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13 Goryōnoshitamachi, Ryōan-ji · interesting places nearby
You’ve probably seen a picture of the rock garden here – it’s one of the symbols of Kyoto and one of Japan’s better-known sights. There is no doubt that it’s a mesmerising and attractive sight, but it’s hard to enjoy amid the mobs who come to check it off their ‘must-see list’. An early-morning visit on a weekday is probably your best hope of seeing the garden under contemplative conditions. If you go when it’s crowded, you’ll find the less-famous garden around the corner of the stone garden to be a nice escape.
This temple belongs to the Rinzai school and was founded in 1450. The main attraction is the garden, an oblong of sand with an austere collection of 15 carefully placed rocks, apparently adrift in a sea of sand, enclosed by an earthen wall. The designer, who remains unknown to this day, provided no explanation.
Although many historians believe the garden was arranged by Sōami during the Muromachi period (1333–1576), some contend that it is a much later product of the Edo period. It is Japan’s most famous hira-niwa (flat garden void of hills or ponds) and reveals the stunning simplicity and harmony of the principles of Zen meditation.
The viewing platform for the garden can become packed solid, but the other parts of the temple grounds are also interesting and less of a target for the crowds. Among these, Kyoyo-chi pond is perhaps the most beautiful, particularly in autumn.