Ohara is an ancient farming village north of Kyoto, famous for its rural beauty and the historical and spiritual significance of its many temples. Michael Lambe takes us on a comprehensive tour of this area’s key sites.
The village of Ohara – image © Michael Lambe
Ohara is many things: a rural retreat, a tourist hotspot, an ancient training ground of spiritual music, and the last refuge and resting place of those who were bested by history. Once, Ohara was considered by the people of Kyoto as a remote outpost in its north-eastern hills. Today, you can get there by bus from the city center in an hour – if the traffic is good. And the renowned beauty of its gardens draws much traffic. In spring, the city folk flock to Ohara to see cherry blossoms, hydrangeas and azaleas. In the autumn, the crowds pour in to admire the autumn leaves.
I visited in the off season and enjoyed a more serene atmosphere. However, in any season, one thing I can guarantee is that people in Ohara are very kind. Of course, Japanese people in general have a well-earned reputation for politeness and hospitality. In Ohara though, every person I spoke to seemed so keen to help, and graced with such genuine gentility that I did wonder: Is there something in this country air? I visited Ohara in a day, but next time I think, I might stay overnight, and take my time in this gentle valley town.
Cross here from Ohara Bus Station – image © Michael Lambe
Most tourists visit Ohara by bus. On arrival, exit the bus station on its left side and you will find a traffic signal. Cross here and continue going in the same easterly direction, you will see a noodle restaurant on your left.
Continue eastward with this noodle restaurant on your left. – image © Michael Lambe
Pretty soon you will be following a sloping path with the Ro-gawa River bubbling downward on your right and various food and souvenir stores along the way. Eventually you will find a set of steps on your left that lead up to Sanzen-in Temple, but for the time being continue east into the woods and follow that river. It will lead you to Raigo-in Temple.
Raigo-in Temple & Otonashi Falls
The entrance to Raigo-in – image © Michael Lambe
A temple was originally established here in the 9th century by the monk Ennin, who brought back from China a type of Buddhist chanting called “shomyo”. The original temple fell into disrepair, but in 1109 another monk, Ryonin, rebuilt and re-dedicated it to this unique spiritual music. It is impressive to think that in this isolated rural spot monks still chant Buddhist scriptures every weekend, just as they have for over a thousand years. You can buy a CD of this music at the reception of the temple.
The main hall of Raigo-in – image © Michael Lambe
Enter through the gate, pay your 400 yen fee at the reception before you, then take the steps to your right. These lead up to a belfry and beyond that the main hall in which three images of Buddha are enshrined. The garden about the main hall is planted with azalea bushes which come into their own in the spring, but in any season, this is a nice spot to stop, sit and listen to the wind in the trees.
Three Buddhas of Raigo-in flanked by fearsome guardian spirits. – image © Michael Lambe
Raigo-in is bordered on the south by the Ro-gawa River and on its northern flank by the Ritsu-gawa River. On leaving Raigo-in, go left and then left again around the outside of the temple to get to the Ritsu-gawa. Follow a path through the woods by the side of the Ritsu-river, for about ten minutes and you will eventually come to the Otonashi-taki Falls. Legend has it that the monk Ryonin was chanting his sutras so perfectly here that the sound of the falls merged with his voice and he could no longer hear the sound of falling water. So the waterfall was named “Otonashi-taki” which means “No Sound Falls”.
The Otonashi Falls – image © Michael Lambe
Raigo-in Temple is open 9:00-17:00 and entry is 400 yen.
The entrance to Sanzen-in – image © Michael Lambe
Return back the way you came to the steps on your right that lead up to Sanzen-in Temple. This temple is the big attraction in Ohara. Bordered by imposing stone walls, inside the gate is an enchanting temple complex of tea rooms, halls and gardens.
Sanzen-in was founded by the monk Saicho in the late 8th century. Saicho is a big name in Japanese religious history, as he was the founder of the Tendai Buddhist sect and he also established the huge and powerful Enryaku-ji Temple complex on Mount Hiei. Most of the temples in Ohara are Tendai temples and they teach the same reverence for the Lotus Sutra and its emphasis on salvation for all.
After paying your 700 yen at the reception you will enter the Kyakuden, a guest room where you can sit, drink tea, and view the Shuheki-en Garden. This garden has a pond with carp, a stone lantern and lots of rich greenery.
Enjoying the view from the Kyakuden – image © Michael Lambe
Beyond the Kyakuden is the Shinden Hall, which holds Buddhist statuary and looks out onto the Yusei-en garden. Descend here and go for a wander.
The Yusei-en Garden – image © Michael Lambe
The garden is covered in a deep carpet of moss, and blessed with an abundance of hydrangeas, cherry trees, maples and soaring cedars. This botanical bounty makes Sanzen-in a popular spot both in spring and autumn.
The Amida Hall in the Yusei-en garden. – image © Michael Lambe
Here and there throughout the garden are amusing statues of an impish nature – image © Michael Lambe
Wander freely in the garden. By the Konjiki Fudo-do Hall you will find a tea room, where you can stop and rest and receive a free cup of tea.
The tea room seen from below – image © Michael Lambe
Up some steps beyond that is the Kannon-do Hall. This holds a golden statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of Mercy. Beside this hall are hundreds of miniature statues of Kannon donated by pilgrims seeking her grace.
Kannon, the goddess of Mercy. – image © Michael Lambe
Miniature images of Kannon donated by pilgrims. – image © Michael Lambe
A stream runs through the temple grounds – image © Michael Lambe
The opening hours for Sanzen-in are:
March – October: 9:00 – 17:00
November: 8:30 – 17:00
December – February: 9:00 – 16:00
Entry is 700 yen.
The tomb of retired emperor Go-Toba – image © Michael Lambe
Leaving Sanzen-in go north. On your right are memorials to two vanquished emperors, Go-Toba and his son Juntoku. In the early 13th century, retired emperor Go-Toba resented the rising power of the warrior class, and sought to restore the influence of the nobility. In 1221, enlisting his son Juntoku, who was the reigning monarch, he led a rebellion against the government of the Kamakura Shogunate. The two emperor’s forces were thoroughly defeated, and they were forced to end their lives in exile, far away from the imperial capital that they loved. Poetry fans as well as history buffs might want to pay their respects at their tombs, as Go-Toba and Juntoku are also the authors of poems 99 and 100 in the classical Hyakunin Isshu or “100 Poems” poetry anthology. In particular, the final poem by Emperor Juntoku, speaks of a wistful longing for times gone by…
the old palace
with ferns trailing from its eaves –
however much I yearn for
its past glories
that yearning will not cease
The entrance to Jikko-in – image © Michael Lambe
Directly across from the emperors’ tombs is the small temple of Jikko-in. Entry here is 700 yen with tea and a sweet, or 500 yen without. At reception you can get a small English pamphlet, which explains the history of the temple and the symbolism employed throughout its garden.
View the garden from the tea room – image © Michael Lambe
It’s a peaceful spot and less popular than its near neighbor, Sanzen-in, and so might be good if you need a break from the crowds.
A simple cup of tea. – image © Michael Lambe
March – November: 9:00 – 16:30
December – February: 9:00 – 16:00
The main hall at Shorin-in – image © Michael Lambe
It doesn’t take long to visit this temple, but it is only 300 yen to enter, and the golden statue of Amida Buddha held in the main hall is spectacular.
The statue of Amida Buddha – image © Michael Lambe
Opening hours: 9:00 – 16:30
The entrance to Hosen-in – image © Michael Lambe
This is a lovely temple and well worth a visit, despite the rather steep entry fee. Here seated in a tatami mat room you will be served tea and an unusually delicious sweet, as you gaze upon the garden. This garden is dominated by a massive 700-year-old pine tree.
Viewing the garden at Hosen-in – image © Michael Lambe
Gaze upon its thick trunk and soaring branches and you cannot help but feel a profound sense of respect. In a corner of the same room is a “suikinkutsu”, a large buried earthen jar filled with stones that makes a natural musical instrument. Put your ear to one of the bamboo pipes and you will hear in the interplay of water on stone a lovely musical sound.
The suikinkutsu – image © Michael Lambe
The ceilings of the Hosen-in’s outer corridors are said to incorporate timbers brought from the dismantled Fushimi Castle. Blood-stained wooden planks from the time of the Castle’s siege were distributed throughout the temples of Kyoto, so that prayers and sutras chanted by the monks would ease the warriors souls.
Entry: 800 yen (includes tea and a sweet)
Opening hours: 9:00 – 16:30
Lunch at Ippuku Chaya
Souvenir and noodle shop Ippuku Chaya – image © Michael Lambe
Retrace your steps to the base of the steps that led up to Sanzen-in. There at the top of the sloping path you followed from the bus station, is a souvenir stand and noodle shop called Ippuku Chaya. This is a great spot for lunch. I had a big steaming bowl of “Ippuku” soba noodles here which came with crunchy fresh Ohara vegetables (Ohara is famous for its vegetables).
Ippuku Noodles – image © Michael Lambe
By itself that would have cost me just 800 yen, but I opted for the 1100 yen set, and had these glorious rice balls too.
Probably the prettiest rice balls I have ever seen. – image © Michael Lambe
It was all super tasty, beautifully presented, good value for money and served by a very sweet old lady. What more could you ask for?
Lunch finished, it’s time to head back to the bus station. There is still one more temple to visit, but it is a little far removed from the rest…
Finding Jakko-in Temple is a bit of a challenge. First you need to familiarize yourself with the characters for the temple’s name, as most of the signs pointing the way are written in Japanese only. Here they are: 寂光院. The name means “Solitary Light Temple”. You’ll see those characters on signs in the bus station pointing the way out the back entrance.
Remember these characters: 寂光院 – image © Michael Lambe
Follow the signs out the back of the bus station – image © Michael Lambe
The way then leads past Ohara Riverside Café Kirin.
Ohara Riverside Café Kirin – image © Michael Lambe
And then over a small bridge.
And then the way follows a meandering westerly path through rural scenery. Just keep your eyes peeled for signs with those characters 寂光院 and you should be ok.
Over the bridge… – image © Michael Lambe
Part of the joy is in the journey – image © Michael Lambe
After about 20 minutes, if you don’t stop to take too many photos on the way, you will reach this entrance.
The entrance to Jakkoin – image © Michael Lambe
Go in and pay your 600 yen and you will be given an English pamphlet and a map of the grounds. To summarize the information on the pamphlet: Jakko-in is really old. It was founded as a convent in 594 by Prince Shotoku in honor of his late father’s memory. Absorb that fact, then head up these stairs.
The stairs at Jakkoin – image © Michael Lambe
At the top of the steps is the Main Hall which houses a rather striking statue of Jizo, the Buddhist patron saint of children and travelers. Sadly, this is not an original image, as a fire swept through the grounds in 2000 and badly damaged a lot of the property. The original burned statue is now housed in a repository, but I think they did a wonderful job with the replica that replaced it.
To the left of the Jizo statue is a statue of the convent’s third Abbess, Kenreimon-in. A tragic figure, she was one of the last survivors of the Taira imperial clan after they were wiped out in the Genpei War (1180-1185). After her family’s destruction and defeat she retired to a life of contemplation and prayer here at Jakko-in. The last scene of the epic Tale of the Heike describes a visit to her retreat by retired emperor Go-Shirakawa. To him she recounted witnessing her family’s defeat in a great naval battle, and how her son, the 6-year-old child emperor Antoku, died clasped in his grandmother’s arms as she dived into the sea. Kenreimon-in also tried to throw herself into the waves, but was pulled out by a grappling hook that caught her by her hair. Having failed to die with her son and mother, she shaved her head, took vows and dedicated the rest of her life to praying for their souls. For her the colorful image of Jizo, protector of children, must have had special significance.
The garden at Jakko-in with the remains of the thousand year old pine. – image © Michael Lambe
In the garden outside the main hall are the remains of a thousand year old pine tree that stood in Kenreimon-in’s day. Sadly it is no longer alive, as it was too badly damaged in the fire of 2000. There is also a small museum on the grounds, holding manuscripts, art and artifacts from ancient antiquity. Unfortunately information for these exhibits is not available in English. However, I did have a short English conversation with the museum receptionist, who told me to come back in November: “The maples then are very beautiful!”
Stairs to the east of Jakko-in lead up the mountain to Kenreimon-in’s tomb – image © Michael Lambe
The tomb of Kenreimon-in – image © Michael Lambe
Entry: 600 yen
March – November: 9:00 – 17:00
December – February: 9:00 – 16:30
If you are going to Ohara, you are probably going to go by bus. You can catch Kyoto Bus 16 from a bus stop at Shijo-Kawaramachi and Kyoto Bus 17 at Kyoto Station. Both of these buses go to Ohara via Demachiyanagi Station, but they do take quite a while. I opted to take a train on the Keihan Main Line to Demachiyanagi and then catch a bus from there, but it still took 40 minutes from there to reach Ohara bus terminal. At Demachiyanagi, you can catch either of these buses at bus stop “C” which is south-west of the railway station.
Bus Stop C at Demachiyanagi Station – image © Michael Lambe
You might also want to invest in an Ohara / Yase One Day Ticket
The Ohara / Yase One Day Ticket – image © Michael Lambe
On top of your rail and bus fares, the One Day Ticket also entitles you to some discounts in Ohara. When you pay your entrance fee at the temples there, hold up your ticket with a hopeful expression on your face, and you should get some form of discount. This discount varies from temple to temple; it might be 10% off the entry fee here, or a slightly cheaper cup of powdered green tea there… It does add up significantly though if you plan to visit all of Ohara’s temples, as there are several of them, and if you add up all the entry fees they are not cheap! The ticket is on sale at all Keihan Main Line railway stations.
When To Go
Ohara is most famous for its autumn colors, and November is the best time to see these. Be warned though, that the crowds flocking to this popular destination at this time of year tend to detract from the peaceful contemplative enjoyment of those temple gardens. In particular, it is best not to visit Ohara on weekends and public holidays, when the buses will be crowded too. If you do visit at the peak of the autumn season, then it is probably best to catch your bus at the beginning of its route (at Kyoto Station or Shijo-Kawaramachi) so as to ensure you get a seat for that long journey.
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