While Kinkaku-ji is all about displays of wealth and power, the dry garden of Ryōan-ji (龍安寺) hides infinite truths within its riddle of rocks and sand. Thought to date back to the late fifteenth century, and said by some to be the work of Sōami, the most famous artist, landscape gardener and tea ceremony master of the time, it was largely unknown until the 1930s. Now it’s probably Japan’s most famous garden, which means you’re unlikely to be able to appreciate the Zen experience thanks to intrusive loud-speaker announcements and almost constant crowds, though very early morning tends to be better.
The garden consists of a long, walled rectangle of off-white gravel, in which fifteen stones of various sizes are arranged in five groups, some rising up from the raked sand and others almost completely lost. In fact, the stones are placed so that wherever you stand one of them is always hidden from view. The only colour is provided by electric-green patches of moss around some stones, making this the simplest and most abstract of all Japan’s Zen gardens. It’s thought that the layout is a kōan, or riddle, set by Zen masters to test their students, and there’s endless debate about its “meaning”. Popular theories range from tigers crossing a river to islands floating in a sea of infinity. Fortunately, it’s possible to enjoy the garden’s perfect harmony and in-built tension without worrying too much about the meaning. Walk round the veranda of the main hall and you’ll find a stone water basin inscribed with a helpful thought from the Zen tradition: “I learn only to be contented”.
Leaving the main hall, it’s definitely worth strolling round Ryōan-ji’s refreshingly quiet lake-garden. This dates back to the twelfth century, when a noble of the Fujiwara clan built his villa here, before the estate was donated to the Rinzai Buddhist sect in the fifteenth century.