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Notes on the Geography of Japan: Ryoanji

Ryoanji, the Temple of the Peaceful Dragon, was converted from a villa to a Zen temple in 1473 by an Ashikaga general. It is the home of a now famous dry garden or karesansui, famous in part because it baffles so many people.

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Japan: Ryoanji picture 1

Moss garden adjoining the west side of the hojo, or superior's quarters.

Japan: Ryoanji picture 2

Architectural detail.

Japan: Ryoanji picture 3

The backside of the wall enclosing the dry garden. This garden, which adjoins one side of the hojo, was ignored for centuries but became world famous after 1930. The wall itself is made of clay boiled in rape-seed oil.

Japan: Ryoanji picture 4

The garden is a long rectangle. Panning right...

Japan: Ryoanji picture 5

That's it, folks! The height of the wall declines a few inches, making the garden seem larger than it is. But what is it, you ask? Abbot Mutsukura said that it was "the garden of nothingness." It's as big a jump from the paradise gardens in previous folders as is the naturalistic English garden from the geometric gardens of the Continent.

Japan: Ryoanji picture 6

Like many of the world's treasures, it attracts so many visitors that the experience of the place is often disrupted, not to say just plain spoiled. Maybe you're better off contemplating the garden by seeing it this way.

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