When travelers arrive in Kyoto for the first time, they often are confused and disappointed. Expecting a place that exudes timeless elegance and peace, they instead find a thoroughly modern city of traffic-clogged streets and blocky concrete buildings. Looking at their faces, you know what they’re thinking: Where’s Kyoto?
The answer to this question is, of course, “This is Kyoto!”
Kyoto is not a museum, it’s a 21st-century city with its own rush hours and uninspired architecture. At the same time, it was the capital of Japan from 794-1868, remains the country’s cultural heart, and, much more than any other Japanese metropolis, still harbors pockets of tranquility. You just need to know where to find them.
You can find the peaceful spirit of ancient and abiding Kyoto throughout the city—in closet-size specialty shops showing artful arrangements of chopsticks, wooden lanterns, or lacquerware; in six-table teahouses and tatami-matted tofu restaurants; in the lamplit late-night alleys of Gion, where the poignant plucks of a samisen waft over cobbled streets and white-faced maiko entertainers clad in gorgeous kimono mince in the moonlight.
Visitors to the expansive Ryoanji complex must walk for 10 to 15 minutes past a placid pond and under arching cherry and plum boughs before arriving at the wooden building that houses the rock garden.
The garden, roughly 30 feet by 80 feet, consists of large rocks, some ringed with moss, set in a bed of river stones meticulously raked by monks each day. On one side is a wide wooden verandah, where guests stand or sit, and stare. Almost inevitably this verandah will be full of people when you arrive, and this is where the challenge of Ryoanji really begins.
The temple’s rock garden is famous for embodying a Zen lesson: It contains 15 rocks, yet is arranged so that visitors can see only 14 of them from any one vantage. The idea is that to fully apprehend the garden, you have to find the 15th stone in your mind—that is, you have to absorb the outside so completely that the distinction between the garden outside and the garden inside disappears. The two become as one.
I love this living lesson! But what I’ve found on more than a dozen visits to Ryoanji is that most visitors spend only 10 minutes, 20 minutes maximum in the garden. They look at the rocks and raked pebbles, flip through their brochure or guidebook, talk to their friends, take some photos, look at the garden again, check their cell phones, and leave.
This is not the way to find the peace of Ryoanji. What you really need to do is set aside a substantial amount of time—at least an hour, I’d say, ideally a full morning or afternoon—and just sit there and study the garden. Forget the brochure and the guidebook and the cell phone and even the friends.
Look long enough, and suddenly you see how the stones are arranged in exquisitely straight lines and then in rippling circles around the rocks, the two shapes somehow seamlessly merging; how the glazed wall that surrounds the garden is rough and textured, like a piece of priceless pottery; how the garden’s design subtly embraces the cherry, maple, cedar, and pine trees beyond the wall; how the garden itself expresses and reflects the tranquil tension between sky and stone, petal and pebble.
This is why I love to visit Ryoanji as soon as I arrive in Kyoto. The rock garden doesn’t yield its peace easily. It makes me slow down, focus, and absorb. It makes me filter out all the people snapping selfies and counting stones—“one, two, three, quatre, cinq, six, shichi, hachi, kyu…” It makes me really see, externally and internally.
And this is the fundamental lesson I need to relearn whenever I visit Kyoto: Because like Ryoanji, the 21st-century city doesn’t yield its ancient harmony promiscuously. It challenges you to find it for yourself, and in yourself.
Don George is an editor at large at Traveler and the author of Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing. He has also edited award-winning travel writing anthologies, including An Innocent Abroad. Follow Don on Twitter @don_george.