Soul of the Garden

Images of Japan: Ryoan-ji, Kyoto

Our visit to Ryoan-ji was, for me, the highlight of our tour of Japan. The karesansui, or dry garden, of this temple is perhaps the most famous garden in all of Japan, if not the world. It is considered to be the most austere and abstract of the great rock and sand gardens, yet it continues to draw pilgrims who find inspiration in its simplicity and symbolism. The dry garden consists of raked sand, moss, and fifteen stones, a number which denotes "completeness" in Buddhism. However, from any angle in the garden, only fourteen stones can be seen. So Zen. Some of the guide books have begun to discourage visitors saying that the tour bus hordes, competitive photographers, and loudspeakers have ruined the meditative experience of the place but we did not let that deter us. We were among the first visitors through the gates on a quiet Sunday morning and were rewarded with reverential quiet and beautiful soft light. Best of all,  the cherry trees were at the peak of their bloom. For thirty minutes or so, the only sound was of a cuckoo singing in the distance, the padding of stocking covered feet on the ancient wooden veranda that overlooks the garden, and the occasional snap of a camera shutter (mine!) It was one of the great experiences of my life and I was so profoundly moved and grateful to simply "be there." Even now, weeks later, the serenity and beauty of that morning is with me. I feel like a bell that has been rung, with one last haunting note still echoing inside.

Interpretations of the "symbolism" of Ryoan-ji vary, some see islands in a vast ocean of waves, others mountaintops emerging through clouds, and one ancient reading is that of a mother tiger and her cubs swimming across a stream. Designed by an unknown artist, though perhaps by Soami, the designer of Daisen-in, the great "sand box" garden of Ryoan-ji dates from about 1500. The strolling gardens beyond the enclosed courtyard of the rock garden are also superb and are not to be missed.

One of the "islands" and the border or frame of the rock garden.


A wide view. How many stones can you count?


The weeping cherry just beyond the walls of the garden was at its height of its bloom.


Another of the islands.


And another.


Pure simplicity.


One of the happiest memories of my life.


The center of the archipelago.


A rain chain and a corner detail. The shape of the garden is also not quite a perfect rectangle. I am sure this is quite intentional.


Another view.


And one more.


The contrast between the new maple leaves and the cherry blossoms was lovely.


Just around the corner form the rock garden - a small grove of trees, a covered walkway,  and a carpet of moss.


Looking towards the back of the temple from a side veranda into a lush forest.


A scene from the back veranda of the temple.


In the strolling garden... new leaves, ancient stone, eternal reflections.


The cherry tree that is seen from inside the rock garden and its supports.


A time-worn statue.


A charming stone pagoda and fallen blossoms.


Cherry tree calligraphy.


A very Chinese looking building on the grounds.


Cherry trees and bamboo fence.


Pink clouds.


Magnolias and a Buddhist "stupa."


Cherry petals and ferns.


A visitor admiring the blossoms.


A lovely weeping cherry and its supporting poles.


Another view.


By the time we left, the tour buses were beginning to arrive.

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