Ryoanji Temple (龍安寺, Ryōanji) is the site of Japan's most famous rock garden, which attracts hundreds of visitors every day. Originally an aristocrat's villa during the Heian Period, the site was converted into a Zen temple in 1450 and belongs to the Myoshinji school of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, whose head temple stands just a kilometer to the south.
As for the history of Ryoanji's famous rock garden, the facts are less certain. The garden's date of construction is unknown and there are a number of speculations regarding its designer. The garden consists of a rectangular plot of pebbles surrounded by low earthen walls, with 15 rocks laid out in small groups on patches of moss. An interesting feature of the garden's design is that from any vantage point at least one of the rocks is always hidden from the viewer.
Along with its origins, the meaning of the garden is unclear. Some believe that the garden represents the common theme of a tiger carrying cubs across a pond or of islands in a sea, while others claim that the garden represents an abstract concept like infinity. Because the garden's meaning has not been made explicit, it is up to each viewer to find the meaning for him/herself. To make this easier, a visit in the early morning is recommended when crowds are usually smaller than later during the day.
Ryoanji's garden is viewed from the Hojo, the head priest's former residence. Besides the stone garden, the Hojo features some paintings on the sliding doors (fusuma) of its tatami rooms, and a couple of smaller gardens on the rear side of the building. In one of the gardens there is a round stone trough that cleverly incorporates its square water basin into a Zen inscription, which students of kanji may be able to appreciate. The Hojo is connected to the Kuri, the former temple kitchen, which now serves as the temple's main entrance.
Ryoanji's temple grounds also include a relatively spacious park area with pond, located below the temple's main buildings. The pond dates back to the time when the site still served as an aristocrat's villa and features a small shrine on one of its three little islands that can be accessed over a bridge.
Besides some nice walking trails, the park also offers a restaurant which specializes in the Kyoto specialty of Yudofu (boiled tofu). The food is served in attractive tatami rooms that look out onto a traditional Japanese garden. It is also possible for patrons to order just drinks or share one dish between multiple people, but in both cases an extra charge applies.
Ryoanji can be reached directly from Kyoto Station by JR bus. The bus ride takes about 30 minutes, costs 230 yen and is covered by the Japan Rail Pass, JR Kansai Area Pass, JR Kansai Wide Area Pass and a few other rail passes by JR West; however, it is not covered by the one-day pass for city buses. There are buses every 15-30 minutes. Alternatively, Ryoanji is a five minute bus ride or 20 minute walk west of Kinkakuji.
The temple can also be reached by the Keifuku Kitano Line, a small train that runs through the calm residential areas of northwestern Kyoto and offers a connection to Arashiyama. To access Ryoanji, get off at Ryoanji-michi Station from where it is a 5-10 minute walk to the temple.
8:30 to 16:30 (December to February)