Ryoan-ji, 2016

Now that I’ve finally, finally shared the long-promised story of our engagement (just five years late!), I can finish telling you the stories of last week.

On Tuesday night, we finally arrived in Kyoto, after a wonderful but long – and emphasis is on the long – two days with Don’s class, traveling to Miyajimaguchi and visiting Itsukushima, then traveling to Himeji and visiting Himeji-jo, the famous castle there.

But it was also hectic, for various parenting reasons you probably don’t want to hear about, but apparently I will tell you anyway: (the short of it is: our previously potty-trained toddler, who potty trained like a champ half a year ago, has been freaked out by Japanese toilets, which are kind of a crazy beast in themselves, ever since our first night in Japan, when Don, an ardent fan of these crazy toilets, eagerly tried to introduce Aardvark to some of the more advanced functions of the toilet in our hotel. And all of a sudden the bum-spray function went crazy hay-wire and blasted a full-pressure spray of cold water that absolutely terrified her. She was screaming and crying and water was spraying all over the bathroom. And she has been increasingly scared of toilets ever since: first we could cover the arm panels with toilet paper and she’d ignore them, now she won’t even walk into a stall if it has an arm-control panel. And she now also looks around the entire stall, not to be fooled by those stalls whose control panels are on the wall instead. For a while, she’d pee in a regular toilet, but now if they don’t have lids she refuses…she basically is terrified of all toilets and makes up any excuse to get out of using one. [I did check in with some of the local Tokyo parenting groups I’m a part of, desperately seeking advice, and this is apparently common to almost all kids growing up in Japan – but A. seems to have a particularly severe case of it.] Currently, she will only pee in public in places with “Japanese style” or squat toilets – basically, porcelain holes in the floor. Which are all utterly disgusting because aiming is not easy – the floors are always drenched with urine. I will not tell you the challenges this situation has created or the inventive solutions we had to come up with to get around this issue, lest you never invite me to your house again.)

Anyway, you’re probably thinking I said “the short of it is,” and then blabbed and blabbed, but the truth is, that IS the short version. We had a lot of fun on this trip, but there were also a LOT of horrible, tear-your-hair out parenting moments that made me wonder if Aardvark and I were going to need to pack it in and return to the States and no-frills toilets and regular nap times and routines immediately to keep our sanity. I keep trying to remind myself that this is just how parenting is, and that the lows that make you think you will not make it through the day just get balanced out by those other wonderful, beyond amazing moments. Like, look how adorable she is in most of these photos! And if I don’t take pictures of the temper tantrums, I won’t even remember them in a few years, right?!

(Still the short version, folks. STILL the short version. I’m just hoping other parents are with me on this, and everyone’s not thinking I’m an awful parent….please?)

So, all this preamble is to explain:

I. Needed. A. Break.

Like very seriously needed a reset to keep from losing my mind.

Once we were settled in our hotel in Kyoto, where we’d be staying for the next five nights, we were debriefed on the rest of the trip, including detailed itinerary for the next day, which included Ryoan-ji, one of my favorite temples ever, as the first stop.

But we weren’t scheduled to leave until 8 am, which is when it opens, and travel with a group of 20+ people always takes longer than it should, so I figured we wouldn’t get there until 9:30 or so.

So I decided to go by myself, early in the morning, just like 5 years ago.

And it was well worth it.

Just like 5 years ago, I had the place to myself.


One couple arrived shortly after I did (but still before the temple opened), but they moved through pretty quickly. There were lots of times that morning when I was the only visitor in the temple, or there would be only one or two other people and we would respectfully keep our distance and our quiet.


This is how my panoramic photo came out – is that how it is supposed to? It just looks like a crazy fish-eye photo. However, it is my only whole-picture of Ryoan-ji. I have better photos I took with Don’s camera that show the whole dryscape, but you know the drill by now: I’ll promise to post them once I finally upload them and it will never happen. Probably. (See? Still holding out a little hope.)

Anyway, Ryoan-ji is, as I’ve mentioned previously, but it bears repeating, an incredibly famous and important temple, built in the 15th century. It is probably the most famous of all Zen rock gardens in the world.

The rocks in the garden are laid out so that one can only see 14 of the 15 rocks from a single vantage point. There are lots of theories as to why this is, some include: a visual meditation; an unanswerable question – a Zen koan in tangible rock form, if you will; the rocks represent islands in the sea or a tiger carrying her cubs across a stream(? – but perhaps not as outlandish as that sounds – in many Zen dry gardens, the smaller rocks or sand represent the ocean, the universe or infinity); that one rock is always hidden because the world as it truly exists is hidden to us, and to see them all – to the world as it is – would  mean attaining enlightenment; or, of course, and so utterly-Zen, that there is no larger symbolic meaning to the garden.

Later in the morning, buses full of field-tripping children did start coming through. I was astonished by how well behaved these middle- and elementary-school aged children were: they would come in all lined up, speaking as little as possible and in hushed voices, take a seat on the viewing platform being very careful not to get in the way of – not even momentarily walk in front of – any tourist already viewing the garden, and immediately get down to work.

“Work” almost always involved counting the rocks, I would hear & see them immediately pointing, “Ichi, ni, san…” and so on while they counted the rocks. It frequently, especially for the middle school children, involved sketching the garden as well. (I wonder what it would be like to grow up somewhere where field trips to places hundreds of 500 – 1,000 years old were entirely commonplace. Or to have a place like Ryoan-ji be one of those places you just grow up visiting, approaching from different angles and learning new things about each time. It puts our big 6th grade field trip to Batsto Village and the Pine Barrons in NJ to shame.)

The garden is meant to be viewed from a seated position on the viewing platform. I learned – overheard it from one of the middle-school aged children who came through on a field trip, in fact – that if you stand in a specific spot on the platform, you can see all 15 rocks at once – the 1st and the 15th, tricky, hardest-to-find ones, you can only see slivers of, but they are there!

This is a video of the garden from the 15-rock standing perpsective. If you turn the volume up you can hear the birds (or ducks?) that formed the soundtrack for the garden.

I zoom in on the hidden rocks in this one, so you can count along with all 15 if you wish – but the zooming somehow feels jarring, so I actually prefer the above clip to this one.

The temple is surrounded by wet/moss gardens on the three other sides. When the rock garden would over-fill with tourists, I would wander around the rest of the temple to give others a turn to sit on the platform. The rest of the temple is beautiful as well, paling only by comparison to the magnificence of the dry garden.


The tsukubai – the water fountain for ritual cleansing – at Ryoan-ji is also particularly famous, as water basins go. Tsukubai means “crouch,” and this fountain – much lower than ritual cleansing fountains in most temples or shrines – requires a visitor to crouch to clean themselves, thus enforcing a position of humility or reverence. So no matter how important a visitor was, he or she (who are we kidding? Probably just men for many centuries) was forced to lower themselves to proceed, enforcing Buddhist notions of humility and reverence.

This particular tsukubai is famous for the four characters carved along it. Alone they do not mean anything, but when paired with the square of the fountain as a kanji character, they become words, translating to something along the lines of, “What one has is all one needs,” or “One only needs what one has.”



I became quite attached to this particular view of the garden.

(Which, now that I’ve phrased it as such, is particularly UN-Buddhist, since the entire point of Buddhism, per the Four Noble Truths, the major tenets of the religion, is to rid oneself of attachments!)

It was a lovely morning, and after only a little while of peace and solitude, I felt so much more rejuvenated.

Which was good, because after a while, the field trips became more frequent, and were joined by tour-bus groups (and the European and North American adults were much less behaved than the Japanese school children, speaking loudly with little consideration for others. But even these groups hushed into a kind of awe as they stepped from the entrance hall to the platform for viewing this garden. Even if that hush did not last long, it was noticeable.)

Around the time Don’s class was due to arrive, I began to look eagerly for them, cringing whenever I heard loud English-speaking voices out in the entrance hall. It turns out the group was running late – making me extra glad I’d gone early by myself – and around 9:30, I saw some of Don’s students (who, I should add, were much better behaved than the other adult tourists. They were silent in front of the garden, polite and considerate to other visitors, and ever the architecture students, they whipped out their journals and began sketching the rocks, just like the Japanese school students – although obviously these university architecture students’ sketches were much better. 😉 I thought Don had prepped them but he said no, they were just excited because they learn about Ryoanji in the architectural history classes. Plus, they are just a really good group of kids).

And then little Aardvark came barreling towards me, and jumped into my arms in a big bear hug.

Which is its own kind of amazingly rejuvenating moment.


After Aardvark had her fill of the temple itself, she and I explored the grounds for a while.


So this was my morning at Ryoan-ji:


I pretty much sat here and watched the shadows shift.

I counted the rocks.

I listened to birds.

I just breathed in the silence and the smell of autumn.

It was just so quiet and peaceful and perfect – which are rare treats for parents of toddlers. And probably for any busy adult, I would guess.

Which was exactly what I needed to calm my frazzled nerves and severely shortened temper. It restored my energy and compassion, and just like our visit here, 5 years ago, I felt emptied of urgency, obligations, expectations, needs, to-do lists, frustrations, exhaustion, and all the other things that had been wearing at me, and instead I just felt satiated: no matter what else happened, the day could not get any better. (And again, it did get better! But not in any way as exciting as getting engaged, of course. It was just a great day.)

So it turns out, The Temple of the Dragon at Peace set all my dragons at peace.


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