A river of raked gravel gives the feeling of expanding beyond the boundaries, while the tall garden wall and a closely trimmed hedge separate the Ryūmontei garden from the main garden at the Gionji temple.
Set within a larger garden at the Gionji Zen temple, a plastered garden wall and trimmed tall hedges contain the space of the smaller Ryūmontei garden. The garden features an arrangement of rocks suggestive of a ryūmonbaku waterfall, from which the garden gets its name. Literally meaning “dragon’s gate waterfall,” the ryūmonbaku represents a carp trying to climb up the cascades and pass through the “dragon’s gate” (ryūmon), an expression referring to disciplined Zen training on the path to enlightenment. The waterfall is one of many typical design devices of traditional Japanese gardens in Ryūmontei, which also include an ocean of raked shirakawasuna (white pea gravel) dotted with islands of contrasting rough rocks and varied plantings to give color throughout the different seasons. The garden incorporates an additional layer of symbolic meaning, relating specifically to the founding of Gionji. The main tateishi (standing rock) represents the temple founder, Toko Shinetsu, lecturing to his disciple Mito Mitsukuni, also a monk and temple founder. This layer of symbolism, represented through the physical form of certain stones and incorporated into the overall garden design, ties the garden to the history of the temple and makes it unique to that place.
Raked pea gravel follows the contours of the rock “islands” and moss “shoreline,” creating movement and pattern in the foreground of the garden.
The river of gravel in the karesansui (dry) garden starts from the ryūmonbaku (“dragon’s gate waterfall”) near the garden wall and flows under the stone plank bridge toward the temple building.
The garden, designed to be viewed while seated on the tatami (woven grass mats) floor of the sukiya-style Shiuntai reception hall, opens out in front of the viewer in a series of spatial layers connecting the interior of the building to the outside. The exposed wood column-and-beam structure, together with the floor and the eaves of the structure, frames views of the garden. Sliding shoji (wood lattice screens covered with translucent paper) panels at the edge of the tatami-matted room slip away to reveal the deep wood floor of the veranda-like engawa, which aids in connecting the inside space of the building to the exterior space of the garden. Running parallel to the building, a row of dark gravel is partly hidden from view by the engawa. A double row of roof tiles, standing on end, separates the dark gravel from the expanse of smaller white shirakawasuna that creates the foreground of the garden. The raked pea gravel, flowing around the rock islands and lapping at the edge of a low artificial mound, is an extension of the dry waterfall. Located in a far corner of the garden, on the highest point of the mound, the dry waterfall is a dynamic element, giving a strong sense of movement starting at the high point and flowing down into the white sea of pea gravel. Of the rocks placed within the gravel sea, one low stone is shockingly square in form—the contrasting geometry heightens the viewer’s senses, allowing a deeper awareness of the juxtaposed yet unified nature of the various elements of the garden.
The tateishi (“standing stone”) symbolizing Toko Shinetsu, the founder of Gionji temple, teaching Zen Buddhism to his followers is softly weathered and wrinkled, expressing the wisdom of age.
The low mound, which borders the raked pea gravel, is covered with moss and carefully placed ferns, bushes, and trees, as well as groupings of rocks including the Toko Shinetsu tateishi. The mound is backed by the tall wall faced in white lime plaster with an exposed wood frame and ceramic tile roof. The stark white of the wall draws attention to the colors of the plants—the green and red leaves of the maple trees and the pink azalea blossoms, while the hard verticality of the wall plays off the softness of mound in front of it and the horizontality of the pea gravel sea. The viewer’s eye follows the raked gravel as it skims along the edge of the mound and under a stone plank bridge, disappearing out of view as the garden turns a corner—a suggestion of something beyond.
A simple stone plank spans the narrow point of the gravel river, bridging between the mossy banks and adding a horizontal element within the vertical standing stones.
Set within the powerful large-scaled rocks of the garden, the carved stone representing a well, with its protective bamboo cover, connects to the engawa (veranda) with a single large stepping-stone.