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Name:Ry˘anji garden photo
Photo: Lynn Perry

Alternate Name:Ryoanji; Ryoan-ji 
Address:Ukyo-ku, Ryoanji, Goryoshita-cho 
Mailing Address: 
Postal Code: 
Latitude/Longitude:lat=35.05; long=135.667
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Designer(s):Hosokawa Katsumoto (original) restoration: Soami (attributed) 
Contruction Date:originally in 1499 (Muromachi) c. 1488-1499 (restoration) 
Hours:8am - 5pm 
Added to JGarden:1/1/1996 
Last Updated:4/3/2005 
JGarden Description:Ryoanji, the most prominent example of karesansui or dry landscape gardens, is on a site that has had a temple on it since 983. The original temple was destroyed during the Onin Wars. The current garden was probably designed during the rebuilding of the temple in 1488. It is believed to be the only surviving example of a new type of Japanese garden that appeared at this time, primarily under the influence of Zen monks. Its origins are often debated and some peole content that the original garden included trees and plants and that it was only altered to its present state more recently. It's influences range from the small tray gardens of China and Japan, the pebble grounds on the sites of Shinto shrines, and the black ink landscape painting favored by Zen monks. It is not possible to attribute the garden to a single designer, though many credit Soami (1480?-1525). Temple records include the names of several others and one of the stones includes the names of Kotaro and Hikojaro, probably two laborers that did the actual construction.

More recently, the main building burned in 1789 and a larger structure was moved here from another site. The east side of the garden was shortened to make room for a new gate and in 1977-78, the roof of the building was and garden wall were repaired, changing the character of the garden somewhat (clay tile was replaced with cedar shingles and the texture of the facing wall changed.

The 15 stones are arranged in 5 groups on a bed of raked white sand. Loraine Kuck calls it a 'sermon in stone', but there are dozens of theories about its meaning from folk explanations about a tiger crossing a river with her cubs to mountaintops above clouds to islands in the sea. All of the stones appear to be flowing in water from left to right except one.

The extreme level of abstraction present in this site was a new height for Japanese gardens and may have been influenced by Zen. It continues to influence contemporaries in many professions to this day.

Bring, Mitchell and Wayemburgh, Josse. Japanese Gardens. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981, pp 55-66.
Kuck, Loraine. The World of the Japanese Garden. Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1968, pp 163-171. Nitschke, Gunter. Japanese Gardens: Right Angle and Natural Form. translated by Karen Williams, Cologne, Germany: Benedikt Taschen, pp 89-92.
Osamu Mori. Teien. Tokyo: Tokyodo Shuppan, 1993, p 204-205.
Treib, Marc and Ron Herman. A Guide to the Gardens of Kyoto. Tokyo: Shufunomoto, 1980, pp 61-62.

Ryoanji Temple, Kyoto
Only in the cloister
Could such a garden thrive, a soil where nature
    Flowers in spiritual dryness,
Drawing an interior nurture
    From sand and rock.

Where the labyrinth of illusion
    No longer entangles the senses
Enmeshing vision in delusive lusters;
Where the lust of the eyes is silenced
And desire of forms, and names of forms,
    Move to no visible end.

Those who planted here
Sowed no ephemeral seed
For the seasonal tempests to scatter,
But the silent root that ripens in detachment,
    Flowers in renunciation.

Gardeners of eternity,
Those who planted here
    Framed the garden in the image of a desert
    And the desert in the image of a sea --
Then shrunk the seas to the mind's salt and, tasting,
    Dissolved all thought away.

On these rocks no water breaks. Without attrition
Tides and currents in this ocean rest and revolve
    In a void of sound, vortex of sand; perpetual
Circles enmesh and paralyzed sea and air:
The effigy of time and measure
    Purged of time and measure

Becalmed on this dead sea of being
No wave moves, no wind of desire
    Flexes the indolent sail.
But focussing its single eye
On dreamless immobility
The gulf like a burnished mirror
    Regards the empty void.

In this dead sea of vision the surges
Merge without movement; the tides
Indifferent to flood and ebb
    Freeze in a flux of haste.
The seagull without motion
Broods on the changeless waste,
Then sinks, his feathers frozen,
    In a sand ocean.

Frail caravels who sail
This subtle gulf, morte mer,
Who stir with urgent keel
The fossil waters of the Great Mirage,
    Or steer by lodestone to delusive ports:

In this calm beyond stasis, dead calm,
No compass points to the land,
    No magnet of attachment
    Guides the helmsman's hand
Through fifteen naked rocks in raked and rhythmic sand.

Here is no sea for the admirals,
The whalers, the merchants of cargoes --
    Those finite venturers for the temporal haven.
These depths are destination,
And naufrage sweeter than harbor.
    Shipwreck is haven on this inland sea.

  John M. Steadman
  20th Century

©1996-2002, Robert Cheetham; ©2019 Japanese Garden Research Network, Inc.
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