Information about Ruriko-is quite limited on the web, and the pamphlet of the place only has a small English commentary. The traditional "famous place" notice from the city office that is planted in front of Ruriko-in has a bit more, and luckily I took a picture of it. The story appear to start in 672, when an imperial prince (who later became emperor Tenmu) was wounded by an arrow and cured in this valley of Yase (八瀬). Coincidently, the large building next to Ruriko-in is a... hospital. Anyway, the area appeared to have been rather quiet for 1200 years until, in the early Meiji era, a high ranked noble named Sanetomi Sanjo built a villa named "Kikakutei" here. The villa was completely renovated in the 1930-1940's by master architect Sotoji Nakamura, a specialist of the "Sukiya" style. The gardens were also designed at that time by famous gardener Toemon Sano. From there on it is not clear how the villa became a temple, but must not be particularly important as the "temple" part of the villa is limited to a small room.
Normally I wouldn't write so much if the history of the place is not important, but Ruriko-in is an exception because the villa is so beautiful! The visit starts by the "mountain gate" (山門) located right in front of the small car park. After the gate, winding stairs lead to the villa's entrance (玄関). A small bridge and a pond with Japanese "koi" carps are also found here. The pond is the starting point of the small stream that runs between the villa's buildings down to the lower "Garyu" garden (臥龍の庭).
Once in the villa, the visitors are lead immediately to the second floor where a large room overlooks the "Ruri" garden (瑠璃の庭). Having access to a higher floor of a temple is very rare, and this only adds the the superb view that the room offers, especially in spring and autumn, of course (in fact Ruriko-in is closed outside those two seasons anyway). Even though Ruriko-in is far from being tourist-infested, autumn can be very crowded due to this unique viewpoint on beautifully coloured maple foliage. For those who prefer a quieter atmosphere spring is recommended.
After the visit of the second floor, another staircase leads to the old sauna. This kind of completely rounded room, for once not made of wood, is also uncommon. So is its affectation of course, since Japan is used to hot water baths, not steam baths! The visit then continues with the main room on the ground floor, which also has a view on the Ruri garden. There you can get a macha tea and wagashi set, if you paid extra at the entrance. Behind this large room is the "temple" part of the villa: a small room that they call "hondo" (本堂), a term normally reserved for much larger structures! The second part of the visit concerns the lower part of the villa and its tea room, both with views on the Garyu garden. Note that Ruriko-in does not have a "dry landscape" or rock garden; its two main gardens are both moss gardens.
To go to Ruriko-in, simply take the Heizan line to Yase station from Demachiyanagi (don't take the train going to Kurama!) Near Ruriko-in you will also find another great temple with a beautiful garden, Renge-ji (蓮華寺). Contrary to Ruriko-in which only opens a few weeks per year, Renge-ji is open year round. But it is of course most beautiful in autumn.
Update: Sadly, Ruriko-in closed in May 2013. Apparently the temple became overly popular after an airing on NHK (national TV), and the owners decided to stop opening to the public before the crowd would damage the fragile gardens and buildings :-(
Update: Ruriko-in is again open in spring and autumn! :-) I had a chance to talk to the priest of the temple and it appears that the story is quite different. The reason why it closed was the massive rain that fell on Kyoto at the time (see here for more details). The rain led to a mudslide which covered the upper and lower gardens of the temple with 30cm of mud (!). The mud had to be cleared by hand, the moss rinsed and the dead areas replaced, all of which took a couple of years. The visit is now more expensive (2000円) but don't expect less people in autumn! ;-)
Recommended for: Access:
Nearby: Renge-ji 蓮華寺 (800m), Hōdō-ji 宝幢寺 (820m), Sekizanzen-in 赤山禅院 (1.1km)
External links: Website, Kyoto Navi, Trip Advisor, Kyoto Design, 京都風光, Marutake, そうだ京都, Satellite view, Map
Keywords: Japan, 日本, Japon, Kyoto, 京都, 左京区, Sakyo-ku, 瑠璃光院, Ruriko-in, temple, 寺院, 仏閣