Ryoanji is but 10 minutes on bike from home. That and the fact that it is one of the most heavily visited sites in Kyoto have relegated it to a place that "tourists" go to. After ten years in the city, I finally relented and rode over to see it. Amazingly, the woman at the entrance didn't blink when I spoke in Kyoto dialect to her.
"The Temple of the Peaceful Dragon" is a UNESCO World Heritage Site--one of 17 in Kyoto--and belongs to the Myoshinji school of the Rinzai branch of Zen Buddhism. Originally, it was site of the Fujiwara family estate.
It is of course most famous for its rock garden, or karesansui (dry landscape), which is believed to have been built at the end of the 15th century. The garden itself is a series of boulders--15 in all--"floating" in a sea of raked gravel. According to the literature, only 14 can be seen from any one location. Only when one has attained enlightenment will the 15th become visible.
A group of sincere young Germans pondered this in silence. Behind them a gaggle of rural Japanese women, mouths full of gold teeth, came onto the veranda making a racket, much to the irritation of the Japanese girlfriend of one of the Germans. The women continued their conversation about that so-and-so who isn't putting out his garbage at the right time, oblivious to the stares of the young foreigners in search of something. Young couples posed for pictures, cameramen lined the edge of the porch in search of the perfect shot, and the clerks in the gift shop just behind us called out Ookini! (thank you in Kyoto dialect) repeatedly to customers.
Reasserting my status as a local, I hurriedly left the main attraction. Like Barcelona's Sagrada Familia, the main garden at Ryoanji is so photographed and reproduced and transmitted around the world online, that when one actually comes face to face with the real thing, it's so familiar as to elicit something like disappointment.
The best part of my short stay was a stroll through the vast gardens. A path encircles a large pond in the middle of the garden that is just inside the outer walls of the temple. To get there you must walk from the rock garden through a forest of cedars and then come out to a scene that could almost be taken from Southeast Asia. The pond is lovely and calm, and most tourists don't take or have the time to wander around it before boarding their bus for the Golden Pavilion.
Books on Japan
Information on Kyoto
Tuesday, March 07, 2006