The top layer of gravel has linear indentations running parallel to the longer side of this large rectangular expanse. If I look diagonally across the surface, the low morning sun sharpens each of those shallow grooves with a dark line of shade. If I look straight ahead, the pattern dissolves. Instead, individual little stones are highlighted. Their shapes are remarkable; irregular like gravel, but with rounded edges. Perhaps over the centuries the gravel has been smoothed by repeatedly raking it into this grooved pattern.
It is very quiet. Nothing moves. The precision of this highly fragile arrangement is breathtaking. It is the expression of a simple idea full of infinite variation. This is the most famous Zen garden in the world – Ryoan-ji.
Of Kyoto’s many UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Ryoan-ji is probably the most well-known. A visit is practically a ‘must’ for each tourist coming to Japan. Unfortunately every account of visiting Ryoan-ji ends with ‘but it was far too crowded’. Some add that during the low season, for instance in October, when there are no cherry blooms or colourful acer leaves to admire, it tends to be a bit quieter. And arriving early in the morning might help too. But others are less optimistic and suggest to skip Ryoan-ji altogether.
My Englishman and I had come to Japan for the gardens. Simply walking past Ryoan-ji did not seem right. At 7:30 on this bright October morning we came up a slope and past a row of shuttered wooden sales booths to arrive in front of the equally shuttered ticket booth and an impressive wooden gate, also closed. The space in front of the ticket booth was shaded by the lush foliage of low acers. Between this building, the gate and the trees was only space for a small gap for the sun. We stood in its warming rays and waited, all by ourselves.
A woman appeared and quickly slipped through a small wooden door next to the closed gate. Then we were alone again. Minutes later another person came up the slope and passed through the small door, opening and closing it in almost perfect silence. After a while we could sense movement inside the ticket booth. A blind was slowly pulled up. At 7:45 a woman came out holding a broom and a long handled dust pan and started to sweep. It felt like we were being given a glimpse of some sort of village life.
The ground was partly paved with roughly hewn paving slabs and cobbles, partly covered in loose dark gravel. It was perfectly clean, as clean as such an outdoor floor could possibly be. Yet the woman swept every millimetre in a slow and steady rhythm before disappearing inside the ticket booth again.
The next time she emerged to open the heavy wooden gate giving us a glimpse of a wide walkway shaded by more trees and leading up to the main temple buildings. Back inside the ticket booth the woman opened the window and with the same measured pace with which she had swept the floor she arranged several objects until she finally indicated she was now ready to serve us.
At 8:04 we stood in front of the world-famous dry garden, by ourselves. Its image is so well known that seeing it ‘live’ is kind of a shock, like shaking hands with a famous person. I had read that Ryoan-ji was small. Maybe this had primed me to expect a tiny site. Now standing in front of it the garden felt spacious. It was about as big as my own garden in Düsseldorf, with walls about the same height. There was enough space to dance with arms stretched wide and twenty people could come for a picnic with everyone able to spread their own blanket. But of course Ryoan-ji was only to be viewed, not stepped into.
Viewing is to be conducted from the building directly adjacent to the garden. The inner area of this open wooden construction is fitted with sliding doors which function as variable walls allowing the space to be opened completely towards the garden. A covered walkway surrounds the entire building. On the side facing the dry garden the walkway extends to a wide viewing platform with steps to sit on.
I walk to the far end, the part that is already in the sun, and sit down. It is quiet. The mild rays of the late summer sun feel pleasantly warm. My head is in the shade of a wide roof construction. I am able to enjoy the sun on this cool morning without being blinded by it. I wonder if someone took this into account when the temple was built.
Ryoan-ji challenges the definition of a garden. It is a courtyard filled with stones. It contains no plants apart from a bit of moss. Like a dusting of green it has settled in rings around a few rocks which rise from the uniform layer of gravel.
The rocks are large, some probably more than a metre in diameter. The bulk of their form remains unseen, submerged in the ground. The moss grows where the rocks pierce through the flat layer of gravel. Their rounded footprint collides with the pattern of straight lines in the gravel. The actual intersection of circle and line is pushed out into the gravel pattern. There, concentric rings around the rocks replace the parallel lines. Hence this most awkward of geometric combinations is elegantly solved.
A school class arrives. The children are well behaved, like all school children seem to be in Japan, and quickly sit down on the step beside me. Apparently they have been given a task because all are excitedly pointing at the garden while using their fingers to count. Then the first group gets up, rushes left and right, constantly counting and pointing at different groups of rocks in the garden. Without understanding a word I know that they are made to test what is probably the most famous trivia fact of Ryoan-ji: The garden contains 15 rocks but there is no point from which they can all be seen at the same time.
The rocks appear to be natural and unadulterated. Some have pale peach patches with dark brown streaks, others are blueish with pronounced white lines. The longer I look, the easier it becomes to see gorges and sheer faces, perceive the rocks as huge cliffs, mountains surrounded by dense forests rather than a thin layer of moss. The whole garden becomes the sea, with the grooves in the gravel the waves that surround the rock-islands. I must have read this interpretation somewhere. Ever since, this has been what I see. And even if I try to un-see this association, it quickly snaps back into my mind.
I wonder if I would see islands and water here now if I had never heard of this. Perhaps. But what I can’t see at all is a tigress carrying her cubs across the sea, another frequently mentioned interpretation. However, if someone had told me that this pattern of gravel was based on a loop-pile carpet, I probably would have found that completely believable. The way the woven rows are clearly visible from the side but almost disappear when viewed head-on, the gravel that mimics the natural variation of wool in thickness and colour, it all fits.
The carpet association is of course absurd while the water interpretation seems plausible. But I cannot know for certain what this garden means, not even whether its interpretation is arbitrary. For years I have read with interest about geomancy, ink painting and the concepts of wabi and sabi, researched the significance of stones in both Chinese and Japanese traditions, been fascinated by miniaturised landscapes, Shinto symbolism and Zen practices – but none of this makes up for the fact that I did not grow up in the culture this garden arose from. Like a picture in a foreign language book, Ryoan-ji is fascinating to look at, but I keep wondering about the explanatory text beside it that I can’t read.
But maybe I don’t have to understand every connotation to appreciate this space. I sit slightly raised, with a clear view of the gravel-covered 25 x 15 metre rectangle. The surrounding walls, thick, made from rammed earth and with dark shingled roofs, almost look defensive. They are high enough to prevent me from seeing life outside, even from this raised platform. But they are low enough and far away enough not to be constraining. On the contrary, I feel comfortably protected and encouraged to look beyond.
The garden is surrounded by trees. A mature cherry tree leans over the wall surrounded by several acers with a row of tall pines rising behind them. This lush green contrasts with the visual austerity of the dry garden. It is the calm, grounding for life beyond the walls.
The step I am sitting on is constructed from a row of wooden planks. Daily use rather than varnish seems to have given them their soft polish. My shoe-less feet rest on the step below. It has the ideal height for a relaxed posture. While this seat could hardly be any more minimal, it is surprisingly comfortable. In fact the whole space feels deeply pleasant. There is a sense of calm here. It rises from complete order. The necessary constraint is balanced by a reverence for natural materials, for nature. I could sit here for hours.
It is now 8:45 and the viewing platform is getting crowded. By the entrance a tour guide is explaining the 15-rock-phenomenon to a group of visitors gathered around a little table with a bizarre mini version of Ryoan-ji. As we leave my Englishman and I agree we were lucky to have had the actual garden to ourselves, at least for a little while.
The article is part of an ongoing series about gardens in Japan.