There is a moment in a journey, when you stop and then something heart-achingly beautiful is revealed to you. For me it was when I was trekking through a lush green forest grove one summer's day. From the corner of my eye I saw a bridal couple in kimonos in front of a shrine garden, their gorgeous fabric and pure colours reflecting the soft sunlight, drawing a contrast between beauty of the man-made and natural kind. All was silent except for the flower petals floating in the slight breeze.
The moment for you may come when you least expect it. For Donald Keene, recalling his experience in the book, “Introducing Kyoto”, it came one quiet evening at Ryoanji Temple. All the crowds had left, leaving him and the moon as his only companion. In front of him were the shadows and the moonlight reflections from the Stone Garden. It was a long time ago, when he could sneak in the garden after it was closed. Serendipitously, an old lady, probably the priest’s wife, slipped a cup of tea as he contemplated peace and enjoyed some quiet moments together.
While I very much doubt that you can sneak inside after dark these days, the aura of the gardens, the simple yet complex compositions still remain. It is like people from around the world come here in search of something, like they are coming on a pilgrimage. So even if there are a dozen other people sitting with you on a Sunday afternoon, it can be a moment of peace and reflection. You may enter the gardens as a group of strangers, but leave with a sense of connection with each other.
Actually, people have been contemplating here since the Fifteenth Century, when the rock garden was first laid out. More recently, you can visit the Ryoanji Yudofuya tea house and take in the gardens while trying the sublime yudofu tofu set (3,300 yen).
It would be a shame to articulate what the meaning of the rock garden is, because that is different for each observer. It may even take on a different meaning the next time you come here. It is truly a garden for each season of life.
Ryoanji Temple is north-west of Kyoto station and a 30 minute ride by bus or bicycle. It is best to get here early or late in the day, unless you can sneak in after dark.