Lonely Planet suggests that visitors to Japan carry a pair of slip-on, sock-like feet coverings to wear in temples. Good advice. Street shoes are forbidden inside, and each popular temple entrance has shelves to place them on. As we came out of one wearing only socks, there was a single bench with an elderly Japanese couple sitting on it contentedly having a conversation. Ruth & I grabbed our street shoes, stepped outside, and squatted on the temple steps to put them on. The couple immediately came out, bowed, and apologized profusely for not getting up.
There are more than 1,600 Buddhist temples in Kyoto. Shod and on Bus 29, we headed for yet another famous one, Ryoanji, which was northwest of central Kyoto in the foothills. Founded in 1450, Ryoanji is of the Rizai Zen school as are half of the temples in Kyoto. The focus in this one was discovering both wisdom and one’s true nature in the activities of everyday life, like bench sharing.
The main attraction at Ryoanji was a kare-sansui-style (dry landscape) rock garden, 15 different sized grey rocks in a white gravel rectangle the size of a fairly large swimming pool (82 by 32 feet). This, in turn, was surrounded by a privacy wall. No trees, just carefully spaced rocks of different shapes poking out of the gravel. The walls, according to the temple’s brochure, were of clay boiled in oil. With the passage of time, the oil seeped out and made Rothko-like designs. This highly celebrated garden was the creation of a very respected Zen monk named Tokuho Zenketsu, and silent and transfixed people of all ages sat on the crowded viewing platform viewing his work. Ruth, not so much into Zen, became obsessed with counting the rocks and kept coming up with 14. I counted the same. The 15th must have been either very small or hidden behind a more prominent rock.
The Kyoyochi pond at Ryoanji dated from the 12th century and its setting was more traditionally garden-like. The tree-covered shoreline caused a lovely reflection in the water. Until recently this temple was known for its mandarin duck population. Ryoanji was once known as Oshidoridera, the temple of mandarin ducks. I still don’t know what happened to them or the 15th rock.
The temple between the rock garden and the foothills was where the 11th century country house of the Fujiwara family once stood. The property became a temple for Zen training in 1450. Destroyed by fire during a war, the temple was rebuilt in 1499 and became a World Heritage Site in 1994.
The tea room’s wash-basin was inscribed, “I learn only to be contented.” The formal Japanese continue to benefit in many ways from Zen influence.