Sunday, July 03, 2016

Daitoku-ji temple complex: Ryōgen-in



My 2012 visit to Kyoto was packed with cultural experiences, but at the end of it, I had only one regret - I haven’t gone to Daitoku-ji. So, when I got my first day-off during my bonsai residency in Osaka last year, I knew where to go. When I finally got there, I discovered that Daitoku-ji is not a temple, but a complex of 23 temples. I also found that only a few of them are opened to public. The first temple I happened to walk into was Ryōgen-in.

Image above left is the temple’s main gate. The centre image above shows Ryōgen-in’s Hojo or abbot’s residence as you approach it from the entrance gate. Hojo has been built in 1502 and it still remains in its original form. It is believed to be the oldest building in Daitoku-ji precinct. Looking at the photos I took at Ryōgen-in made me confused. I couldn’t understand what is what and where the things were in relation to each-other, so I ended up making a map and unlike other existing maps mine is relatively complete and in English (image below). You can refer to this map as you read this post.

Now I could clearly see that Hojo is surrounded by four gardens on the south, east and north sides. The first I saw was Koda-tei (images below). It runs along the eaves of the study or Shoin on Hojo’s east side.

Koda-tei is narrow and long and it has been named after a river that runs near the temple in China where the founder of Rinzai sect came from. The river here is an allegory for the uninterrupted transmission of Rinzai sect’s ideas. This dry garden is also sometimes called A-un no Seki-tei. The meaning of this name is roughly “The garden of alpha and omega stones” because “A” and “Un” are first and last letters of Japanese alphabet. By the way, the two stones that represent “A” and “Un” were brought from Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s Jurakudai residence.

Further along the south side of Hojo building there is a sudden change of scenery (image above). It is Isshi-dan, a Hōrai-san style garden (image above and images below). In the image above, the tallest group of rocks in the middle represents mythical Mount Penglai or Hōrai-san in Japanese. This is where eight Taoist immortals meet for their elixir of immortality drinking parties. Needless to say, these events are by invitation only and the venue is secret. The group of rocks in the right corner represents ‘The Island of Cranes’ or Turushima, while the group of rocks surrounded by a halo of moss represents ‘The Turtle Island’ or Kameshima. The latter was created only in 1980 to replace a seven hundred year old camellia tree. 

All colours in the garden are natural and subdued (image above left), but the diversity of colours and textures doesn’t allow the viewer to get bored (image above right). Apparently, Isshi-dan’s name was inspired by a comment about the chambers of Ryōgen-in’s founder. His teacher called them “Ryozen isshi no ken”, which means ‘House of the single branch on Vulture Peak’. Was it a compliment? 

The west side of Hojo is has a small moss garden called Keizokusan. It is sort of indistinct and I missed it altogether. A tiny bit of it can be seen in the bottom left corner of the center image above. The main subject of this image is Kaisodō and I am not sure about the function of this building.

The north side of Hojo features Ryogin-tei, a Shumisen style garden, which is attributed to Sōami and believed to be the oldest in Daitoku-ji (images above). Apparently, it has been maintained in its original form for the past five centuries. The garden consists of several groups of rocks surrounded by a continuous sheet of moss. The tallest group in the center is supposed to represent mythical Mount Meru (aka Shumisen). It is a sacred mountain in Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, which is considered to be the center of all universes. Others interpret the center group of rocks as the Buddhist triad (san-zon-seki) representing three Buddhist deities whose identities vary according to different traditions. 

Totekiko (images above) is a courtyard garden jammed between Hojo and the kitchen section or Kuri. It is often named as the smallest rock garden in Japan, but I seriously doubt that. It was built only in 1960 by a well-known garden historian and designer Nabeshima Gakusho. It supposed to illustrate a Zen kōan: “The harder a stone is thrown in, the bigger the ripples”. Despite of its relatively young age Totekiko has become one of the most recognizable icons of Japan. To me, it seemed like a bird’s eye view of a landscape glimpsed through a portal in the floor. Almost magic!

So far, I was talking about the gardens of Ryōgen-in. Now, more about the Hojo building itself. Images above show some of its exterior features, while the image below is a schematic layout of it. Again, I had to make an English version of it myself.


The layout helped to figure out which room I was looking at in my photos.

The image above left shows Rei no ma. The name of this room has been translated as “The Courtesy Room” and I understood its function as a group activities room. This is where monks would hold tea and incense ceremonies (sarei and kōrei). The image above right shows Dan na ma. A Japanese friend explained to me that it functioned as a reception room for special guests, especially those who make large donations to the temple. See the Hojo layout for room locations.

The image above left shows the alcove or tokonoma of the study or Shoin (see the temple map above for its location). Apparently, at one point Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu played a game of chess in that very room and being there made me feel awestruck. The image above centre shows Shicchū. The name of this room has been translated as ‘The Zen Practice Room’ and it functioned as the assembly hall or a lecture theatre. The image above right shows Gekan. It is translated as ‘The Lower Room’. It is also called Shoin no ma which means ‘The Study’. One other name of this room is Kokutsu or ‘The Fox Den’. It was used for receiving important guests.

The remaining rooms of Hojo were not opened to public. However, they are shown on the Hojo layout above and here is how they were used by the temple. Shinzen, translated as ‘Front of the Truth’ functions as the Sanctum Sanctorum of the temple. This is where the most priced relics of the temple are enshrined. Menzō, translated as ‘The Sleeping Storehouse’ and functions as the prayer or meditation hall. Jōkan, translated as ‘The Living area’. It is also called Ehatsu no ma which is translated as ‘The Room of Robes and Bowls’. One other name of this room is Rikutsu and it means ‘The Racoons Den’. This room was used for the storage of monks’ robes and bowls.

I would like to finish this post with some images of calligraphy displayed around Hojo building (images below).

I was spellbound by Ryōgen-in’s elegance and the glamor of its history.