Ryoanji, the famous rock garden temple in Kyoto

“What is the message behind the design of this garden?”

I wondered when I visited the famous Ryoanji’s rock garden.

Ryoanji is known for the simple rock garden where 15 rocks are placed.

It is one plain garden, if you just look at it, but I found the space that the garden creates unexplainably calming, when I sat down and gazed at the garden from the veranda.

In recent years, the Japanese zen culture is becoming popular around the world.

The increase of interests in the zen culture could be one of reasons that Ryuanji has more foreign visitors than Japanese ones.

Elizabeth II, Queen of United Kingdom has visited this rock garden during her trip to Japan in 1975 as well.

Foreign madia broadcasted the news that the Queen adored the rock garden.

Today, I would like to introduce Ryoanji known for the Karesansui (dry landscape) rock garden.

Rock Garden in Ryoanji

ryoanji rock garden cherry blossoms

The Karesansui (dry landscape) rock garden is located in the south of Hojo abbot’s chamber.

rock garden

The garden is surrounded by three aburadohei (oil and mud wall) walls. The wall is 25 meters from the east to the west and 10 meters from the south to the north.

The walls on the east and the west side are slanted, the difference of the height between one end to another is 50 cm (20 inches). The veranda side is higher and it gets lower to the end. This trick makes the garden look bigger than it actually is.

Surprisingly, you cannot tell the walls are slanted at all by looking at them. The walls look leveled.

ryoanji rock garden autumn leaves

In the rock garden, 15 rocks in different sizes and white pebbles are placed. The rocks represent islands and mountains and the pebbles represent an big ocean.

“Water was removed to express water”, it is such a Japanese indirect way of expression.

The designer and the year that the garden was built in (around 1499?) are unknown as well as the message behind the design.

ryoanji rock garden autumn leaves2

Some people say that this very simple garden represents a zen state of mind; however, comprehension of this garden depends on individuals.

Maybe what zen is depends on individuals.

ryoanji temple cherry blossoms

Here is a famouse story about this rock garden.

rock garden snow

From any angles on the veranda, one of the rocks is blocked by another, so that all of 15 rocks cannot be seen at once.

However, there is actually one spot that you can see all the rocks.It might be fun to look for the spot!

rock garden snow2

The golden ratio of proportion, which was used for the pyramids and the Parthenon, was applied to this garden too.

It feels strange that we can see the western techniques in this old Japanese garden.

Kyoyochi in Ryouanji

kyoyochi cherry blossoms

Kyoyochi welcomes you, after you enter the main gate. This is a big pond reflects trees on the surface like a mirror.

kyoyochi cherry blossoms2

There is a looped trail around the pond. Pretty cherry blossoms in spring or gorgeous maples leaves in fall compliment the pond.

In summer, pink and yellow water lilies by the water bright up the garden. You can enjoy different looks of the garden in each season.

kyoyochi autumn leaves

The colorful fall season is marvelous…

kyoyochi autumn leaves2

The snow season is also very pretty.

kyoyochi snow

It is like a black and white India ink painting.

kyoyochi snow2

The pond is sometimes called “Mandarin duck pond” because many mandarin ducks are seen at this pond.

Other information


The builder is Ryoanji is Katsumoto Hosokawa, a powerful samurai governor in the Muromachi era.

The temple was built as a zen temple in 1450.

There are Hojo abbot’s chamber, Buddha hall, and Tea room Zorokukan in the north area of Ryoanji.

In the west area, there is “West Garden”. In the garden, there is a small temple, called Hosokawabyo, which the wooden statue of Katsumoto Hosokawa is sitting in.

Imperial envoy Gate

Chokushimon, the gate only used for the Japanese Imperial family

Moss garden

The moss garden is also calming. It’s worth seeing it.

seigenin gate

Many people enjoy a Japanese hot pot dish, Yu-Tofu at the onsite restaurant, Seigenin.

seigenin autumn leaves

The fall makes Seigenin look even prettier.

Postscript by the editor.

So that is the art of zen, Ryoanji with the rock garden and Kyoyochi.

I hope you have a chance to visit Ryoanji and experience the beautiful sceneries and the mysterious rock garden.


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