The Ryoanji temple (竜安寺 or 龍安寺, Ryōan-ji, “Temple of the Peaceful Dragon”) is a temple in the Ukyō Ward of Kyoto, belonging to the Myōshinji branch of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. It is most famous for its rock garden in the karesansui (枯山水, “dry landscape”) style. Among its patrons were the Hosokawa family, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate. The temple and its gardens are part of the Historical Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.



History


In the Heian Period, the temple site was formerly the estate of a branch of the Fujiwara family who ruled the country under the emperor. It also served as the home of a retired emperor and was later used to construct a temple, the Tokudai-ji. Hosokawa Katsumoto (細川勝元, 1430-1473), then a deputy of the shōgun, created his estate on the ruins of the Tokudai-ji and invited the fifth abbot of the Myōshinji, Giten Genshō (義天玄詔, 1393-1462), to take up his residence there, hoping to revive the declining fortunes of the Myōshinji Temple. In the next century, many well-known Zen monks stayed at the Ryōanji. The original buildings were destroyed in the Ōnin War (1467-77), which reduced most of Kyōto to ashes. The Ryōan-ji was reconstructed in 1499 but burned down again in 1797, when most of its subtemples, halls, and chapels were destroyed by a disastrous fire. In the renovation of 1800, not all of its structures were recreated.


Things to see


The temple is particularly noted for its rock garden in the karesansui (“dry landscape”) style. While contested by many, the Zen-style garden is said to be the work of the artist Sōami (相阿弥, died 1525); the garden is surrounded by a low earthen wall on three sides and devoid of vegetation, consisting only of fifteen oddly shaped rocks of varying sizes placed on a bed of white sand that is raked every day. The garden has turned into one of the most popular tourist sites in Kyōto. The meaning of the fifteen rocks has been interpreted in manifold ways. The number 15 symbolises completeness or wholeness, as the Buddhist world consists of seven continents and eight oceans. The stones, of which only 14 can be seen at any time, are arranged in groups of 5, 2, 3, 2 and three on a base of white sand raked daily in a fixed pattern.


The temple precincts are grouped around the Kyōyochi-ike (鏡容池, “Mirror-shaped Pond”) from the 12th century with its two small islands, Benten-Jima, named after Benten or Benzaiten (弁才天 or 弁財天), the God of Good Luck, and Fushidora-Jima (“Hiding Tiger Isle”). The pond is surrounded by cherry, pine, iris, and camellias brought from Korea. Before the tenth century, the Ryōan-ji was also known as Oshidori-dera (鴛鴦寺, “Mandarin Duck Temple”), as its pond was populated by flocks of Mandarin ducks.


The Daishu-in (“Big Pearl”) Temple and the Seigen-in are located west of Benten-Jima, the latter a resting place serving tofu, vegetarian meals and green tea. One usually enters the Ryōan-ji over stairs leading up to the Kuri, the priests’ quarters, with the Chinese-style Karamon gate. The kuri is the principal building of the temple, and one of the few edifices reconstructed in 1800. Behind the kuri is the Zoroku-an (“Tortoise Arbor Tea Room”), which is not open to the public. The tortoise is the symbol of Genbu (玄武), one of the four guardian spirits that protect Kyōto, and it is said that it protects the city on the north. The Zoroku-an is held in the early 17th-century style favoured by Kishiuza, a tea master of that time. The Zoroku-an has dragon murals painted by the famous artist Kichizan Minchō, also known as Chō Densu (兆殿司, 1352-1431). The kuri is connected by a wide corridor to the hōjō, the quarters of the abbot of the monastery, built in 1797. The hōjō consists of six rooms and an altar room which holds images of Shaka (釈迦如来 Shaka Nyorai or Shakyamuni Tathāgata, the historical Buddha), Monju (Mañjuśrī, a bodhisattva associated with transcendent wisdom), Hosokawa Katsumoto, Giten, the first abbot of the temple, the abbot Chuko as well as ihai (位牌, mortuary tablets) to Giten, the Hosokawa family and the current emperor. Other rooms in the hōjō have splendid fusuma (襖, sliding screens) depicting ascending and descending dragons as well as the Diamond Mountains in Korea. West of the hōjō is a moss garden and another small garden with the Tsuku-bai (蹲踞), a traditional washbasin in the shape of a pierced coin, a gift of Tokugawa Mitsukuni carrying the motto “The knowledge that is given is sufficient” (consisting of the four letters 吾 ware, 唯 tada, 足 taru, 知 shiru).


Behind the hōjō to the north lie the Imperial Tombs, the graves of the Hosokawa and the emperors Go-Suzaku (1009-1045) and his sons Go-Reizei (1025-1068) and Go-Sanjō (1034-1076), as well as the emperors Horikawa (reigned 1086-1107), Ichijō (986-1011), Kazan (967-1008) and Uda (867-931). The mausoleums were restored in the 19th century by the Meiji Emperor to elevate their status to divinities.




See more photos on our Ryoanji album.

Visiting hours and admission:


Admission: 500 JPY for adults, 300 JPY for children under 15 years of age.

Opening hours: daily from 08:00 to 17:00 (March-November), 08:30-16:30 (December-February).

Access:


Address: 13, Ryōanji Goryonoshitacho, Ukyō-ku Kyōto-shi, Kyōto, 616-8001, Japan.

By bus: from JR Kyoto Station with Bus No.50 to ‘Ritsumeikan daigaku-mae’ stop, 7-minutes walk from there; from Hankyu Railway’s Omiya station with Bus No.55 to ‘Ritsumeikan daigaku-mae’ stop; from Keihan Railway’s Sanjyo Station with Bus No.59 to ‘Ryoanji-mae’ stop.

By train: Keifuku Kitano Line to ‘Ryoanjimichi’, a 7-minute walk from the station.


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