

But Ryōanji is different; there is no record of this rock garden’s exact genesis. In fact, there aren’t any records of the property prior to the 1680s.

The origins are elusive, shrouded in mystery, and are a topic of scholarly debate.

No one knows when its first construction occurred, what it means, or who its initial architect was. There’s lots of speculation and theory, but no one can say for sure.

One thing people do tend to agree on is the fact that the garden dates back to sometime during the Edo Period (1615 AD to 1868 AD).

Theories and Speculations

Some believe it’s the quintessential Japanese concept of wabi, or “refined austerity,” and sabi, “subdued taste.”

Others believe that it is an abstract meditation, such as is the case with yin and yang or infinity. So, because the meaning lacks anything definitive, the viewer is to decide what it means.

There are those who claim the garden has a tiger theme, carrying its cubs while traversing a pond or islands.

This comes from an early written description from another text attesting to how there were only nine stones in the garden. It also says that Matsumoto, a chief patron of Ryōanji, was responsible for its design.

Other earlier texts attribute the garden to Sōami. This was a notorious painter and garden designer under the tutelage of the Ashikaga shogunate.

There is an inscription on the back of one stone suggesting two riverbank workers are responsible for the design, named Kotaro and Hikojiro.

A Testament to Buddhist Art and Architecture

Regardless of what it means or who positioned the stones, the rock garden is integral to the concept of Buddhist architecture and art.

Its arrangement, features, and appearance reflect the Zen Buddhist concept of contemplation and self-introspection.

It’s such a beloved place, it’s one of Kyoto’s ancient historic monuments.

One Obvious Mystery

One of the mysteries featured within the rock garden is that at least one rock will not be visible from any given vantage point. No matter where you are viewing the rocks, you will not see all 15. Only 14 will be visible.

Other Beauties and Wonders

But there are so many other things to explore amid the grounds of the temple. Also within the Hojo are sliding door paintings, called fusuma, opening the way to several lavishly covered tatami rooms.

There are also some smaller gardens behind the buildings as well. In one of these, there is a perfectly round stone trough.

The Mirror Pond is a grand sight that evokes the spirit of nature. There is a spacious park with lovely walking trails. This has been here since it was an aristocrat’s villa.

A charming, enchanting shrine sits on one of the three small inlets in the pond, accessed via a bridge.

There is also a teahouse-type restaurant in the park featuring a Kyoto specialty of boiled tofu, called Yudofu, along with a lovely selection of Japanese teas and beverages.

Gorgeously covered tatami rooms throughout the restaurant overlook a traditional Japanese-style garden. It’s a tranquil and relaxing yet rejuvenating experience.

Temple Hours and Admission Fees

The temple is open every day of the year but at different times depending on the season. From March to November, they open at 8 am and close at 5 pm.

From December to February, they open at 8:30 am and close by 6:30 pm. General admission is ¥500 ($4.00 USD) for everyone.

Various Ways to Access Ryōanji Temple

You can access Ryōanji Temple right from Kyoto Station by bus, which takes about 30 minutes and costs ¥230 ($1.84 USD). If you get a rail pass, most will cover the bus trip. Busses arrive about every 15 to 30 minutes.

Ryoanji Temple Official Website

However, there are other means of getting to the temple. You can walk for 20 minutes or take a five-minute bus ride from Kinkakuji.

Alternatively, take the Keifuku Kitano Line from the northwestern section of Kyoto. You just have to take a five to 10-minute walk to the temple.

A Look At Ryoanji Temple Kyoto

My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.