Myoshin-ji Temple is a huge complex of temple buildings and sub-temples in north-west Kyoto, overflowing with gardens, art, and meditative opportunities. Michael Lambe takes us on a tour of this profound and historical site.
The southern entrance to Myoshin-ji – image © Michael Lambe
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.
Exploring the grounds – image © Michael Lambe
Of Myoshin-ji’s main buildings it is possible to visit the Hatto, or Lecture Hall, to view the fantastic dragon painting inside. Of the sub-temples, only three are regularly open to visitors: Taizo-in, Daishin-in and Keishun-in. However, you can also visit the sub-temple Shunko-in if you join one of their morning meditation sessions.
The Main Temple Buildings and the Dragon Tour
The grounds of Myoshin-ji were originally a palace for the Emperor Hanazono, but after his retirement, he decided to take holy orders and dedicate his life to Zen meditation. In 1342 he donated his palace to the Zen monk Kanzan Egen, and it was Egen who founded the temple.
The Emperor Hanazono after he became a monk – image public domain
Most of the original buildings were destroyed in the Onin War of 1467–1477, so the buildings we see today date from the late 15th to 17th centuries. Today Myoshin-ji is one of the major Zen temples in Kyoto, and the head temple of the Rinzai school of Zen. Approaching from the southern entrance, the main buildings of the temple are laid out from south to north in the following order.
The Chokushimon – image © Michael Lambe
This is the Chokushimon, or Imperial Messenger’s Gate, and is closed to anybody who is not an Imperial messenger! It dates from 1610.
The Sanmon – image © Michael Lambe
The vermilion Sanmon, or Mountain Gate, was built in 1599.
The Butsuden – image © Michael Lambe
The Butsuden, or Buddha Hall, houses an image of the Buddha and dates from 1827.
The Hatto – image © Michael Lambe
The Hatto is the Dharma Hall, or Hall of Teaching. This building, which dates from 1656, is where the monks receive their instruction in Zen doctrine. Myoshin-ji follows the typical Zen order of buildings in placing the Dharma Hall further to the north than the Buddha Hall. This signifies the belief that Buddhist teaching is more important than the Buddha himself.
The Hojo – image © Michael Lambe
The Hojo, or the abbot’s residence, lies behind the Hatto. Enter here to buy a ticket for a tour of the Hatto and of the temple’s bathhouse. The tour costs 500 yen, lasts for 30 minutes, and is given in Japanese. However, it is the only way you can visit the Hatto and view the dragon that is painted on the ceiling and for this reason alone it is worth it. Painted by Kano Tan-yu (1602 – 1674), the Unryu-zu, or “Cloud Dragon Painting,” took eight years to complete. Now it whirls dramatically among its painted clouds in an uncanny representation of movement. The eye of the dragon is at the center of the picture and its gaze is so piercing and so inescapable that no matter where your vantage point, you may wonder if you are the viewer or the viewed. You are not allowed to take pictures of the dragon, but when you buy your ticket you will be given a large brochure with a poster-sized reproduction of the image that makes a fine souvenir.
A reproduction of Kano Ta-yu’s dragon on the tour brochure. – image © Michael Lambe
After leaving the Hatto, you will be taken to the Yokushitsu, or bathhouse. In the past, water was a scarce resource and the number of monks at the temple was great, so the preferred method of bathing was in a steam bath that would waste less water. Monks would enter the bathhouse in silence, be shuttered inside and then sweat and meditate there while steam from heated well water cleansed their bodies. This particular bathhouse was built in 1587 and is named the “Akechiburo,” or Akechi bathhouse, after Akechi Mitsuhide, a famous general in the Warring States Period who is best known for rebelling against his master Oda Nobunaga.
The Yokushitsu or bathhouse – image © Michael Lambe
Tour times are as follows:
- 9.10am, 9.30am, 9.50am
- 10.10am, 10.30am, 10.50am
- 11.10am, 11.30am, 11.50am
- 1.00pm, 1.20pm 1.40pm
- 2.00pm, 2.20pm, 2.40pm
- 3.00pm, 3.20pm, 3.40pm
Entrance to Shunkoin – image © Michael Lambe
Shunko-in (“Spring Light Temple”) is a private sub-temple of Myoshin-ji which dates from 1590 and is not open to the public. However, it is possible to join one of the regular morning meditation sessions here. I highly recommend doing this. For 2,500 yen, along with the meditation, you will be given a talk on Zen mindfulness, a tour of the temple and garden and finally a cup of green tea with some sweet rice crackers. This meditation, talk and tour are all given in English by the highly personable and eloquent Deputy Head Priest, Reverend Takafumi Kawakami.
Rev. Takafumi Kawakami – image © Michael Lambe
The talk he gave prior to the meditation was an excellent introduction to Zen thought and traditions and how to apply those traditions usefully and practically within your own daily life. Prior to going, I was a little worried about having to sit in a formal lotus position in order to meditate. My legs are not so flexible and I have found this uncomfortable in the past. However, our teacher reassured us that the important thing is to be comfortable and that how you sit is not as important as how your sitting helps you to relax and focus your mind. Rev. Kawakami also spoke on the practical benefits of regular meditation both mental and physical, and gave us useful tips on how to meditate. You can watch an animated video that Rev. Kawakami helped to create that presents some of these points.
Feeling refreshed after our meditation we were then given a tour of the temple’s major artworks and the garden. Again, Rev. Kawakami’s talk gave us real insights, not only into the history of this temple, but into how to appreciate both traditional Japanese art, and the layout of Japanese gardens. Several sliding door panels in the temple were painted by Eigaku Kano in the 19th century with gorgeous illustrations of Confucian precepts illustrated in gold and semi-precious minerals. The reverend pointed out that traditional art of this kind tends to be painted low on the panels because it was viewed by people seated on the floor. More recent artworks however, are painted with people seated on chairs in mind.
A more recent artwork at Shunko-in – image © Michael Lambe
He also told us how Japanese gardens are designed to be viewed from inside the building, so that you can see a contrast between the geometric shapes of the inner manmade structure and the more organic lines of the natural scenes outside.
The garden of Shunko-in – image © Michael Lambe
Finally, we were given a cup of powdered green tea along with tips on its preparation, the correct etiquette for drinking it, and some knowledge of its historical connection with Buddhism and its health benefits. All in all this was a highly instructive and enjoyable introduction to Zen temple culture and the highlight of my trip to Myoshin-ji.
To learn more about the English meditation practice and tour at Shunko-in please visit the temple blog and check the weekly schedule:
Entrance to Taizo-in – image © Michael Lambe
Taizo-in Temple is the oldest sub-temple in Myoshin-ji as it dates from 1404. It is famous for its gardens. The dry landscape garden, Motonobu-no-niwa, was designed by artist Kano Motonobu (1476 –1559) and its rocks and shrubs represent islands, streams and bridges in a three-dimensional realization of one of his paintings.
Motonobu-no-niwa – image © Michael Lambe
Following the temple stroll path you will pass between two more rock gardens. The Garden of the Sun on your left is made of lightly raked white sand. The Garden of Shade on your right is made with dark sand and the shadows cast upon it create interesting patterns on the deeply raked lines.
Garden of the Sun – image © Michael Lambe
Garden of Shade – image © Michael Lambe
Further on the view suddenly opens up to a modern pond garden, with a cleverly layered landscape suggestive of forested mountains.
The modern pond garden by Kinsaku Nakane – image © Michael Lambe
Taizo-in is open from 9am – 5pm and costs 500 yen to visit. To learn more about this temple visit their website:
Entrance to Daishin-in – image © Michael Lambe
Daishin-in, or “Great Heart Temple,” dates from 1479. It has a deceptively simple garden consisting of two strips of raked gravel divided by paved stones. The lines of the gravel closer to the verandah are perfectly straight, but on the other side of the paved stones the lines become freer, as they flow around the more natural moss garden beyond it.
Garden at Daishin-in by Kinsaku Nakane – image © Michael Lambe
It is a nice spot to stop and relax, as the furry friend I made there readily agreed.
Zen mind. Zen cat. – image © Michael Lambe
Beyond this garden is a shukubo, or lodging house which overlooks a more typical rock garden with rocks representing islands in a flowing river of sand.
The rock garden at Daishin-in – image © Michael Lambe
Daishin-in is open from 9am – 5pm and costs 300 yen to enter.
Entrance to Keishun-in – image © Michael Lambe
Keishun-in Temple was founded in 1558. It holds a series of gardens, starting with a very compact rock garden built around a well.
The rock garden at Keishun-in – image © Michael Lambe
Beyond this is a tea room from where you can enjoy a greener garden that feels like a woodland sanctuary.
The second garden at Keishun-in – image © Michael Lambe
Beyond that again is the largest garden in front of the main hall. This has a large bank of perfectly trimmed rhododendrons that must make for an impressive sight in the spring.
The third garden at Keishun-in – image © Michael Lambe
Keishun-in is open from 9am – 5pm and is 400 yen to enter.
Though the majority of the 38 sub-temples at Myoshin-ji are not open to the public, it is still nice to wander the lanes between them and have a little peep in at the gates. You should remember though, that many of these temples are also family homes, as monks do have private lives too! If you see people going about their daily business within the gates of a sub-temple, please respect their privacy and refrain from staring or taking pictures. Here is a selection of some pretty entrance gardens that I saw when I visited Myoshin-ji.
Rinka-in – image © Michael Lambe
Tensho-in – image © Michael Lambe
Reiun-in – image © Michael Lambe
Rinsho-in – image © Michael Lambe
Daitsuu-in – image © Michael Lambe
A closer view of Daitsuu-in – image © Michael Lambe
Ajiro Restaurant – image © Michael Lambe
Not far from the southern exit of the Myoshin-ji temple complex is Ajiro
Ajiro is situated to the south east of Mysohin-ji Temple complex and is open from 11am – 7pm every day, except Wednesday. Bookings can be made (in Japanese) from 9am – 5pm at 075-463-0221.
Hanazono Kaikan – image © Michael Lambe
Further along and across the road from Ajiro is the Hanazono Kaikan. This is Myoshin-ji Temple’s official lodging house, or “shukubo”, but to all intents and purposes it is really just a cheap hotel. Built of concrete, with comfortable rooms, a restaurant and a public bath, single rooms are reasonably priced at 6,500 yen a night. If this is a convenient location for you then you might consider staying here. However, for a more authentic shukubo experience, you might want to spend the night in one of the sub-temples like Shunko-in or Daishin-in. Waking up to a Zen temple garden and practicing zazen meditation in such surroundings must be a truly unforgettable experience. Shunko-in also has the added advantage of having English speaking staff.
For more information on staying at these locations please visit the following websites:
To stay at Daishin-in you must first make enquiries by telephone and speak in Japanese: 075-461-5714
Entrance to Hokongo-in Temple – image © Michael Lambe
Heading back to Hanazono Station, I saw a sign for another temple, Hokongo-in and decided to drop in. Unlike Myoshin-ji, this is not a Zen temple, but a rare example of a Ritsu sect temple, with an equally rare Heian era garden dating back over a 1,000 years. Though I am no expert on Buddhist philosophies, the difference between the two Buddhist sects was quite evident when I saw the layout of the grounds at Honkongo-in. The Zen gardens of Myoshin-ji had concentrated landscapes of symbolic meaning into relatively small plots of land. The garden at Hokongo-in however, was much more open, expansive and completely given over to natural beauty rather than lessons in abstract thought. Personally I found this rather refreshing and the maple leaves reflected in the temple’s pond were very beautiful indeed.
The expansive garden at Hokongo-in – image © Michael Lambe
Behind the pond is a waterfall that also dates from the Heian period and is the oldest artificial waterfall in Japan. The prayer hall at the back of the temple contains several magnificent Buddhist statues which are also worth viewing. An English leaflet is provided that explains what each statue represents and the other key points of the temple, but for me the highlight was definitely the garden.
Hokonogo-in garden view – image © Michael Lambe
Hokongo-in is open from 9am – 4pm and costs 500 yen to enter.
Getting to Myoshin-ji
Take the JR Sagano Line from Kyoto Station and get off at Hanazono Station. The fare is 200 yen and the trip takes 10 minutes. From Hanazono Station, cross the street outside the station and turn right. Follow the signs to Myoshin-ji. It is a five minute walk from the station in a north-easterly direction and easy to find. To find out more, visit the official temple website.
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