On the same day in October 2010 that we went to Fushimi Inari and Kinkakuji, we also visited Ryoanji. In the weeks before we first went to Japan on honeymoon in 2009, the UK broadcasting channel BBC4 ran a series of programmes about Japan. In one of them, Marcel Theroux visited various sites in Kyoto in search of the elusive Japanese concept that is wabi sabi. One of the places he visited was the Zen rock garden at Ryoanji.
We didn’t make it to Ryoanji on our first visit, so we were determined to go there during our second. Not even the rain could stop us. Once again, we decided to trust Judith Clancy’s book Exploring Kyoto: On Foot in the Ancient Capital. Judith told us it was a 20 minute walk from Kinkakuji to Ryoanji, following Kinukake no Michi to the west. In one way, I’m glad that we did walk, because otherwise we would have missed the antique shop tucked away on a corner of the main road where I bought an original 1970s Gatchaman hashi box for 300円 and my husband bought a couple of Gundam original soundtracks on vinyl for 1000円 each.
When we left the shop, we thought that Ryoanji would be just around the corner, because we had already walked for 10 minutes. Half an hour later, we were still walking, and apparently leaving civilisation behind us as the road climbed up into the mountains. All I can say is, Judith Clancy must be a very fast walker if she can cover the distance from Kinkakuji to Ryoanji on foot in 20 minutes!
Eventually we reached the car park in front of the temple, where other non-foolish people were arriving by taxi. We also hadn’t quite left ourselves enough time, and only had half an hour to look round before the temple closed for the day.
Ryoanji is home to possibly the most famous rock garden in Japan. According to the leaflet we were given on entry, the garden was created around 1500 by a Zen monk called Tokuho Zenketsu. Some believe that the artist Soami designed it, although a couple of the rocks have different names inscribed on their backs. Whoever built it did an excellent job.
The garden was smaller than I expected it to be, but it was also mesmerising. In contrast to the busy-ness of Kinkakuji, it was an oasis of calm. Sitting on the step of the Honjo, gazing out across the raked gravel and the separate groupings of rocks, it was easy to imagine all sorts of meanings behind the positioning and shape of the rocks. One rock looked like a man sitting hunched over with his back to us. The group closest to the entrance made me think of rocks poking up out of the sea on a small green island, with whirlpools on either side. Looking out at the trees was restful on the eyes, and I could happily have sat there for longer, but the staff on duty were closing up and we had to go.
There was time to walk around the back of the Honjo, where we saw a beautiful stone wash basin, or tsukubai, which bore a Zen inscription: “I learn only to be contented”. This alludes to the philosophy that a person who learns to be contented is spiritually rich, while the person who doesn’t remains spiritually poor even if materially wealthy. This stone basin is thought to have been donated to the temple by Mitsukuni Mito, a member of the Tokugawa clan, who wrote a history of Japan known as Dai Nippon Shi.
The tea room that this basin relates to isn’t open to the public, so we walked back into the Honjo, pausing in the small shop to buy incense sticks, before heading out into the twilight.
It’s a shame that we didn’t have more time, and that it was raining, because the temple grounds are big and the guide map showed more buildings and a large pond set within the temple walls. Another place we will have to return to on another occasion!
The rain was falling harder as we left. We made our way back onto Kinukake no Michi and tried to work out where to catch a bus back to the centre of Kyoto. The buses that we saw all had destinations that seemed to be in the east rather than the south of the city, so we decided to try walking back towards Nishioji Dori to try to find the 205 bus again. I remembered from the bus route that one of the stops for the 205 was Nishioji Oike, where we could switch to the subway Tozai line for Karasuma Oike and then hop onto the Karasuma line up to where we were staying. I thought this would be better than taking a 45 minute bus ride back to Kyoto station only to have to take the subway back north again. It might have been a good idea had it not been raining. As it was, we trudged through the dark and the wet fairly miserably! The plan did work, though – we didn’t get lost, and we even had time to buy provisions at a 7-11 before catching the bus.