Ryoanji Temple

Japan's most famous rock garden

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Japan’s most famous rock garden is the epitomy of simplicity–an area measuring just 25m (80 ft.) long and 10m (30 ft.) wide, enclosed on three sides by a beautifully colored earthen wall and on the fourth by a wooden verandah, upon which you can sit and contemplate the scene set out before you: 15 rocks placed just so in a bed of meticulously raked white gravel.

Although the temple dates from 1450 and the rock garden is thought to have been laid out sometime during the Muromachi Period (late 14th-16th centuries), no one knows who the landscape architect was nor his intentions. Interpretations are left to you, dear reader, to decide whether the stones rising from the raked pebbles represent mountains towering above the clouds, islands in the sea, or maybe nothing at all. Very Zen. And to add mischief to the mystery, no matter your vantage point gazing upon the stones, it’s impossible to see all 15 stones at once.

Unfortunately, this rock garden is so popular, especially with hordes of noisy group tours, it’s almost impossible to have a meditative moment here (your best bet is in the morning right when it opens). Otherwise, take solace in the temple’s expansive grounds with its 1,000-year-old pond and nice landscape garden. I always try to time my visit here with a meal at Seigenin-in, a tatami-floored small restaurant with peaceful views of its garden and offering yudofu (tofu simmered in a pot with vegetables), served either alone or as part of a shojin ryori (Buddhist vegetarian) set meal. In any case, most visitors combine a visit here with the nearby Kinkakuji.

Bus: 59 to Ryoanji-mae, or 12 or 50 to Ritsumeikan Daigaku-mae

At A Glance

13 Ryoanji-Goryo-no-Sita-cho
¥500 adults, ¥300 children

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