Ryoanji (竜安寺): Kyoto’s Iconic Rock Garden Temple.

Tokuho Zenketsu designed and laid-out this garden around 1500. Photo: 2010.

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p h o t o s   b y   m e

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Like Shinmonzen dori, I first visited Kyoto’s Ryoanji Temple in the autumn of 1984.  Unlike Shinmonzen dori, I remember my first trip to Ryoanji quite well.  Since that initial trip, I’ve been back to Ryoanji countless times, sometimes alone, sometimes with just one person, sometimes with groups.  I’ve never not enjoyed being at Ryoanji.

Ryoanji — a color brochure, actually; I thought the b/w looked cool and ancient.

A Brief History of Ryoanji

Ryoanji (ryoh・ahn・jee) 竜安寺  is a Buddhist temple situated at the foot of Kyoto’s western mountains (Kyoto’s ringed on three sides — east, north and west by mountains – map).  Its  grounds cover some 120 acres (~48.5 hectares).  Its founding goes back to the mid-Heian Era (794 to 1185), yet was all but destroyed during the Onin Wars (1467-77), then rebuilt during the last decade of the 15th Century.  Ryoanji is a  Rinzai-MyoshinjiSect Temple.  In contrast to many other famous Kyoto and other Japan temples, Ryoanji’s iconographic set-piece is not a massive or elaborately-constructed building.   Rather, it’s Ryoanji’s contemplative, almost otherworldly, rock garden that draws-in visitors from around Japan and around the globe.  That and its quiet, forested, grounds, which include a large lake and scenery “borrowed” from the mountains that rise up behind it.

Kyoyo-chi Pond. Ryoani temple grounds. Kyoto. 2010.


Part of Ryoanji’s Iconic Dry Landscape Garden. 2010.

A Couple Terms Worth Knowing

+ Karesansui (Garden Without Water):

“The main elements of karesansui are rocks and sand, with the sea symbolized not by water but by sand raked in patterns that suggest rippling water. Representative examples are the gardens of Ryoanji Temple and Daitokuji Temple, both in Kyoto. Plants are much less important (and sometimes nonexistent) in many karesansui gardens. Karesansui gardens are often, but not always, meant to be viewed from a single, seated perspective, and the rocks are often associated with and named after various Chinese mountains. . . .”  Please click here for the entire article/website.

Here’s a photo of mine from Daitokuji temple, mentioned above, which I snapped in 2003 (one of the smaller of many Daitokuji gardens):

One of Daitokuji’s small, “courtyard” gardens. Kyoto. 2003.

+ Shakkei (Borrowed Scenery):

“When the builder of a Japanese garden takes into consideration nearby or distant landmarks that could be seen from the garden [such as a mountain], he is essentially using ‘borrowed scenery’ [shakkei].   Although the practice was originally associated with certain Buddhist beliefs related to geomancy, it later became a purely aesthetic concept related to the spatial arrangements of Chinese and Japanese landscape painting.   Because Kyoto is bordered on the west, north, and east by low but very visible mountains, borrowed scenery was easily incorporated into garden designs.”  Please click here for the entire article/website.

Ryoanji uses a great deal of borrowed scenery in the larger context (beyond the karesansui / dry landscape garden).  Here’s a photo I took way back in 1984, a perfect example of Ryoanji’s use of shakkei:

“Borrowed Scenery” at Ryoanji’s Kyoyo-chi pond. Autumn 1984.

And here’s another photo from several years ago, also from Kyoto and also using the Western Mountains as an element of the immediate, foreground, garden design — this time in Heian Jingu (Shrine).  Heian Jingu is actually on the eastern side of Kyoto, but reaches across the city’s expanse to “borrow” and incorporate a mountain from the western side of town for its walking garden:

Heian Shrine’s “Borrowed Scenery.” From either a ’90 or ’91 visit.


More images from Ryoanji .  .  .

Roofline. Eastern (long) wall of Ryoanji’s Rock Garden.


Gate. Ryoanji. 2010.


Fence Detail. I like bamboo fences. Ryoanji. 2010.


Border surrounding Ryoanji’s Dry Landscape Garden. 2010.


Lantern ・ 赤提灯. Ryoanji. 2010.


Field Trip — Elementary School Students at Ryoanji. 2010.

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Note on Getting There:  when I visit Ryoanji, I usually (in fact, maybe always) visit Kinkakuji first, then take the easy 30-minute walk along Kinkaku-no-Michi (Road) from Kinkakuji to Ryoanji.  This 30 minute walk ends up taking an hour if I stop in at Masao Ido‘s Gallery (on the right as you walk from Kinkakuji to Ryoanji, about half-way to Ryoanji).  You can take the #101 or #205 Bus to Kinkakuji for just ¥220, but depending on where you’re starting from within Kyoto, that can take 30-50 minutes.  I recommend biting the bullet and taking a taxi.  The price may be triple, but the time will be cut by 50-75%.  And unless you live in Kyoto or have weeks to enjoy Kyoto, or are on an extremely tight budget (I know about that), I advise against having hours in the day chewed-up on buses.  You should experience bus-riding in Kyoto, certainly, but not for Kinkakuji and Ryoanji.  One other option:  if you’re starting point in Kyoto Station, you can take the Karasuma Line (Subway ) to Kitaoji Station, which is about 15 minutes away, then take a quick taxi or bus to Kinkakuji.


Addendum:  3 Signs at Ryoanji.

     *  A nice Explainer as one enters the complex . . .

Ryoanji Explainer. 2010.

     *  A hundred or so feet from the entrance (to the parking lot in front) . . .

Res ipsa loquitur… sort of. Sign near Ryoanji entrance. 2010.

     *  As one enters the Main Hall (to which the Dry Landscape Garden is attached) . . .

As one enters the Main Hall. An invitation, not a requirement. 2010.


    • Yoko Miyahara
    • May 22nd, 2013

    such a great experience to visit Ryoanji
    temple with Incense smell which we never forget.
    We may not able to come to temple but at least
    If we could purchase Incense which used at temple
    could remember Ryoanji.

    Could you inform us how to get incense what you are using
    by you, would be highly appreciated.

    Thank You


      • letsjapan
      • May 22nd, 2013

      Dear Yoko-san,

      I’m back in the U.S. now. Whenever I visit Japan I try to buy several boxes of incense to bring back with me, which gives me that
      “temple” or “butsudan” aroma. Sometimes I bring back some temple incense, but I almost always just go by Lawson or am/pm or another
      combini and just get whatever home-use (for the butsudan) incense they have available. It’s not “exotic,” but it’s very *authentic*
      smelling, and that’s what I most want. The incense I have now is from a Lawson. It’s “Mainichi Koh.” I also have some from trips
      to India (and that a friend brought back from her own recent India trip). It smells *very* different from Japanese incense, but is
      beautiful and “India natsukashii” for me.

  1. May 30th, 2012

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