3 Kyoto Temples Off the Beaten Path
For non-first time Kyoto travelers who seem to feel that the over-visited Kiyomizu-dera, Ginkakuji, Kinkakuji, Heian Shrine, Fushimi-inari Shrine, or Arashiyama have become too cliché for tourism, there are other numerous worthwhile treasures in Kyoto to explore, quite off the beaten path.
In the Gion area, entering the tourist-infested Hanamikoji Street–Gion’s most prestigious and nostalgic alley lined with teahouses, traditional restaurants, bars, kimono and crafts shops, all in historical machiya architecture, where geishas from the Sengoku Period carried on their entertainment business–you can find Kenninji Temple at the farthest end of this street.
Being a temple of the Zen sect, it was founded in 1202 by the priest Eisai (Yousai) who was also known for introducing Zen and tea drinking into Japan. From Hanamikoji Street, the North gate entrance opens to the Honbou and Hojyou buildings to the right and the Hetto Hall to the left. Entering first the Honbou building takes you through a pleasant route around well-preserved rooms, showing famous paintings, wallpaper designs, and exquisite screens—among them, two sliding doors by Kansetsu Hashimoto, famous Nihonga painter, and perhaps, the most viewed pair of screens by Sotatsu Tawaraya (early 17th century) depicting Fujin and Raijin, the Gods of Wind and Thunder.
Other notable screen artworks are the “The Cloud Dragon” screen paintings by 16th century artist Yusho Kaiho and “Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove”.
As you walk on corridors around the Houjyou, you will be encircled by ancient timber architecture and beautiful inner Zen gardens left and right in the interior Chouontei garden, or "garden of the sound of the tide,” where you find the San-zon seki or three stones that represent Buddha and two Zen monks. The Daio-en (Grand Garden) is a perfect stop for a rest and meditation, while you marvel at the peaceful Zen landscape of white sand and rock formations. In autumn, the colorful foliage is absolutely photographic.
Stepping out of Houjyou to enter the Hetto or Dharma Hall, you will be astounded by a magnificent ceiling ink artwork, the “Twin Dragons” by Junsaku Koizumi, who completed the work over a period of two years before it was installed in 2002 to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the founding of Kenninji Temple. The huge ceiling painting measures about 11.4m by 15.7m (equivalent to 108 tatami mats). Gazing at this phenomenal piece of art is a tremendous experience. The interpretation of the dragons is immensely dynamic as though the wild dragons rampage around the hall in frenzy.
There are other small temple buildings within the grounds, but the Honbou, Houjyou and Hetto are the only places open to visitors. After strolling through the commotion in Hanamikoji, a quiet and slow promenade around Kenninji beckons you.
584 Komatsucho, Higashiyama Ward, KyotoOpen 10:00 am–5:00 pm (March–October), 10:00 am–4:30 pm (November–February).
Entrance fee: 500 yen
Access: From Gion Shijō (Keihan Line) or Shijo Kawaramachi Station (Hankyu Line), 10 min. walk; Bus #206, 100 for Higashiyama Yasui, Minamiza-mae, or Gion Bus Stop, 5-10 min. walk.
If you would like to continue the temple adventure from Kenninji to another hidden temple in the city, Shoren-in Temple can be reached on foot by walking from Shijo Street up to Sanjo Street until Jingu-michi (the road leading to Heian Shrine). It is a short 3-minute walk from Jingu-michi bus stop to this delightful site.
Utterly quiet, as it is often described, being tucked in quite a residential neighborhood in the Higashiyama quarter, except for the equally popular Chion-in Temple a few steps away, Shoren-in has remained an easy favorite among locals for the simple architecture of its buildings and its picturesque garden and pond, which enjoys a special aerial view from the hilltop. It gained further fame since it started its light-up events twice a year―during the cherry blossom season, and the autumn maples viewing season. The front lawn before the Shinden Hall is completely lit with tiny blue lights, resembling the night sky in crawling stars. Visitors sit by the Engawa ledge while being irresistibly drawn to the glittering landscape.
Dating from the 13th century, Shoren-in originally belonged to the Enryaku-ji Temple in Mt. Hiei, where it took its name Shoren-bo from as one of the lodges for priests in Mt. Hiei. After the Imperial Palace was burnt down during the Tokugawa era, retired Empress Go-Sakuramachi decided to settle in Shoren-in, making the Kobuntei Garden as her study niche; thus the temple served as a temporary Imperial Palace at that time. The temple experienced several damages from the Onin War (1467 to 1477), and property seizure by the Tokugawa Shogunate; however, the enchanting garden, including the panoramic Ryujin-no-ike pond has retained the original condition.
The front foyer from the street to the entrance gate is quite large, immediately greeting you with a pair of giant camphor trees (kusunoki), said to be have been planted by Shinran, a Buddhist monk originally ordained at Shoren-in.
As you pass through the main gate, wide stone steps take you inside the inner property of the temple grounds. The first building to enter is the Kachoden Hall where you walk through drawing rooms showcasing several wall portraits, photographs, pictures of 36 Tanka poets, and elegant screen paintings, both traditional and modern, on the sliding doors. The rooms open to the mouth-watering Sōami Gardens and Ryuji-no-ike pond (Pond of the Dragon god), which wraps the Kachoden Hall. You can enjoy amazing views of pine trees, azaleas, other spring blooms, and a stone pagoda while sipping green tea on the tatami mats (for a fee).
The garden also offers a spectacular view of a semi-circular stone bridge, one of the prominent highlights. A large stone in the middle of the pond takes after the shape of the dragon’s back, thus, the name given to the pond. Huge carps swim as well in the pond. The pond was designed by the famous landscape artist Sōami (1525) during the Muromachi Period, where its name was derived from, and the strolling garden by artist Enshu Kobori. There are three buildings surrounding the pond: Kogosho (living quarters of the head priest), Kachoden (guesthouse), and Kobuntei (tea ceremony room), all constructed from classical timber architecture. The largest and most conspicuous structure is the Shinden Hall that also houses beautiful paintings depicting nature on the fusuma sliding doors.
As though the surrounding sceneries are not enough to magnetize you, climbing up the hill to the Hiyoshi-sha Shrine while passing by a bamboo forest, and stopping for a vast perspective of the Shoren-in territory and city view is absolutely enthralling and a must.
69-1 Awadaguchi Sanjobocho, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto
Open 9:00 am-5:00 pm
Entrance: 500 yen
Access: Kyoto City Bus #5, 46, or 100, stop at Jingu-michi, 3-min. walk; Subway Tōzai Line Higashiyama Station, 5-min. walk
Heading down from Shoren-in back to Higashiyama street, towards Higashiyama subway station, you can hop on the Tozai subway line to Daigo station (about 16-minute ride), and from Daigo station, walk about 15 minutes to another classical property visit to the Daigoji Temple. This temple is understandably overlooked since it is located quite remotely from the city center, in the Yamashina district.
The origin of the Daigoji Temple speaks about a Buddhist monk, Rigen Daishi, who climbed the presently called Mt. Daigo and discovered spiritual water in the mountain. Inspired by his discovery, in 874, he built a dwelling dedicated to Kannon gods on top of the Kamidaigo mountain.
Emperor Daigo (897-930) and other succeeding emperors financially supported the growth of the huge complex, which eventually stored 75,522 items of National Treasures, 425 items of Important Cultural Assets, and multitudes of documents from the Middle Ages. Today, Daigoji has been designated as a World Cultural Heritage site. The name Daigo is also linked to the five stages in Buddha's teachings in India. The territory is basically divided into the Kamidaigo (upper part), Shimodaigo (lower part), and the Sanboin garden.
First, we enter the Somon entrance gate at the Sanboin area. The Sanboin was established in 1115, and is considered the heart of Daigoji and prinicipal residence of the head priests. The main hall, Omote-Shoin depicts the shinden-zukuri architecture of the aristocratic class in the Heian Period. It opens to the breathtaking Sanboin Garden designed by Hideyoshi Toyotomi in 1598, the famous daimyo lord of the Sengoku period.
The carefully trimmed bushes, aesthetically set rocks, small stone bridges, waterfalls and tall trees surrounding the pond are exquisite. You can also spot three unusually shaped rocks in front of the pond representing "fast flow", "stagnant water", and "breaking water" of the Kamogawa River. There is also a tearoom in the southeast part of the garden, Chinryutei. Important cultural assets are found in the drawing rooms, such as the Aoi-no-ma screen, illustrating the popular Kyoto festival, Aoi matsuri.
Upon leaving the Omote-Shoin and Sanboin garden, along the pathway to the left is the notable Karamon or Chinese gate, which is also designated as a National Treasure. The doors were very auspicious as they were only opened to the Imperial messengers. They show well pronounced carved motifs of chrysanthemums and Paulownia on the gates, which were originally black-lacquered in gold.
From the Karamon gate, we now approach the beautiful red-painted Niomon gate, built by Hideyoshi Toyotomi to enter the expansive Shimodaigo area, an enormous zone of numerous temple buildings.
One of the highlights is the Kondo or Golden Hall, built in 926 by Emperor Daigo. It is considered to be the principal building in the Daigoji complex essentially due to the Healing Buddha statue enshrined inside. The architecture with red painted doors, beams and columns is very striking. Many statues, sculptures and national treasures can be found inside this hall.
The other highlight is the Goju-no-to five-story pagoda, completed in 951 during the reign of Emperor Murakami, the second son of Emperor Daigo. The pagoda stands about 38 meters tall and exhibits an elegant wall painting on the ground floor. One of the pleasant surprises in this area as you walk further is the picturesque Bentendo Hall and garden. Once you step on its red bridge and feel the beauty of the pond, verdant trees, colorful foliage (in autumn) and aesthetic layout of the rocks, you will understand why this spot is probably the most photographed inside the entire Daigoji complex.
At the lower part of the Shimodaigo area, the Reihokan Museum, which depicts newer architecture than the temple buildings in the complex stores Daigoji’s important treasures, documents, statues and important artworks. It front is a sprawling lawn with cherry blossom trees. There are other numerous small temples and shrines in this area, such as the Seiryugu Honden, Fudodo Hall, Shinnyo Sanmayado, Soshido, Daikodo, and others.
It may take about an hour to visit all the temple and shrine buildings in the Shimodaigo area. The Kamidaigo (upper part) area can be reached by climbing to the hilltop to see the Juntei Hall, dedicated to the Juntei-Kannon god. The other halls in this area: Yakushido, Godaido, Nyoirindo, Kaisando and Rigen-daishi all represent Kannon gods, depicted by various statues and paintings. Perhaps, one needs to maintain ample energy and enthusiasm to complete the entire tour of the Daigoji complex. Although quite neglected by tourism, the architecture, gardens, treasures and walkways fill a totally refreshing horizon of Kyoto’s cultural history.
22 Higashioji-cho,Daigo, Fushimi-ku, Kyoto
Open 9:00 am-5:00 pm, March-1st Sunday of December; 9:00 am-4:30 pm, 1st Sunday of December-February
Entrance fee: 1500 yen
Access: Daigo Station, Tozai Subway Line, 15-min walk; Keihan Bus #22 or 22A from Yamashina Station to Daigoji.