Ryoanji Temple Info, Tips & Review

Ryoanji Temple (龍安寺, Ryōan-ji) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Northwest Kyoto, featuring the most famous Zen rock garden in Japan. In this post, I’ll share photos I took at Ryoanji Temple, info & tips for visiting, history of the temple, and thoughts on our experience here.

While famed for that rock garden, Ryoanji Temple encompasses several buildings and landscaped areas, all of which are situated around Kyoyochi Pond in a park-like setting. This includes the Pilgrim’s Path, Teahouse, and Buddha’s Hall; only some of these buildings are open to the public.

Now let’s take a look at the history of Ryoanji, info and tips to improve your visit to this temple, and anecdotes from our experience at Ryoanji Temple…

History

Described as the epitome of all Zen gardens in Japan, Daiunzan Ryoanji was established by Hosokawa Katsumoto, the deputy of the Ashikaga shoguns, in 1450. Katsumoto received the mountain villa of Lord Tokudaiji and invited Zen priest Given Gensho to transform the villa and establish it as a temple.

The Hojo, or abbot main residence, was constructed in 1499, at which time it is presumed the garden was also constructed. Fire during the Onin Wars destroyed the Hojo only two decades later. Destroyed by fire again in 1797, the Founder’s Hall and Buddha Hall were rebuilt, with the Hojo being replaced with one from Seigen-in, a sub-temple of Ryoanji.

There is no definitive history of Ryoanji’s rock garden, at least as it is known today. Its date of construction, designer, and meaning are all unknown. Much speculation exists about all of these things, and the mysteries and thought-provoking nature of Ryoanji’s rock garden is undoubtedly part of the appeal. It’s said that the reason only 14 of the 15 rocks in the garden are visible from any perspective in the garden is because you need to attain enlightenment to see the fifteenth.

The garden’s opaque meaning leaves a lot of room for interpretation, and there are no shortage of theories surrounding Ryoanji’s famed Zen garden. Frankly, we think these theories—and the ability to find your own significance for the garden—to be more interesting than gardens with stated intent by their designer.

Info & Tips

Ryoanji Temple is accessible from Kyoto Station via JR bus, which is an attractive option for those using the Japan Rail Pass (and all other JR West passes). This bus ride takes 30 minutes and costs 230 yen. It’s also accessible via a couple of the city buses, if you’re using one of those passes.

The more logical approach, and one we’d recommend, is either walking from Ninnaji Temple or the Golden Pavilion. In a logical itinerary, Ryoanji will either be your second or second-to-last stop of the day, bookended by those two other temples. It’s easily walk-able from both, although bus transportation is also available.

As we shared in our post about Ninnaji Temple, this area is also accessible from the Arashiyama area via the Keifuku Kitano Line. This connects the Ryoanji Temple to Kyoto Monkey Park, Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, and other popular spots in this district.

Northwest Kyoto can be tricky to access without using buses or taxis, so plan your itinerary for this side of town with care. As with all points of interest in Kyoto, consult Google Maps for the most efficient train route based upon your location and departure time, as there are almost always 2-3 ways to access any temple in Kyoto.

Admission to Ryoanji Temple’s Zen rock garden costs 500 yen, with the operating hours being 8:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. March through November and 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. December through February. The temple also has an official website in English, so you can check for yourself to confirm current admission and operating hours.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure whether you could access Ryoanji Temple’s grounds on their own. Theoretically, you can and it would be free, as tickets are sold at the front entrance to the grounds and are not collected until you enter the Hojo building, where the Zen rock garden viewing area is located.

It seems like you could bypass the ticket booth and just wander the grounds without charge, but we’ve never tried it. Probably not something that comes up often since that would mean bypassing the temple’s claim to fame. Even if it is theoretically possible, we wouldn’t recommend it.

Although not nearly as crowded as the nearby Golden Pavilion, Ryoanji Temple does draw a crowd, and the vast majority of that crowd is concentrated on the steps of the Hojo that overlook the Zen rock garden. If you want to ponder the secrets of this garden in relative solitude, we’d highly recommend visiting first thing in the morning.

If that’s not practical, the good news is that most people go to Ryoanji Temple only for its famed rock garden, without taking the time to explore its other gardens and spacious grounds. You should be able to enjoy these relatively crowd-free even on a busier day.

Our Experience & Review

I want to start out by offering the caveat that these photos do not do Ryoanji Temple justice. They were all taken on a day with scattered showers and fleeting glimpses of the sun, and I was practically chasing my tail trying to get good photos of the rock garden with dramatic lighting and without a bunch of people blocking the rocks.

It was a losing battle, and I was going to hold off on posting this until I could go back and get photos during cherry blossom season, but it’s such an important spot that I decided to post now, update later. Hopefully we’ll have those in only a few weeks from now!

With that said, Ryoanji Temple was everything we hoped it would be and more. Like most visitors, we were drawn by the world-renowned rock garden that’s listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Beyond that, we weren’t really expecting much else. After all, most temples that have excellent landscape gardens don’t really have much else.

We were really impressed. I don’t have much interest in personally solving the riddles of the Zen garden (if smarter minds haven’t solved them by now, I doubt I’m going to add anything revolutionary to the mix), but I do think it’s interesting to hear just how many interpretations there are. From an anthropological perspective, Ryoanji’s garden is far more fascinating to me than any other garden in Kyoto because of this.

In terms of pure design, I like this Zen garden a lot and appreciate its historic and cultural significance, but it’s not my favorite rock garden in Kyoto. From my perspective, how much a rock garden will resonate (at least to the untrained eye like mine) is a matter of personal aesthetics and surrounding circumstances.

If you took 10 Americans off the street and put them into Ryoanji without offering context, I think exactly zero would proclaim, “WHOA. This is the most important Zen garden I’ve ever seen!”

In many cases, gardens like this are represent a small portion of a larger complex, and I think that’s a good way to view Ryoanji Temple, too.

You could visit Ryoanji Temple, spend all of your time in the Hojo looking at the rock garden, and have a satisfying visit–this is what most people do. It’d probably only take around 30 minutes or so, and you could be on to the next temple on your list.

However, we think it’s a much more satisfying experience to slow down, walk the Pilgrim’s Path, and do a full circle around the lake. While the rest of the gardening isn’t as renowned as the rock garden, there’s a lot of interesting landscaping (see the trees pictured above) and a lot of this goes overlooked because visitors are in a rush to see the Hojo and move on.

Overall, Ryoanji Temple is a standout among Kyoto’s temples, and deserving of the accolades it receives. The Zen rock garden is definitely worth seeing from the perspective of historical and cultural significance, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t blow you away as compared to other rock gardens in Japan. (Then again, what do I know? Maybe it will.) The rest of the park-like grounds are also worth the time to explore, and when taking into consideration the complete package, it’s easy to see why Ryoanji Temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

If you’re planning a visit to the Japan that includes Kyoto, please check out my other posts about Japan. I also highly recommend the Lonely Planet Kyoto Guide to determine everything you should see and do while there.

Your Thoughts

Have you visited Ryoanji Temple? What did you think of it? If you’ve visited it, do you agree or disagree with my take on the temple? Were you impressed by the Zen rock garden? Did you explore the rest of the grounds? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting this temple interest you? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!

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2 replies
  1. Julie
    Julie says:

    I went in the late afternoon on a sunny day and my pictures turned out awful. Some spots of the garden were either too bright or too dark from the shadows. Would it have been better to go in the morning? Your pictures are stunning. I also missed the other buildings, which I can see from your photo are beautiful.

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Going closer to sunrise or sunset is going to provide the most visually-pleasing look from the perspective of shadows and light, but you’ll still have both.

      If you want neither, an overcast day is ideal.

      Reply

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