Category Archives: Temples

Myoshin-ji Article on Inside Kyoto

A few weeks ago I spent two pleasant days exploring the Zen temple complex of Myoshin-ji in north-western Kyoto. The results are now up on Chris Rowthorn’s Inside Kyoto website. This is my last article of 2015.


Myoshin-ji, or “Sublime Heart Temple,” is a massive Zen temple complex in the north west of Kyoto. In addition to its main buildings the grounds contain 46 sub-temples, all connected by beautifully preserved stroll paths. The grounds of the compound are so extensive that walking them you feel very much like you have entered another world, a kind of Buddhist village. In fact, most of the sub-temples are family homes as well as places of worship, and are not open to the public. Nevertheless, one can still enjoy the unique atmosphere here, walking the lanes between the temples, and peeking into the gates. LINK

Special thanks are due to Reverend Takafumi Kawakami for the wonderful meditation and tour he hosted at his Shunko-in Temple. You can read the full article here:

Exploring Daitoku-ji on Inside Kyoto

Last month I spent a couple of days exploring the Zen gardens of the Daitoku-ji Temple complex, and the results are now up on Chris Rowthorn’s Inside Kyoto website.

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Daitoku-ji was originally built as a small Zen temple in 1319. Like many historical sites in Kyoto, it was repeatedly destroyed by war and fire before being rebuilt on a grander scale by Zen master Ikkyu Sojun in the late 15th century. The temple’s political importance was sealed in 1582 when the great warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi held a funeral ceremony here for his predecessor Oda Nobunaga. Over time, political patronage and the money of a rich merchant class, led to a great flowering of the Japanese aesthetic here, expressed through architecture, painting, calligraphy, tea ceremony and of course those famous Zen gardens. All of this means that for you the visitor, there’s a whole lot of beautiful things for you to look at. LINK

In addition to the temples and gardens in this article, you can also read about ancient sweet shops, guardian shrines, a hot spring bath, a cafe in a renovated bath house, Buddhist vegetarian cuisine, the grave of the world’s first novelist and a unique savory relish called Daitoku-ji natto!

Read more here:

Deep Kyoto on CNN Travel

In case you missed it, my recommendations for what to see, do, buy, & eat when in “Japan’s most photogenic city” are now up on the CNN Travel site.

Inside Guide Best of Kyoto

Everyone should visit Kyoto at least once.

It’s Japan’s best preserved ancient city.

Shrines, temples, palaces, gardens … the city is home to thousands of architectural wonders, including 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Geisha and locals wearing traditional kimonos aren’t unusual sights.

But Kyoto is a modern city with a dynamic music and arts scene, lively markets and restaurants serving the best Japanese cuisine.

There’s too much to see on a single visit — so we have whittled down the best of Kyoto.

Click to read the rest of: Inside Guide: Best of Kyoto

I had to put this piece together in a bit of a hurry last July, so it was a HUGE help that Jeffrey Friedl, Travis Seifman, and Mario Cacciottolo let me use some of their photos. By way of thanks, I encourage you all to visit their websites:

Jeffrey Friedl’s blog:
Mario Cacciottolo’s photography:
Travis Seifman’s “musings on the arts of Japan and beyond”:

Thanks also are due to Chris Rowthorn who put CNN in touch with me in the first place.

A Trip to Uji on Inside Kyoto

A window onto Uji... Kosho-ji Temple's Chinese style gate looking out onto Koto-zaka or "harp hill".

A window onto Uji… Kosho-ji Temple’s Chinese style gate looking out onto Koto-zaka or “harp hill”.

My article, A Trip to Uji, is now up on Chris Rowthorn’s Inside Kyoto site. In it I describe a complete circuit of all of Uji’s major sites. Uji is a remarkably well preserved town with several shrines and temples of historical interest, including two World Heritage Sites, and all set within  a beautiful natural landscape. Many locations there are associated with the Tale of Genji and so there is a Tale of Genji of Museum there too.  In my article I visit all of these locations and manage to fit in a special river-side lunchtime recommendation, and matcha ice cream at Japan’s oldest tea shop! Check out the article at the link: A Trip to Uji.

A Trip to Uji

Click to read the full article.

Here are some pictures from Kosho-ji Temple which didn’t make it into the final article.

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The garden at Kosho-ji


A colorful image of Daitokuten. One of the Seven Lucky Gods, Daitokuten is a god of wealth and a plentiful family kitchen. He is easily recognized by his magic money making mallet, and the fact that he stands on bales of rice.

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Timbers from a dismantled Fushimi Castle were used in the temple’s construction. It is said that there are blood stains from the castle siege on the ceiling of the main sanctuary, but it was too dark for me to make them out.

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This is a pleasant temple to visit in all seasons, but especially in the fall for its maples, and in spring for its azaleas.

Exploring Fushimi on Inside Kyoto

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My latest article for Inside Kyoto is an exploration of the backstreets and waterways of Fushimi – Kyoto’s famed sake making district. Included in the article are places to taste sake, a boating cruise, a visit to the Teradaya Inn (where Sakamoto Ryoma narrowly escaped assassination), and a Buddhist temple dedicated to a Hindu river deity that happens to have a Hidden Christian lantern!

Here’s a taste,

Fushimi. Say it aloud and the very sound of those soft syllables seems refreshing. This is not inappropriate. The name originally meant “underground water”, and Fushimi is famous for its springs. The water from these underground sources is soft, mellow and is held to be particularly delicious – perfect for sake production. Many sake breweries thrive in this area and Fushimi sake is renowned as the perfect complement for Kyoto cuisine. Historically the waters of Fushimi also made this area an important hub of transport and trade. Here the confluence of three rivers, the Uji, Katsura and Kamo, and an intricate network of canals were put to good use, sending rice, sake and other goods between the cities of Kyoto and Osaka…

Read more here: Exploring Fushimi – Kyoto’s Sake District

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See also:
Kabuki At Kyoto’s Minamiza Theater
Walking In Gion
Kyoto Samurai
Toka Ebisu

Azaleas at Myoman-ji Temple

Azaleas, (called very prettily tsutsuji in Japanese), are blooming all over Kyoto right now, but we won’t be able to enjoy them for much longer.  If you get a chance I recommend going to see the display of azaleas at the entrance to Myomanji in northern Kyoto. Here are some pictures I took there last year.
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The grounds here are quiet and pleasant but the most striking thing about them is the Busshari Daito – a great concrete tower modeled after the  Bodh Gaya in India.

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Here are some more pictures from around the grounds.

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This temple belongs to the Nichiren sect of Buddhism, and was originally built in 1383. Formerly it stood at Teramachi Nijo but was moved to its present location in 1968

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The grounds are free to enter, but there is a fee (300 yen) to visit the main buildings and the inner garden. The garden is called Yuki-no-niwa, or snow garden, so I imagine it must look spectacular in winter. However, it looked very fine when dressed in spring green too. The viewing room is a good spot to rest and be at peace.

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There is also a small museum room in the temple which houses a bell of legendary ill-repute, known as Anchin Kiyohime no Kane. The story goes that sometime in the 9th century, a monk named Anchin was travelling through Wakayama on a pilgrimage. One night he stayed at an inn on the way, and had a liaison with the inn-keeper’s daughter, Kiyohime. Anchin promised the girl he would return, but his promises were false and the scorned maid, consumed by anger, was transformed into a giant snake. She pursued Anchin to a temple where he hid himself under a bell – but to no avail! The giant serpent wound itself about the bell and then created a scorching heat that burned Anchin alive. The serpent then threw herself in a river and died also… From then on the bell was associated with disaster and misfortune whenever it was rung… In 1585 it was brought to Kyoto, and since then the monks of Myoman-ji hold a ceremony each year to bring peace to the souls of Anchin and Kiyohime… This is apparently quite a well-known tale, and has been the inspiration of both Noh dramas and Kyogen comedies. Terrible behaviour for a monk though, eh?

Myoman-ji (妙満寺) is a five minute walk from Kino station on the Eiden line. This is the tenth stop and takes about 15 minutes when going north from Demachiyanagi. Here is a MAP. Check Jorudan for train times.

The grounds are open from 6.00 am until 5.00 pm and the main building and garden are open from 9.00 am till 4.00 pm.

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Omuro Sakura at Ninna-ji Temple

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This year’s cherry blossom season was basically a washout, with many hanami parties cancelled because of the incessant rain. Ninna-ji Temple in western Kyoto, has a special variety of cherry blossom that blooms later than most, but when it was at its best last week, the rain was still coming down. Mewby and I resolved to defy the weather and visit the temple anyway. At least, I thought, the rain will keep the bulk of tourists away. We’ll probably have the place to ourselves. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Even in the rain, Ninna-ji Temple is very popular.


Perhaps it is because Ninna-ji is on UNESCO’s World Heritage list as one of the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto”? It is certainly ancient. Ninna-ji Temple was first built in 888.

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Like many Kyoto temples though, the original buildings of Ninna-ji were long ago destroyed by fire. In Ninna-ji’s case the temple was destroyed during the conflict of the Ōnin War in 1467. The majority of the current buildings date from a 17th century restoration.

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Most striking of all must be the five storied pagoda…

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But the grounds are extensive and there is much to see here.

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The Kyōzō (経蔵) or sutra repository had a sign outside describing many treasured wall paintings and Buddhist statuary, yet the building itself was completely locked up. There was however a tiny hole in the wooden walls through which we took a little peak and saw…

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The main attraction though was Ninna-ji’s famous orchard of 200 dwarf cherry trees. These date from the early Edo period, so people have been enjoying cherry blossoms here for about 400 years!

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This orchard was designated as a national scenic beauty spot in 1924.

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Even in the rain, cherry blossoms can gladden the heart!

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We enjoyed our trip to Ninna-ji and will certainly go again – but hopefully in better weather!

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You can find out more about Ninna-ji Temple at their multi-lingual website here: It is also possible to stay at Ninna-ji overnight. You can find out about that here:


Getting to Ninna-ji is little complicated but much of the route is quite scenic and pleasant.

To get to Ninna-ji from Kyoto station, take the JR subway to Karasuma-Oike Station and change to the Tozai line. Go as far as Uzumasa-Tenjingawa/Randen-Tenjingawa (it has two names), and then change to the Keifuku Dentetsu-Arashiyama line. Take that line as far as Katabiranotsuji and then take the Keifuku Dentetsu-Kitano Line as far as Omuro-Ninna-ji. That’s three changes over 46 minutes for 610 yen.

To get to Ninna-ji from the town center take the Hankyu line from Kawaramachi to Sai, then change to the Keifuku Dentetsu-Arashiyama line. Take that line as far as Katabiranotsuji and then take the Keifuku Dentetsu-Kitano Line as far as Omuro-Ninna-ji. That’s two changes over 45 minutes for 360 yen.

Check for details of train times at:

Gion Walking on Inside Kyoto

Walking in Gion, my latest article for Chris Rowthorn’s Inside Kyoto, is now available online. For this piece I took a daytime tour of Gion’s main sites and historical landmarks, taking in some craft and antique shops and sweet shops on the way. I spent a long time on Hanami-koji, trying to get a decent shot of the Ichiriki Chaya unobscured by face-masked pedestrians and tourists with selfie sticks. This was the final result of my persistence.

The Ichiriki Chaya

The Ichiriki Chaya

My favorite spot though is away from the busy streets and in Kennin-ji, Kyoto’s oldest Zen temple. This temple complex is pretty big, but doesn’t get so crowded, and you get a real sense of peace from the raked stone gardens. Here are a couple of pictures from Kennin-ji that I didn’t have space for in my article.

Kennin-ji... As I passed a monk was chanting sutras in this little sanctuary.

Kennin-ji… As I passed a monk was chanting sutras in this little sanctuary.

The Toyobo tea house (1587) has resided at various locations around Kyoto but now  is situated at the back of Kennin-ji gardens across some stepping stones. You have to put some slippers on to reach it.

The Toyobo tea house (1587) has resided at various locations around Kyoto but now is situated at the back of Kennin-ji gardens across some stepping stones. You have to put some slippers on to reach it.

You can read the article here: Walking in Gion

See also:
Kyoto Samurai
Toka Ebisu

Fire Ceremony & Kyōgen Performance at Seiryō-ji on March 15th

Seiryō-ji temple grounds with festival stalls & giant torches ready to be lit!

Seiryō-ji temple grounds with festival stalls & giant torches ready to be lit!

Many temples hold special ceremonies on March 15th to commemorate the Buddha’s death, or passing into Nirvana (Nehan 涅槃 in Japanese). One of the more spectacular and eventful commemorations is at Seiryō-ji temple in Saga. There are a number of reasons why you might want to attend this particular event.

  • On this day only, entry to the temple interior is free.
  • It has a real local festival feel with food stalls set up all about the temple grounds.
  • Traditional Kyōgen comedy performances are held throughout the day.
  • There is a huge fire festival in the evening.

Mewby and I visited Seiryō-ji for last year’s Nehan-e (涅槃会), so here are some pictures from our visit.

Seiryō-ji Temple

Naturally we took advantage of the free entry to the temple interior and gardens. Normally this would cost us 400 yen each, but on this day alone there is no charge!

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Many Buddhist artworks of incredible detail are on display inside the temple. In contrast the gardens provide space for peaceful reverie.

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Take a look around yourself!

Click on this image for a 360 degree rotational view.

Click on this image for a 360 degree rotational view.

Kyōgen Comedies

Two monks carry in a "living" statue of the Buddha.

Actors portray two monks carrying in a “living” statue of the Buddha.

Saga Kyōgen is a form of medieval mummer’s play, performed completely without words and so very easy to understand, even for non-Japanese. Accompanied by drum and gong, the masked performers, use exaggerated miming to convey very simple plots. The play we saw, concerned a visit to Seiryō-ji temple by a beautiful mother and her less than beautiful daughter.

The "homely" daughter is on the left and the mother on the right.

The “homely” daughter is on the left and the mother on the right.

So beautiful is the mother that monks become overly excited in her presence and welcome her warmly. Naturally, the plainer daughter gets a colder reception. Not very subtle I know, but the play does contain some religious satire. Seiryō-ji is famous for its rarely displayed sandalwood statue of the Buddha. This statue is held to be so sacred it is termed a “living Buddha”. In the Kyōgen comedy, the Buddha literally comes to life, turning away from the plain-faced daughter, and actually running off with her mother instead!

The Buddha statue running off with a beautiful lady as a temple monk tries to stop him.

The Buddha statue running off with a beautiful lady as a temple monk tries to stop him.

Naturally, both the daughter and the monks are very upset by this, but not to worry. There is a Japanese expression, 蓼食う虫も好き好き, or “some prefer nettles”, which means that beauty is very much in the eye of each beholder – and so the homely daughter also finds true love in the end!

All's well that ends well for the homely daughter...

All’s well that ends well for the homely daughter…

The Fire Ceremony

Saga no hashira taimatsu, (嵯峨の柱松明) is part of a religious ceremony commemorating Buddha’s passing from this world into Nirvana. The ceremony begins around 8pm and the two giant torches are set alight at 8.30. You need to get there early though, if you want a decent view.

The pine torches quickly catch fire...

The pine torches quickly catch fire…

I’ve read that the condition of the fire can be used to divine the fortunes of the coming year.

Fire fighters are on hand to prevent the fire from getting out of hand...

Fire fighters are on hand to prevent the fire from getting out of hand…

As the fires blaze, monks from the temple parade around bearing lanterns and chanting sutras.

A blazing inferno!

The fires really do reach quite high and send their sparks up to the heavens.


A blazing inferno!

My pictures don’t really do the experience justice, so take a look for yourself!

Click on this image for 360 degree rotational view.

Click on this image for 360 degree rotational view.

Details and directions:

Kyōgen performances are held in the afternoon at 15.30, 17.00 and 18.30. The temple interior and gardens are open from 9:00 until 16:00. The fires are lit between 20.00 and 20.30. To get there, take Kyoto Bus #71, or #72, and get off at Saga Shakado-mae. The temple can also be reached by taking a 15 minute walk from JR Saga-Arashiyam Station. Here is a MAP.

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Greeting the New Year in Kyoto

Kurodani - New Year's Eve 2010

Kurodani – New Year’s Eve 2010

For the last post of 2014, let us return to a piece first written by our good friend, John Dougill in 2010.  That year I followed John’s advice by paying a visit to both Kurodani and Shimogamo Shrine on New Year’s Eve, and so I am reposting some photos from that night too. It had been snowing quite heavily on the 31st, so Kurodani in particular was really beautiful; all dressed up in white like a fairytale.

Kurodani - New Year's Eve 2010

Kurodani – New Year’s Eve 2010

John Dougill writes…

The true soul of Japan is neither Shinto nor Buddhist. It’s Shinto-Buddhist. Until the artificial split of early Meiji times, the country had more than 1000 years of happy syncretism. Born Shinto, die Buddhist is the Japanese way.

Shinto is this-worldly, concerned with rites of passage and social well-being. Buddhism is other-worldly, concerned with individual salvation. At New Year the two religions come together like yin and yang, either side of midnight. Buddhism sees out the death of the old; Shinto celebrates the birth of the new. Joya-no-kane (tolling of the bell) gives way to Hatsumode (first visit of the year).

To get the full feel of a Kyoto New Year, you need to be syncretic too. In the dying minutes of the year, go hear the bell at a Buddhist temple. By tradition it is rung 108 times once for every attachment that plagues the human condition. Then head for a shrine to pick up arrow and amulets for protection through the coming year.

With over 3000 temples and shrines in Kyoto, you’re spoilt for choice. A popular but crowded combination is Chion-in and Yasaka Jinja. File up the hill to watch the young priests at the temple acrobatically swing on ropes to ring the bell. Then head down to the shrine to get twisted bamboo lit with the sacred Okera fire. It will purify your home.

Kurodani - New Year's Eve 2010

Kurodani – New Year’s Eve 2010

Personally I prefer the open space of Kurodani, where the bell booms soulfully over the nearby hillside. Open fires give off a warm glow, which you can add to with heated sake before lining up to ring the bell. Afterwards a twenty-minute walk leads through dark and dozing streets to the wooded surrounds of Shimogamo Jinja.

Shimogamo Shrine in the early hours of January 1st 2011

Shimogamo Shrine in the early hours of January 1st 2011

Suddenly there are laughing voices, bright kimono, and gaudy lights. Aspiring yakuza sell candy floss and goldfish. Here all is jollity and smiles. ‘Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu’ rings out on every side. At the shrine people toss coins over the heads of those in front into the offertory boxes. With the blessing of the kami, this too will be a happy New Year. A happy Kyoto New Year!

At Shimogamo Shrine

At Shimogamo Shrine

At Shimogamo Shrine

At Shimogamo Shrine

At Shimogamo Shrine

At Shimogamo Shrine


Text by John Dougill. Photographs by Michael Lambe

John-Dougill-2-242x300About John Dougill
John Dougill is the author of Kyoto: A Cultural History, Japan’s World Heritage Sites and In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians. He also keeps a blog, Green Shinto ( Born in the UK to a Czech mother and a Yorkshire Viking, he studied Russian and Slavic Studies at university. However, a lust for wandering took him to the Middle East, where he married a Yemeni, before travelling around the world for a year. He set up house in Oxford, but fate intervened to send him to Kanazawa where he was a lone gaijin on the backside of Japan, dreaming of one day teaching in Kyoto. Now he has to pinch himself every morning as he looks up from his bed at Daimonji. When not playing chess, writing haiku or walking along the Kamogawa, he works as professor of Cultural Studies at Ryukoku University.