Visiting the Zen temple complex of Daitoku-ji in northern Kyoto, you will discover temples within temples. Michael Lambe guides us through its rich history and the deep significance of its many meditative gardens.
Entrance to Hoshun-in Temple, Daitoku-ji – image © Michael Lambe
Daitoku-ji is a walled temple complex in northern Kyoto famed for both its historical associations and its many beautiful Zen gardens. There are actually 22 sub-temples within the compound’s walls, but only four of these are open on a regular basis. Other sub-temples have occasional and irregular “special” openings, but throughout much of the year they remain closed to the general public and are dedicated to religious matters. So when peeping in at the gates of most of these temples you will see a lot of signs that say “private” and “keep out”.
Private! – image © Michael Lambe
This may seem a little frustrating, but actually four temples is probably about right for one day’s visit. Zen gardens are meant to be contemplated slowly and at your ease, so you don’t want to be rushing around visiting as many sites as possible. And if you view any more than four Zen gardens in one day, then all that rock and moss and raked gravel is going to start blurring together in your mind and you may, as the saying goes, get “templed out”. There are also some other locations in the vicinity of Daitoku-ji that are also worth visiting and they will add some variety to your tour.
At the Main Gate
The information booth – image © Michael Lambe
You can enter the Daitoku-ji Temple complex from all directions, but the Main Gate is on the southeast side. Just outside this gate is a little information booth, where you can pick up a very useful map of the interior with all the different sub-temples clearly laid out and labelled in both Japanese and English. You can also find out here which temples are currently open to the public and what their opening hours are. There are four temples that are open all the year around and these are Ryogen-in, Zuiho-in, Daisen-in and Koto-in. When I visited in November there was also a special autumn opening of three more temples. The friendly gentleman in the information booth very kindly marked all these temples on the map he gave me so that I couldn’t fail to find them.
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.
The Main Gate of Daitoku-ji – image © Michael Lambe
Ironically, however, Daitoku-ji proper is one of those temples that you can’t access directly. Instead you can glimpse its huge main buildings looming through the branches of the pine trees that line the eastern side of the temple compound. Lined up from the south to the north, these are as follows:
The Chokushimon – image © Michael Lambe
The Chokushimon, or Imperial Messenger’s Gate, dates from 1599 and was once located at the Imperial Palace before it was gifted to the temple by the Empress Meisho in the 1640s.
The Sanmon – image © Michael Lambe
The Sanmon, or Mountain Gate, is a two-story vermilion structure that was originally built in 1479. Its second story was added 60 years later by the famous tea master Sen-no-Rikyu. He is also said to have installed a statue of the Buddha in the second story that resembled his own image – and legend has it that this led to his demise. The warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi ruled over Japan at that time, and he was said to be enraged that when he passed under through the gate, Rikyu’s image was above him. This is rumored to be the reason why he ordered Rikyu to commit ritual suicide in 1591.
The Butsu-den – image © Michael Lambe
The Butsu-den, or Buddha Hall, is a Chinese-style building that dates from 1665 and houses a wooden image of the Buddha seated in the lotus position.
The Hatto – image © Michael Lambe
The Hatto, or Lecture Hall, dates from 1636 and is where the monks of Daitoku-ji receive their instruction.
A pagoda dedicated to Ryogen-in’s founder, priest Tokei – image © Michael Lambe
Ryogen-in Temple is the first temple we shall enter. Built in 1502, its meditation hall is the oldest in Japan and it also has Japan’s smallest rock garden. There are actually several gardens to view here, all with deeply symbolic meanings attached to them. The first garden you will see is the Kodatei Garden. Its whirling patterns are said to represent the inhalation and exhalation of breath, which is fitting, as focusing on the breath is the first basic step of Zen meditation.
A detail from the A-Un garden. – image © Michael Lambe
Circling the building counter-clockwise we then come to the Totekiko, the smallest garden in Japan. Despite its tiny size, its rocks and ripples represent the full power of cause and effect: how a drop, becomes a wave, and how a wave becomes the sea.
The Totekiko – image © Michael Lambe
Round the corner is the Ryugintei garden. The rocks are arranged in three sacred Buddhist patterns with the central rock representing mythical Mount Sumeru, the central pinnacle in the Buddhist cosmos, and a symbol of enlightenment. The swirling moss around it represents the vast ocean of consciousness.
The Ryugintei – image © Michael Lambe
Circling round to the front of the meditation hall we come to the Isshidan Garden. Again the raked white sand here represents the sea, but the rocks represent islands from Chinese mythology, the tall rock at the far end depicting Mount Horai, the blessed island of immortality.
The Isshidan garden shrouded in shadows. – image © Michael Lambe
This is one of Daitoku-ji complex’s cheaper temples, as it only costs 300 yen to enter. Opening hours are 9am – 4:30pm.
Entrance to Zuiho-in – image © Michael Lambe
This temple was built in 1535 as the family temple of warlord Otomo Sorin and he and his wife are buried here. Today the temple is famous for its dry landscape gardens which were designed by Mirei Shigemori in the 1960s. The main garden is notable for its deep waves of raked sand which seem to express some of the optimistic energy of that period.
Mirei Shigemori’s powerful waves – image © Michael Lambe
While I was there a group of junior high school students on a school trip arrived and expressed their admiration for this garden, saying that they liked it much more than the famous Zen garden of Ryoan-ji
The main garden – image © Michael Lambe
Some time after Otomo Sorin dedicated this temple he converted to Christianity and this is reflected in Shigemori’s design for the garden behind the main hall. This is known as the “Garden of the Cross” because viewed from its south east corner the rocks do form a diagonal cross. It is something you would only notice if you were looking for however, and so it makes a fitting tribute to the “Hidden Christians” who practiced their religion in secret in the two hundred years that Christianity was banned.
The garden of the cross – image © Michael Lambe
Zuiho-in costs 400 yen to enter and is open from 9am – 5pm.
Entrance to Koto-in – the first gate – image © Michael Lambe
This temple is one of the real high points of a visit to Daitoku-ji and is renowned as much for its long and beautiful entryway, as it is for the gardens within. Entering through the main gate you turn right and walk down a long flagstone path through a bamboo forest.
The beautiful entrance path to Koto-in – image © Michael Lambe
Notice that the path turns three times and that you pass through three gates before you enter the temple itself. This is designed to give you a sense of passage from the outer, secular world, into the deeper, spiritual contemplative world within.
The second gate – image © Michael Lambe
The third gate – image © Michael Lambe
Take your time here and enjoy the gardens. A viewing platform at the rear of the temple looks out onto maples that are at their resplendent best in the autumn.
The viewing platform – image © Michael Lambe
Viewing the maples – image © Michael Lambe
Put on some slippers and you can take a walk along a winding path through the garden.
The path through the garden – image © Michael Lambe
The path leads to grave of the temple’s founder, Hosokawa Tadaoki. He was another 16th century warlord, who founded this temple in 1601. After a successful military career he devoted himself to the study of Zen and the tea ceremony. The lantern that marks his grave and that of his wife was sent to him by his tea master, Sen-no-Rikyu, as a parting gift when Rikyu had been ordered to commit ritual suicide.
The stone lantern grave – image © Michael Lambe
The tea room within the temple was also designed by Sen-no-Rikyu and is a perfect example of the “wabi-sabi” spirit of elegant simplicity.
Koto-in is 400 yen to enter and is open from 9am – 4:30pm.
The tea room – image © Michael Lambe
The entrance to Daisen-in – image © Michael Lambe
The elaborate stone garden at Daisen-in is one of the most famous in Japan, but photography here is strictly forbidden and you will be asked to keep your camera in your bag. I’m not sure why they have this strict policy. It could be that it is a kind of Zen lesson. Putting away your camera, you are forced to control your desire to capture each moment and as you view the garden you must accept the transient nature of your experience. The absence of clicking shutters and jostling cameramen may also enable you to focus your mind more purely on the scene before you. Or it could be that the temple just wants you to buy their postcards and gift books. Sadly the sign below, which I was allowed to photograph, suggests the latter.
“people …have been selling pictures of our temple online” – image © Michael Lambe
Despite the no-camera policy, this temple is definitely worth a visit. Pick up an English guide at the entrance and follow the garden that circles the building counter-clockwise. You will see that each stone and tree has its own meaning within the greater design and that the garden as a whole tells a story, of the journey of the human spirit towards peace and tranquility.
A detail from the entrance to Daisen-in – image © Michael Lambe
Daisen-in is 400 yen to enter and is open from 9am – 5pm. You can also join zazen meditation sessions here on Saturdays and Sundays from 5-6pm from March-November, and from 4:30pm – 5:30pm from December-February. Zazen sessions are charged at 1000 yen per person.
Entrance to Izusen – image © Michael Lambe
Daiji-in Temple in the south of Daitoku-ji compound is not open to the public but the Izusen restaurant within its grounds is. This restaurant specializes in “shojin-ryori”, Zen Buddhist vegetarian cuisine that is famous for its creative use of vegetables, mushrooms, tofu and rice. The cheapest course menu here is 3240 yen and is well worth the price for the many colorful and incredibly delicious dishes that you will be served.
”Fu” or gluten, with a gingko nut and crispy lotus root – image © Michael Lambe
Tofu and vegetables – image © Michael Lambe
Chestnut, royal fern, nama-fu (uncooked gluten), konnyaku jelly and a vegetable roll – image © Michael Lambe
Sesame tofu – image © Michael Lambe
Rice with miso soup, and pickles – image © Michael Lambe
Vegetable tempura – image © Michael Lambe
Izusen is open from 11:00am – 5:00pm. Closed on Wednesdays. Telephone 075-493-0889.
When I visited Daitoku-ji in November there was a special opening of three temples. Each temple could be visited and paid for individually (at 600 yen a time) or you could get a single ticket for 1500 yen. The latter option was cheaper and that is what I went for.
This temple was founded in 1562 and has very beautiful gardens, which unfortunately I cannot show you as they prohibit photography here too. I was allowed to take some pictures in the entry way however. The maple trees here are particularly beautiful in the autumn.
Obai-in Temple – image © Michael Lambe
Obai-in Temple – image © Michael Lambe
Obai-in Temple – image © Michael Lambe
Entrance to Korin-in – image © Michael Lambe
This temple was built in 1520 as a family temple for yet another warlord, Yoshifusa Hatakeyama. The dry landscape garden lacks the drama of some of the other gardens I visited, and is characterized by its simple elegance.
The simple garden at Korin-in – image © Michael Lambe
Entrance to Soken-in – image © Michael Lambe
This temple was founded by the ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1583 and is chiefly notable as the burial place of his predecessor Oda Nobunaga. Oda Nobunaga was a merciless military leader during the civil wars of the 16th century and is regarded as the first of three great unifiers of Japan. Toyotomi Hideyoshi is the second.
Oda Nobunaga’s grave is in the center – image © Michael Lambe
Aside from Nobunaga’s grave the temple also has a wooden statue of Nobunaga in the main hall. The garden also has a 400-year-old “wabisuke” camellia tree, the oldest in Japan, which is said to have been cherished by Toyotomi Hideyoshi himself.
The 400 year old camelia. – image © Michael Lambe
Imamiya Shrine and the Abura Mochi Shops
Imamiya Shrine main entrance – image © Michael Lambe
Outside the Daitoku-ji complex, on its northwest side, is Imamiya Shrine which was built a thousand years ago to protect the city from the diseases that periodically plagued the city. People still come here to pray for long life and good health and in the spring the Yasurai Festival is held here to continue to ward off illness.
Imamiya Shrine – image © Michael Lambe
Imamiya covers a large area with many sub-shrines within its leafy grounds.
Imamiya Shrine – image © Michael Lambe
Just outside the eastern gates of Imamiya Shrine are two famous shops selling abura mochi, a kind of grilled sweet rice dumpling.
Kazariya abura mocha shop – image © Michael Lambe
On one side is Kazariya, which has been in business since 1656, and on the other is Ichiwa, which has stood here since 1002!
Ichiwa abura mocha shop – image © Michael Lambe
A pot of tea and a serving of aburi mocha here will set you back a humble 500 yen. Not bad for a little taste of history!
Preparing the mochi – image © Michael Lambe
Grilling the mochi – image © Michael Lambe
Time to eat the mochi! – image © Michael Lambe
Both of these shops are closed on Wednesdays.
On Imamiya-monzen Doori looking north – image © Michael Lambe
Head straight down Imamiya-Monzen-dori Street south from Imamiya-jinja and walk up Funaoka Hill to Kenkun-jinja.
Entering Kenkun-jinja – image © Michael Lambe
The main shrine buildings – image © Michael Lambe
This shrine is dedicated to the spirit of Japan’s great unifier Oda Nobunaga. From the shrine itself you can get a nice view over the city.
The view from the top – image © Michael Lambe
Descending Funaoka Hill on its south side should take you onto Kuramaguchi-dori and almost directly in front of Funaoka Onsen. This public bath house dates from 1923 and is known for the elaborate wooden wall carvings in the changing rooms that depict Japan’s invasion of Manchuria. There are a variety of herbal baths to sample here and a sauna too which might be just the thing you need after tramping round temples and shrines.
Funaoka Onsen – image © Michael Lambe
Funaoka Onsen is open from 3:pm-1:00am and from 8am on Sundays. A bath here will cost you 430 yen.
Sarasa Nishijin Café
I don’t know about you, but hot spring baths and saunas always make me hungry. Head east along Kurama-guchi and you will find the Sarasa Nishijin Café, an old converted bathhouse and a great spot to stop, relax, eat or have a cup of coffee.
Sarasa Nishijin – image © Michael Lambe
Sarasa Nishijin is open from 12:00-11:00pm and closed on Wednesdays.
The Grave of Murasaki Shikibu
Continue on east up Kuramaguchi and onto Horikawa-dori Street and then turn north. Watch out for this stone on your left.
The stone marker – image © Michael Lambe
The grave of Murasaki Shikibu is on the left – image © Michael Lambe
This marks the entry to the grave of Murasaki Shikibu, the world’s first novelist. A poet and lady-in-waiting in the Imperial court, early in the 11th century she wrote about the romantic adventures of a “shining prince” in her Tale of Genji. Pay your respects here and today’s pilgrimage is done.
Daitoku-ji Natto – A unique souvenir!
If you have spent some time in Japan, then you are most probably familiar with the infamous Japanese breakfast food known as natto. These sticky fermented soybeans are renowned for their pungent aroma, strong flavor and slimy texture. Natto is one of those foods, like Marmite in the UK, or Vegemite in Australia, that you either love or hate.
The shop selling Daitoku-ji natto – image © Michael Lambe
Daitoku-ji is also known for a unique type of dry natto, that is very different from the regular natto you will be served elsewhere in the country. Made from fermented black beans rather than the regular brown, Daitoku-ji natto is very salty and lacks the slimy, stickiness associated with its more common cousin. According to popular tradition the recipe for Daitoku-ji natto was brought back from China in the 15th century by the eccentric Buddhist monk Ikkyu, and the monks of Daitoku-ji have been using it as a relish ever since. Nowadays, you can find it on sale in stores outside the temple complex. I found a store selling it just across from the main west entrance of the complex and thought I might give it a try. The old lady pictured here was a canny saleswoman, and persuaded me not only to buy some but to get a bottle of nihonshu (sake) too!
A canny saleswoman – image © Michael Lambe
This was actually a pretty good deal, because while the natto cost 580 yen, with the nihonshu included it was only 1000 yen. I later tried the two together, and found that the shriveled beans made a good complimentary snack to nibble on in between sips of nihonshu. But it does have a super strong flavor, so I could only have a little at one sitting. Personally, I like that kind of thing, but it is certainly not to everyone’s taste, so if you are thinking of buying some, you should probably ask to try a bit first. It will certainly make for a unique souvenir!
Daitoku-ji natto – image © Michael Lambe
Getting to Daitoku-ji
The southern exit of Daitoku-ji – image © Michael Lambe
Take the Karasuma Subway Line to Kitaoji Station. Walking west you should reach Daitoku-ji Temple in 15 – 20 minutes.
Kyoto Vacation Checklist
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