I admit that I had to drag my 10 and 12 year old daughters to this garden, telling them that they would regret forever if they'd been in Kyoto and not seen the karesansui of Ryoan-ji, one of the most famous, abstract masterpieces of Japanese garden design. Not entirely convinced about the value of some well-placed stones set in a carefully raked sea of gravel , they nevertheless agreed to follow for a morning visit.
Luckily, not many tourists had found their way to the garden when we visited. Sitting on the on the viewing veranda called the hōjō, we had long discussions about the possible interpretations of the enigmatic garden. Both girls found the high walls fascinating, built as they are of clay boiled in oil that now has seeped through forming cloud-like patterns on the surface. And probably not as elegant and Zen as the garden, our interpretations of its possible meanings were quite poetic - my girls' favorite being 'tiger cubs crossing water with their mother', followed by 'little islands floating in a misty sea'. We talked also about the gravel as the important void in the composition; working like a pause in a piece of music or like empty space in an ink painting, it could be inspired by the concept of emptiness, a central idea in Zen Buddhism.
What surprises me (and makes me amazingly happy) is that Ryoan-ji proved to be one of the absolute favorites of my girls of all places we visited while in Japan. Instead of visiting 'just another garden' (I might have dragged them to one too many by now...), we felt that we really connected, both with each other, and with the place. Which might prove that less is more even when it comes to garden design - it just has to be the right kind of 'less'.
A stone path under an arbor of weeping cherries leads to Kuri, the main building of the monastery. the bamboo frames protect plants from deer. At right, a gardener in work in her huge bonnet.
More impressive stonework - here well-assembled steps leading to Kuri, the main building, which also works as the residence of the abbot of the monastery adjoining the temple.
In a hallway and in front of a beautiful courtyard, a small stone model has an explanation of the rock garden before you enter the actual viewing platform.
Here they are, my family sitting on the viewing veranda called the hōjō, discussing the possible meanings of the stones and the composition...
Beautiful, delicate ink paintings fill the walls at the Kuri. The viewing veranda is to the left from these rooms.
Behind the clay wall, on the way to the surrounding large garden... the wall is just as beautiful from behind. And note the large support for the old tree - so typical for Japanese gardening, showing respect for all things (and beings) old.
A 'behind the scenes' photo of the cherry so important for the composition (see the first picture)... here you can see all the many supports keeping it from loosing its limbs.
The Kyoyochi Pond was made already in the 12th century, well before the rock garden came into being. Until recently, flocks of mandarin ducks were seen on the pond, and Ryoan-ji was known as Oshidoridera, the temple of mandarin ducks. Unfortunately, the ducks have disappeared. And again, a sturdy pole construction supports the old conifer...
And a final picture of cherries in full bloom by the pond - they form such festive contrast to the ascetic rock garden nearby.