The morning clouds were just beginning to break as we stepped onto the grounds of Ryoanji Temple. The gravel paths rattled under our feet and small bursts of sunshine peeked around the clouds to trickle through the maple leaves. It was the last full day of our visit to Kyoto, and a good day for a visit to some of Japan’s more famous gardens.
The path through Ryoanji is long and winding, curling through garden after garden: moss, shrub, water, and more. Tall, slim deciduous trees provide surprisingly deep shade to protect the moss garden from the sun’s rays; tiny bridges cross minute inlets of the lilypad-speckled water garden, pine trees drooping over the water to look at their own reflections. The look of the water garden is timeless, but it’s still hard to fathom that people have been following the path around it since the 12th century. To imagine a monk strolling here, enjoying the lilies and cattails the same day Genghis Khan was born…
We approached the Main Hall and removed our shoes to enter for a view of the temple’s famous zen garden. While many zen gardens use rocks as the medium to convey a particular scene, Ryoanji’s zen garden is famous as an enigmatic and masterful work of abstract art. Nothing in particular is conveyed; the rocks were simply placed in an arrangement pleasing to the eye. The gravel is like an ocean of stone with boulder islands rising from the silenced surf, and like the ocean it is strangely captivating. The beauty and balance of the composition come forward as you gaze over the meticulously raked gravel, each of the boulders slowly revealing their character in the intricacies of their color, shape, and texture. The noise of the other visitors behind me seemed to dissipate as I sat on the glass-smooth wood of the veranda, the sun falling softly on my skin and the rock garden lying before me, quietly revealing its secrets moment by moment. Only a cup of tea could have made the moment more serene, and even Jeremy—excited and excitable force of nature that he is—seemed calmed before the simplicity of rocks, moss, and earthen wall.There were several people waiting for a spot to sit, so I gave up my place after just a few minutes and explored the rest of the Main Hall. Three massive tatami mat rooms, each almost 400 square feet, made up the bulk of the Hall, the painted shoji screens between them thrown open to create one enormous room. Following the veranda around the Hall revealed additional gardens and the famous coin-shaped water basin. The basin bears a visual pun reading “I only know contentedness.” The juxtaposition of this anti-materialistic statement with the very symbol of consumerism gets me every time. (I wonder where I can buy one? Wait…)
We took a long lunch then headed to an even more famous site located just down the street from Ryoanji: Kinkakuji, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. This isn’t just a poetic name; the top two floors of the temple are covered in gold leaf, added after it was converted from a villa to a zen temple around 1410. In addition to this ostentatious display, Kinkakuji is the location to yet another important example of Muromachi Period garden design.
The sun was beginning to set as we entered the temple gate, and I worried that we would miss the prime viewing time for the temple. The day had become gloriously sunny in the afternoon, and it would be such a waste for us to miss the bright sunlight highlighting the temple’s most famous feature. We hurried toward the temple with many other tourists, but the sun had sunk below the mountains by the time we arrived. But Kinakuji isn’t just beautiful in the sunshine, and although no direct sunlight reflected off the temple, the golden and red tones of the painted sky burnished the temple to a copper color that faded to rose gold on the top floor. Even the bottom floor was painted gold, despite that it bears no gold leaf; instead, the large west-facing windows reflected the golden light of sunset just as exquisitely as the top floors.
My initial frustration at missing true daylight passed and my appreciation for the subtle beauty of the light increased until I felt that perhaps this was an even better time to arrive than during the garish day. We strolled the garden as the chill of evening crept over the landscape, maples aflame with far more color than we had seen at Ryoanji.
The path curved behind the pavilion and into the hills. Here and there we found small collections of buddhas surrounding clay pots just on the far side of the fenced path. Change was scattered about the feet of the buddhas and around the base of the pots, a few coins nestled inside. We tried our luck throwing our coins into the bowls, but only Shannon managed to land one.
As we climbed the steps to the temple itself, the red light of sunset faded to the pearlescent grey of early twilight. We paid our respects and bought a few souvenirs, but we’d arrived much too late to enjoy tea and snacks at the teahouse. Behind us, the security guards quietly pressed stragglers ahead. We allowed them to guide us to the exit, taking in the quickly cooling air and enjoying the last views of crimson maple leaves.
- Ryoanji: 13 Ryoanji Goryonoshita-cho, Ukyo Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 616-8001
- Kinkakuji: 1 Kinkakuji-cho, Kita Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 603-8361
- Ryoanji: From Kyoto Station, take the 50 bus toward Ritsumeikan University. Alight at the Ritsumeikan Daigaku-mae stop. Follow Kinukake-no-michi west for about half a mile. Ryoanji will be on your right.
- Kinkakuji: From Kyoto Station, take the 205 bus toward Kujo Shako-mae or the 101 toward Kitaoji Bus Terminal. Alight at the Kinkakuji-michi stop. Head west on Kurama-guchi Doori Street for two blocks. The road will T-intersection with Kagamiishi Doori Street, but a pedestrian path will continue where Kurama-guchi Doori left off, heading into Kinkakuji.
- Alternatively: Ryoanji and Kinkakuji are down the street from one another. If you visit one, either take the 59 bus to the other (between the Ryoanji-mae and Kinkakuji-mae stops) or just walk: it’s about 1 mile. From Ryoanji, walk northeast on Kinukake-no-michi, which will become Hontsuji-Doori after about half a mile. Kinkakuji will be on your left.
Price: 500 yen (~$4.25 USD) for Ryoanji, 400 yen (~$3.40 USD) for Kinkakuji.
- At Ryoanji you’re required to take off your shoes to enter the Main Hall, so as I suggested in my tea ceremony post, wear socks and comfortable shoes that you can slip off easily. Although there are places to sit, it’s much faster and easier to slip out of them.
- At Ryoanji, be cognizant of the space available for other tourists to sit and enjoy the zen garden, and try not to sit long if there’s a large number waiting. Three to five minutes is probably fine, but more than five or seven is probably too long unless there’s room for everyone. Play it by ear, and remember that you’re almost certainly not the only one there who crossed an ocean to sit on that veranda.
- At Kinkakuji, get a fortune—they’re available in English! Fortunes are a common and popular item for purchase at almost every shrine and temple in Japan, but often only available in Japanese. Although fortunes are usually available in the temple shops, the English charms at Kinkakuji are available from a vending machine near the exit.
Based on my diary entries from November 15, 2013.