The Splendor of Enkoji, Overlooked Temple of Northern Kyoto

Photo: © Alma Reyes

The Splendor of Enkoji, Overlooked Temple of Northern Kyoto

Alma Reyes

Having studied and lived in Kyoto for five years, my sentimental attachment to this enchanting city has always remained irresistible. Perhaps, there is often a strong urge to escape the hustle bustle of Tokyo’s workaholic-stricken routines, or maybe, a notion to “re-feel” Japan’s inherent traditions. Despite returning to Kyoto at least once a year, and often during the fall, I'm constantly making new discoveries and never fail to be comforted by the beauty of its nature. This year, I was more than glad to have explored the exquisite Enkoji Temple in the northern district of Kyoto.

Even some Kyoto natives do not seem to know the site. The temple is not usually listed in popular tourist guides, which makes this discovery more alluring. Yet, it can be found in some of the top autumn attraction rankings of the city. For those who are familiar with its neighbor, Shisendo, equally spectacular for its beautifully sculpted garden, Enkoji perfectly captures the refined balance of a garden park, viewing hall, art display, bamboo grove, and mountain hike.

Yellow, orange and red fall foliage at Enkoji Temple in Kyoto

Enkoji Temple. © Alma Reyes
Concentric circles in the gravel of the garden at Enkoji Temple in Kyoto
Enkoji Temple. © Alma Reyes
Built in 1601 by the great Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa, Enkoji promoted learning for monks and scholars, and was designated as a very important historical landmark. An archive of chronicles and publications from the school are stored in the main building. Not to be missed for art lovers is a special display of a most beautiful byobu panel screen painted by acclaimed artist Okyo Maruyama (1733-1795), consisting of red orange maple leaves on the left, hovering over blue ripples of water, next to a golden sun and pink cherry blossoms on the right. It is a perfect illustration of Japan’s four seasons.

The main hall fronts the most-photographed scenery in these temple grounds: the sculptural garden with its rounded stones curving on the carpet of pebbles surrounded by robust trees. This central garden is quickly approached from the stone staircase that leads to the dramatic entrance, revealing a warm play of shining autumn colors. Perhaps, getting inside the sitting room to capture the garden scenery can be a bit of a challenge. Since an almost one-meter gap between the edge of the terrace flooring and the position where visitors click their cameras frantically is untouched, squeezing your way to grab your best viewing position can be quite uncomfortable. Yet, you can choose to be unmindful of the photo clicking and sit peacefully on the tatami, and enjoy the delicate gift of nature. The long red carpet placed strategically on the floors provides the powerful drama to lift the splendid panorama.

Enkoji temple garden with autumn colors

Enkoji Temple. © Alma Reyes
As you stroll among the autumn trees, you can find thoughtfully laid out stone basins with maple leaves resting on bamboos, and sketch-like silhouettes of trees and foliage reflected on what is claimed to be northern Kyoto’s oldest ponds. One feels locked inside a grand art masterpiece. One of the exciting revelations is a thick bamboo grove further to the rear part of the garden. The towering bamboo trees line up towards a mountain, likewise, cradling a row of giant trees. The hike up to the top of the mountain is very welcoming, especially at the height of noon. There is a bench to sit on to simply absorb the cool autumn breeze surrounding the breathtaking view of Kyoto’s land and mountains. Descending back to the central garden on the way out, one can look back after the maple leaves have all fallen, covering the entire temple grounds with this charming foliage and truly unforgettable experience.


Enkoji Temple. © Alma Reyes
Maple leaves fallen in a temple water basin
Enkoji Temple. © Alma Reyes
Red Japanese maple leaves in front of the temple gable
Enkoji Temple. © Alma Reyes
Access: Bus #5, stop Ichijoji.

Website for Enkoji

(For other hidden Kyoto jewels, check out Discovering Kyoto’s Hidden Autumn Treasures)