Ryōan-ji Zen garden: 15 rocks and a 15 year marriage

As a young woman I thought a typical marriage was this: the wife thanklessly plows through endless chores while her husband, planted in front of a television, yells at a sports game as piles of empty beer cans rise up around him.  I never wanted to be married.

HOB and I met at a bookstore where we worked in the mid-90’s.  I didn’t fall in love at first sight.  I just thought, “Now here’s a person.”  I was attracted to the deeply inappropriate things he said and we did a lot of horsing around.  HOB did not fall in love with me either—he had designs on Stephanie, a woman who, while certainly beautiful, was also always ostentatiously reading books on spirituality with hazy pictures of mountains on the covers.  She liked to lean in and stroke your arm so you could smell the incense on her clothes.

Eventually, HOB gave up on Spiritual Stephanie and came around to being interested in me, but we didn’t rush anything.  We just grew to like each other a bit more at a time.  After eight years we got married on a whim, at City Hall.  I still wasn’t sure about marriage in general, but I was sure about HOB and anyway he has never watched sports and he does more chores than me.

Last year was a complicated time to be married: my job got really intense and we were both working opposite schedules.  When we left for Japan we hadn’t spent quality time together in months.  We’d check into tiny Japanese hotel rooms and HOB would set the air conditioning to his preferred temperature: Windy January in Chicago.  He’d drop into a deep sleep after 10 seconds, while I watched with him with insomniac frustration as air conditioning-induced frost crept across my exposed skin.

By the time we got to Ryōan-ji temple in Kyoto, I was smacking myself that we hadn’t spent more time sorting out how do get along with each other, like we normally do.


Ryōan-ji is a Zen Temple, but the part that makes it famous is the rock garden.  Like this is the Zen rock garden, launcher of countless other Zen gardens (and pint-sized desk gardens for the Spiritual Stephanies of the world).


The Zen garden of Ryōan-ji has 15 rocks surrounded by raked gravel.



I enjoyed looking at the garden, but it was even more fun watching the crowds look at the garden.  Every person stood or sat gazing out, index finger pointed while they counted out 15 rocks.




How refreshingly analog to watch children riveted by a 15th century arrangement of rocks!


When HOB sat down at the edge of the rock garden I thought “Oh now this is something he’s going to really dig.  We’re going to be here a long time, with these 15 rocks.”  And it was true.  HOB hung out with the rocks, not saying much.  I made two trips to the bathroom and looked at postcards in the gift shop.  HOB hung out with the rocks some more.  For once I wan’t impatient or in a rush: I was happy because I love seeing him happy and interested.  Or maybe you could just say I love seeing him, which had been difficult enough in the months prior to our visit to Ryōan-ji.

I never wanted to be married but then I married a guy who moves slowly, keeps the air conditioning on arctic, and has a long attention span for Zen gardens.  Today is HOB’s birthday—I’m glad he was born and that he married me (and not incense-smelling Stephanie).



How we got to Kyoto: train from Tokyo.
Where we slept: Japaning Hotel Liv Ranrokaku Price: €100 for a double. Recommended: yes.


  1. Congratulations – may you continue to enjoy each other’s company for many years to come.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you—we have lots of plans to do so!


  2. That’s the idea!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This could be my favourite of your posts. Fabulous.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, coming from a man who knows a thing or two about traveling with the love of his life, that means a lot.


  4. Sounds like a good time. I have a vague memory of a story that you can never see all fifteen from one spot. I must go back and look at my analogue photos.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are a lot of stories—like one rock pile is a tiger with her cubs, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Happy birthday HOB! Clearly a deeper person than me; on my last trip to Japan I kept on wondering to my Better Half what sort of swearwords would the zen garden keeper mutter every time a pigeon, swallow, ladybird, earthquake or very distant Godzilla fart caused the waves in the pebble to swerve about ever so slightly. She just looked at me with pity, and perhaps doubt. She does that often…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know that look of pity. I get it from HOB often for being generally a slob. (Can’t even blame Godzilla farts, it is just my nature…)


  6. Those rock gazers look so intense. I’m afraid stuff like that only holds my attention for around 30 seconds. This is why I like travelling by myself so much, with no football related obligations

    Liked by 2 people

    1. LOL. WIth HOB there a never sports related obligations. We did check out the Sumo neighborhood in Tokyo, but more as a cultural phenomenon.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Great story, as always! Never been to Japan during winter time, maybe I should give a try while I am around Singapore, taking a shorter cut …

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you Maurizio! Have you ever read Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata? That book is how I picture Japan in the winter.

      I’ve never been to Singapore. Someday I’ll go and eat myself silly!

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Plenty of fart jokes in Germany too where Einfahrt and Ausfahrt signs, and the arrow accompanying the on and off ramps indicated that wind, in Germany, requires prepositions and has directionality. 😊

    Your description of meeting your husband took me right back to the late 80s watching The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd. May you have many more years of shared bliss and proximity!

    Liked by 1 person

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