What Does a Golden Temple and a Zen Rock Garden Have in Common: The Two Most Popular Places for Contemplation and Reflection in Kyoto

Golden Pavilion in Kyoto

The two most popular temple sites in Kyoto seem to be opposites:  stunning versus serene, flashy versus quiet introspection.  The Golden Pavilion at Kinkakuji Temple and the famous Rock Garden at the Ryoanji Temple are just a few bus stops away from each other, located on the North West side of Kyoto. They are seemingly worlds apart, but in some ways these two temples have much in common. Both temples make your mind and thoughts pause to contemplate the beauty in nature. Both temples are Unesco World Heritage sites.

Golden Pavilion in Kyoto

The Golden Pavilion is both flashy and serene, located at a small reflection lake, surrounded by beautiful pine trees and poetically placed rocks. The Zen-Buddhist Temple was originally built as a retirement villa in 1393 for Shogun Ashiraga, who lived in abundant luxury while Kyoto’s people suffered from famine, earthquakes and plague. His son turned the pavilion into a Zen temple. Oddly, each floor features a different style of architecture: first floor contrasts the upper gilded floors by featuring the Shinden-Zukuri style architecture with solid black treated timber frame and white plaster. Second floor is gold leaf finished in Bukke style, similar to Samurai residences, whereas the third level features a Chinese Zen style gilded inside out. Sadly, the original temple was burned down by a disenchanted monk in 1950, but was rebuilt a few years later.

Golden Pavilion, Kyoto
Temple grounds at the Golden Pavilion, featuring pine trees trimmed to perfection

The Golden Pavilion cannot be visited inside, but the mesmerizing golden reflections of the pavilion in the  lake makes this a very poetic place worth visiting, although it gets a lot of visitors. Expect to take turns to photograph this poetic scenery and try to avoid selfie sticks. Walk around the reflection lake to admire the temple and its stunning reflections in the lake, but do not expect a contemplative spiritual experience. A path leads through the temple garden to an Edo period teahouse and small shrine near the exit.

Address: Kinkakuji Temple1 Kinkakujicho, Kita-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 603-8361. Tel: +81 75-461-0013. Admission: 400 Yen, open from 9am to 5pm.

The backside of the Golden Pavilion

On the other hand, the most famous of all Zen rock gardens at Ryoanji Temple, built in late 15th century, features a small, carefully composed miniature landscape of rocks arranged in gravel, which is raked to perfection by monks daily. It represent the endless ocean and ripples in water. Renowned for its simplicity and purity, this is the most abstract of all Zen Gardens. The garden is small, about the size of a tennis court, enclosed by ochre walls, and can only be seen from the raised deck of the temple. Visitors are seated on long steps facing the rock garden, lending a perfect space for meditation and introspection.

Zen Rock Garden at Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto. Fifteen rocks are meticulously placed in five islands surrounded by carefully raked gravel

The fifteen rocks of different sizes and shapes are meticulously placed in five different islands in such a way that you cannot see can see all rocks from any place. In this way they will always leaving room for improvement, as an aid to incite meditation about the true meaning of life.

Meditation and introspection at the steps facing the Rock Garden

The white gravel symbolizes water, purity, self-discipline and emptiness and is used to stimulate meditation by reducing nature to abstract form. A landscape seemingly suspended in time. A powerful abstract garden which is meant to induce a deep state of meditation which evokes thoughts of peace and beauty.

Meditation and reception hall facing the Rock Garden featuring tatami mats and decorated sliding screen walls

The meditation and reception halls facing the rock garden are very minimalist with their tatami mats and beautiful simply decorated sliding screens.

Address: 13 Ryoanji-Goryo-no-Sita-cho, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto City. Tel.: +81-(0)75-463-2216. Open Year Round: Winter (December1-End of February) 8:30-16:30, (March 1-November 30) 8:00-17:00. Admission: Adult 500 Yen

Written by Zia Hansen. Photos by Zia Hansen

Stunning America As Seen Only From The Air

Travelling by air always reveals amazing sights that tell a story about the world below. I confess to being a window seat addict. My favorite time of travel is mid afternoon in the wintertime as the sun is setting low in the horizon creating long shadows and stunning vibrant and painterly coloration.

Aerial Newberry Springs, CA
Aerial above Newberry Springs, CA: desert with traces of highways and irrigation

Sunny days are a treat, but even cloudy days provide amazing photo opportunities through the fluffy beautiful clouds and patches of land below.

In just 1 1/2 hours of travel time from Newport Beach in California en route to Salt lake City in Utah you can explore poetic coastlines, dense suburban urban areas, mountain ranges, dramatic desert landscapes and snow clad mountain ranges.

Aerial Newport Beach towards Huntington Beach
Aerial at Newport Beach towards Huntington Beach: endless white beaches and stunning coast line

Flying from John Wayne Airport in Newport Beach is always thrilling as the planes take off at a dramatic roar to quickly reach a high cruising altitude, then almost stilling the engines while flying above the stunning Back Bay areas and the charming Newport Marina, then quickly turning around above the ocean rendering stunning views of endless wide white beaches.

Cruising above seemingly endless suburban areas and packed freeways for 5 minutes to reach Riverside and the green hilly mountain ranges of Lake Arrowhead; suddenly the desert landscape takes over, a reminder of the dependency of irrigation in Southern California. Western America is so vast and empty, with only traces of life below.

Aerial at Ludlow, CA: sand dunes stretching seemingly endless
Aerial at Ludlow, CA: sand dunes stretching seemingly endless without a trace of life

Traces of roads crossing sand dunes with amazing windblown formations and bluish purple colors merging the yellow and red sand formations. Solar farms with their reflecting mirrors, dry lakes and old mining areas pop into view for just seconds.

Aerial at Mesquite Wilderness area: solar farms amid sandy valleys

Flying past Las Vegas and Lake Mead, the Mohave Desert is stunning and spectacular, its long shadows emphasizing the unruly geology. Valley of Fire with the intense red coloration quickly transitions into the lower Grand Canyon plateau, with its table mountains and jagged lines carved by rivers for thousands of years.

Aerial above dramatic arroyos tracing through the desert feeding Lake Mead National Park and Valley of Fire National Park
Sunset aerial above Eureka, CA: long shadows render an almost surreal landscape

Slowly the snow clad mountain ranges of Southern Utah appear with light fluffy layers of clouds, painted orange and pink by the setting sun. The Greater Salt Lake and Salton Sea are different geological sights, while the plane is preparing for landing, with the white mountain ranges as a backdrop.

Aerial approaching Salt Lake City with snow clad mountains as a stunning backdrop

Relax, enjoy and explore during your travel time being airborne.

Written by Zia Hansen. Photos by Zia Hansen



Halong Bay


Q: Where did I take this photo?

This photo was taken during a trip to Halong Bay in Vietnam in march 2016. Small junkets sail you in-between the magnificent rock formations.

Q: What time of day?

This was a cold, foggy day with a light layer of drizzling rain, which made the journey quite moody and a great setting for mysterious and emotionally evocative photography. Initially I thought this weather would ruin my chances of photography, but it turned out to provide the perfect setting for a sensory photography journey. This photo was taken around 10:00 AM from the backside of an old wooden junket vessel.

Q: Anything worth sharing about lighting?

The foggy weather created the perfect setting for a mysterious and sensory photo, as the fog covered part of the horizon with layers of horizontal veils.  The contrast between the cold green hue of the bay was subtly off-set by the mist covered rocks reflecting into the water, creating crisscross subtle shadow patterns.

Q: What equipment did you use? (Camera, lens, tripod?, flash?, other?)

This photo was shot on my IPhone 6S without a tripod or flash.

Q: What inspired me to take this photo?

Halong Bay is a unique Unesco World Heritage site, known for its scenic beauty, mostly depicted in bright daylight with sparkling blue waters in tourist brochures.  It was honestly initially quite a disappointment that the weather was foggy and drizzling this day of junket boat trip. It turned out to become a much more mysterious and sensual journey as the horizon was shortened and the depth sensation was distorted and reduced. I was inspired and intrigued by the juxtapositions of the foggy weather conditions, the icy green clear waters of Halong Bay and the majestic rock outcroppings and wanted to instill a similar peaceful, moody, mysterious emotion in others when watching my photos. I wanted to create a sensation of tranquility, reflection and introspection, a deeply touching emotion.

Q: Did I do any post-processing? If yes, tell us about it!

For this photo I used the Camera+ App to adjust the sharpness, enhance the contrast, luminosity and grain.

Q: What equipment do I normally have in your bag?

I am a world traveler and choose to travel as light as possible. I truly appreciate the possibilities the IPhone 6+ camera provides when supplemented by editing Apps. It is always at hand, ready to capture instant opportunities, without carrying a large and heavy camera around. Editing is instantaneously available and offers so many different opportunities through a variety of editing Apps.  Camera+, Enlight and Snapseed are my favorite editing tools. I have been greatly inspired by Emil Pakarklis IPhone Photography School lessons in IPhone Photography.

Q: Any advice for others trying to capture something similar?

Halong Bay is known for seasonal changes and spectacular sunsets, but as this was a visit planned weeks ahead you have no control of the weather. The coastal weather changes almost daily depending on time of year and day and often multiple times a day. I advise to find the beauty and unique character of any place, at any time, and to keep exploring new vantage points, juxtapositions, layers and shadow patterns. As this trip is explored by a motor junket boat you have many different opportunities, as other junkets in motion constantly change the horizon, framed by the rock formations and the rippling patterns in the water. The view of the rock formations constantly change as the rocks are silhouetted and layered.  Clouds and a light drizzle can offer unique opportunities for great photography, thus venture out, feel the moisture and drizzle on your face and lens while capturing images that tell the story and gets ”under the skin”‘ of spectators. Get wet and cold, feel it and capture the unique sense of place and time. Translate the sense of mystery, choreography and sensuality. Each photo is an opportunity to create a new sense of choreography in time and space.

Written by Zia Hansen. Photo by Zia Hansen