Ryoan-ji – Temple of the Peaceful Dragon
Ryoan-ji is an associated temple of Myoshin-ji and a beautiful example of the Buddhist stone garden artistry. Discover it all with our guide.
Ryoan-ji loosely translates as ‘temple of the peaceful dragon’. The temple belongs to a branch of Rinzai Zen Buddhism and is a sub-temple of Myoshin-ji, the vast Buddhist school located just a short walk to the west of Ryoan-ji’s temple grounds. Ryoan-ji has gained fame for its particularly beautiful stone garden – kare-sansui (lit. ‘dry lanscape’) – made up of intricate gravel mosaics and stone formations.
The gardens have accumulated such popularity that UNESCO has listed both the temple and the gardens as a World Heritage Site while the Japanese have designated them Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto.
There are multiple buildings on the temple grounds. The oldest was established in the 11th century (794 – 1185) along with a pond – both still exist today. The temple changed owners in 1450 when a powerful warlord – Hosokawa Katsumoto, a deputy to the Ashikawa Shogun – took over the property and built his residence there. It was during his ownership that Buddhist monk Giten Gensho established what is known today as Ryoan-ji. Like so many others, Ryoan-ji was destroyed during the Onin War (1467 – 1477) and subsequently rebuilt in 1488.
The temple also notably doubles as a mausoleum for several deceased emperors of Japan, together creating the ‘seven imperial tombs’. Though originally quite plain, the tombs were reconstructed in a more elaborate fashion by Emperor Meiji after the reinstatement of imperial rule.
It is not entirely clear how old the current stone garden is but sources from around 1680-1682 make note of its existence. They report an assortment of nine large stones laid out in a row and are likened to young tiger cubs crossing a river. Fires in the surrounding area in 1779 left rubble in the garden, leading to its renovation shortly after. A picture from 1799 shows the garden as it is today, meaning that it was then that it took its present form.
Although Ryoan-ji is clearly a Buddhist Zen temple, there is no evidence of actual monks having had any influence on the design of the garden other than the typical raking of the gravel. The garden does, however, pay strong homage to the Japanese idea of wabi-sabi: the idea that simplicity, plainness and imperfection are bearers of great beauty. This can be seen in the subtle, earthy tones and the simple rock garden uncluttered by plants or embellishments.
The garden is raked every day by the monks and is supposed to be enjoyed from a seat on the veranda of the Hojo – the building which serves as the residence of the abbot of the monastery. It is accessible to visitors and provides a great insight into the daily lives of monks in the past. There are only 14 rocks visible from whichever angle you look at the garden, but there is a 15th rock (apparently) only visible to those who have attained an enlightened state.
Ryoan-ji is also home to a beautiful example of a bonsho – a traditional Buddhist temple bell. The oldest of its kind is located in Myoshin-ji and dates back all the way to 698. These cast iron bells, used to great effect at festivals and significant events, are a joy to behold. Head over at New Year’s when the bell is rung a full 108 times to purge humanity of the 108 earthly sins.
Mon – Sun
08.00am – 05.00pm (Mar – Nov)
08.30am – 04.30pm (Dec – Feb)
Adult: 500 yen, Child: 300 yen
Ukyo, Kyoto, Japan
075-463-2216 (Japanese speakers only)
The best way to access Ryoan-ji is to take the Keifuku-Dentetsu Kitano Line to Ryoan-ji Station and walk the 10 minutes to the temple grounds. The great thing about this line is the connections to many other temples including Tenryu-ji at Arashiyama Station and Myoshin-ji at Myoshin-ji Station. The line doesn’t connect directly to any of the larger stations but will take you to central Kyoto (Satsueisho-Mae Station) from where you can connect to JR Kyoto Main Station easily.