Ryōan-ji (Temple of the Peaceful Dragon) is a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect and an amazing example of karesansui landscape. The simplicity of rammed earth walls, raked gravel and carefully set stones hides a dramatic tale that has been read so many ways.
Ryōan-ji is built on land that was first the estate of the Fujiwara Family, then passed to the Hosokawa Family. At Katsumoto Hosokawa’s death and according to his will, the estate was converted to a Rinzai temple. The temple and gardens have been burned and rebuilt at least twice from the Onin Wars through 1797. The ground level outside the walls is much lower, indicating the old garden was buried and the latest built on top of it.1 One stone in the garden has the names of two possible builders, ‘Kotaro’ and another that is too worn to read. These may be two of an outcast class known as the ‘Kawaramono‘ (river bank people) known to have labored in construction of many gardens, but more likely the stone was brought from the mountains with the signatures already on it as a boundary marker2.
Ryōan-ji holds one of the most well-known karesansui gardens in the world. 15 stones are arranged in 5 groupings on a sea of meticulously raked sand. There are no plants used in this garden – the only green provided by the moss of the ‘islands’. The stones are arranged in a way that at least one is hidden from any vantage point. The stone arrangement has been interpreted many ways including islands in the sea, mountains rising above the clouds, or a mother tiger and her cubs crossing a river. 1
1 Young, David & Michiko, The Art of the Japanese Garden (Tuttle Publishing 2005), pg 109
2 Itoh, Teiji, The Gardens of Japan (Kodansha International, Ltd. 1984), pg 186