Ryoan-ji Temple (龍安寺)

A temple belonging to the Myoshinji school of the Rinzai sect, Ryoan-ji Temple is located in Ukyo-ku, Kyoto city. It is known for its rock garden. The honorific title that is prefixed to the name of the temple in its official name (its "sango") is Daiunzan. The temple's principle object of worship is Shakyamuni Buddha, its founder was Katsumoto HOSOKAWA, and its first head priest was Gensho GITEN. As part of the {Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto}, it is registered as a World Heritage site.


Ryoan-ji Temple, which is famous for its dry-landscape Hojo Rock Garden (commonly known as the "Rock Garden of Ryoan-ji"), is a Zen temple built in 1450 by Katsumoto HOSOKAWA, a feudal lord and official of the Muromachi Shogunate who acted as the commander of the eastern army in the Onin War. Acquired by Katsumoto HOSOKAWA, the land at the foot of Mt. Kinugasa (Kyoto Prefecture) on which Ryoan-ji Temple is located had been a mountain retreat of the Tokudaiji family from the time of Saneyoshi TOKUDAIJI, a descendent of the FUJIWARA-Hokke family. As the founding head priest, HOSOKAWA received Gensho GITEN, the 5th head priest of Myoshinji. Though Gensho GITEN is considered the actual founding priest of Ryoan-ji Temple, he himself became the 2nd head priest, making his own master, Soshun NIPPO, the founder. The original grounds were much bigger than they are today, extending all the way to the area around the tracks of the Keifuku Electric Railroad.

Ryoan-ji Temple was burned down during the Onin War (1467-1477), in which its founder, Katsumoto HOSOKAWA, was involved. It was rebuilt in 1488 by Katsumoto's son, Masamoto HOSOKAWA, and the 4th head priest, Zenketsu TOKUHO. TOKUHO is known by the title of "restoration founder" within the temple due to his involvement in the rebuilding of Ryoan-ji Temple. Later, Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI and the Edo Shogunate donated lands to the temple and became its patrons.

According to records written in the early modern period, 21 subsidiary temples stood in a row on the Ryoan-ji Temple site at the height of its prosperity (now there are only 3). Illustrated guidebooks such as "To Meisho Zukai" (Pictures of Famous Places in the City) show that the pond at Ryoan-ji Temple was famous for Mandarin ducks at that time and that the walking path garden around the pond was far better known than the rock garden Ryoan-ji Temple is famous for today.

Because the Buddha hall and main buildings were lost in a fire in 1797, the Hojo building for Seigenin — 1 of the subsidiary temples — was relocated to serve as the Hojo (main hall) for Ryoan-ji Temple.

Temple Grounds

On the south side of the temple is Kyoyochi (a large reflecting pond), around which there is a strolling garden. On the north side of the grounds there are a number of buildings including the Hojo (main hall), Buddha hall, and Zorokuan Tea Room, while to the west of these is the Nishi-no-Niwa Western Garden, which is not open to the public. The Western Garden is home to other structures, including the Hosokawa Shrine, which houses a wooden statue of Ryoan-ji Temple's founder, Katsumoto HOSOKAWA. The famous rock garden is surrounded by an earthen wall on the south side of the Hojo. In the back of the temple are the graves of 5 emperors, including the 66th emperor, ICHIJO.

Buddha hall - Rebuilt in 1981.

Hojo building (Important Cultural Property): after the original Hojo building was lost in a fire, the Hojo of Seigenin — 1 of the subsidiary temples located on the grounds — was moved to this spot. Built in 1606. This wooden structure is listed as a World Heritage site.

Rock Garden

Hojo Garden (Historical Site/Special Place of Scenic Beauty): commonly known as the Rock Garden of Ryoan-ji Temple. Covering an area of about 25 meters wide and 10 meters long, it is a simple garden composed only of white sand through which lines have been drawn with a rake and 15 stones set in 5 places. According to records written in the early modern period, the garden was designed by Soami, who was in the service of the Muromachi Shogunate; however, the designer, the period in which the garden was made, and the intent of the design are unknown as opinion is divided on these matters. It is also said that the garden was designed by a group of great Zen priests, including Zenketsu TOKUHO, at the end of the Muromachi period.

It is said that the garden was designed in such a manner that 1 of the 15 stones is always hidden behind another, no matter where it is viewed from. However, there is 1 point, located in a room in the temple, from which all 15 stones are visible. According to Gert Van Tonder and Michael Lyons, that point is at the center of the Hojo-no-Ma room as the 15 stones are positioned in a forked pattern whose base would be at the center of the room. There is also an opinion that if one puts 15 stones in a garden of this size, one of them is bound to be hidden behind another; so there are concerning (controversial) debates that the designer intentionally positioned the stones in such a way. Another explanation is that the number 15 signifies completion in the Oriental thought, because the full moon falls on the 15th night of the lunar month. The number 14, 1 less than 15, therefore signifies "incompleteness." Also, in Japan, structures are deliberately left incomplete in some cases, as can be seen in the Yomeimon gate at Nikko Toshogu, the thinking being that things begin to decay from the time they are completed.

This garden has also been called "Crossing of the Tiger Cubs Garden" since the early modern period. Nothing more than folklore connects the garden with the Chinese legend of the crossing of the tiger cubs, but for reference, the story is outlined below.

It is said that when a tiger has 3 cubs, 1 of them is always ferocious, and will eat the others if the cubs are left alone. So when a mother tiger crosses a big river with her 3 cubs, she does the following. First she takes the ferocious cub to the far shore, and comes back. Next, she takes 1 of the 2 remaining cubs to the far shore, and takes the ferocious cub back again to where they started out. Then she takes the 3rd cub over to the far shore. At this point only the ferocious cub is left at the starting point, so the mother tiger takes it over to the far shore last. It means that she takes 3.5 round trips to take the 3 tiger cubs across. The idea is that the rock garden at Ryoan-ji Temple represents this story.

When Britain's Queen Elizabeth II made an official visit to Japan in 1975, she made a request to visit the rock garden. Foreign media reported that the Queen highly acclaimed the rock garden.

Other Cultural Properties

12 Volumes of the Taiheiki (Important Cultural Property) - Representative codices of the Taiheiki. These books are also well known for the fact that Mitsukuni TOKUGAWA borrowed them. 1 volume out of a total of 13 volumes was lost in a fire in 1929. The remaining 12 volumes also have marks from fire damage.

Chisoku Wash Basin (Tsukubai) - Located on a pathway to the Zorokuan Tea Room. Tsukubai is a stone basin in which water is placed for cleansing the mouth and hands before entering a tea room. Four Chinese characters, 吾唯足知 ("ware tada taru wo shiru" (I simply know what is enough))" are carved on the Tsukubai stone. The feature of the stone is the square water hole in the centre of the stone, where the water is stored, forms a part of each letter. Therefore, at first glance it reads like 五・隹・疋・矢 (go sai hiki shi). It is said that Mitsukuni TOKUGAWA donated the Tsukubai stone to the temple. The one that is on display for general viewing is a replica.


Near the Ryoan-ji-mae stop on Kyoto Municipal Bus, Kyoto Bus, and JR Bus. 7 minutes' walk from the Keifuku Electric Railroad Ryoan-ji Station.

[Original Japanese]