Nanzenj is widely considered one of the jewels of Kyoto and is popular with historians and local youngsters alike. Its sprawling grounds are steeped in a history of over one thousand years, and in more recent times it has become somewhat of a hotspot for young Japanese keen to snap a shot or two here for their social media!

  • The main gate that leads to the Nanzenji Temple complex

    The main gate that leads to the Nanzenji Temple complex

    A young couple marvel at the beauty and size of Nanzenji’s main hall

    A young couple marvel at the beauty and size of Nanzenji’s main hall

    When Myoan Eisai traveled to China in the 12th century, he returned to Japan bearing what he learned from the disciples of Zen master Linji Yixuan. Rinzai Zen, a particularly strenuous and borderline abusive school of Buddhism focused on seeing one's true nature, was born from those teachings and Nanzenji in Kyoto was established as one of the many temples dedicated to the school. Before its transformation to a Zen temple, the site was where Emperor Kameyama decided to buold his retirement home.

    Muso Soseki became the first head of the temple, although he may not recognize the place if he were to see it today, as many buildings have been added over the centuries, and dozens of fires and natural disasters have necessitated rebuilding time and time again. Over the centuries, however, Nanzenji, has become not only one of Kyoto’s most important Zen temples, but one of Japan’s most respected and frequently visited temples.

    The temple complex is made up of many smaller temples and buildings in addition to the main temple hall. Many of the outer buildings and temples can be entered for a small fee

    The temple complex is made up of many smaller temples and buildings in addition to the main temple hall. Many of the outer buildings and temples can be entered for a small fee

    Nanzenji sits at the foot of the Higashiyama mountain range, in present-day Sakyo Ward. It consists of a main temple hall as well as a string of smaller temples and gardens, surrounded by thick, lush vegetation. Zen temples have played an important role in Kyoto for centuries, being political centers as well as hubs of activity related to Buddhism, and Nanzenji is no exception.

    Beyond the temple grounds sit the Higashiyama mountains, which add a fantastic backdrop to Nanzenji

    Beyond the temple grounds sit the Higashiyama mountains, which add a fantastic backdrop to Nanzenji

    There are a dozen temples in the complex, with a handful of those open to the public at any given time (most require a small fee to enter), including Konchi-in and Tenjuan. In the main complex, the mighty wooden gate is the main attraction, popular for its association with Ishikawa Goemon, the Japanese Robin Hood immortalized in kabuki plays and loved by Japanese up and down the country. It was in this gate that the outlaw hero hid after the attempted assassination of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and not too far away that Ishikawa Goemon was executed in an iron tub full of boiling water.
    After exploring this grand gate, a winding path will lead you to the abbot’s residence to view the dry garden and a series of beautifully painted screens.

    Walking the open-air corridors of Nanzenji, which offer fantastic views over the surrounding gardens and also into rooms inside the temple, where painted screens are displayed

    Walking the open-air corridors of Nanzenji, which offer fantastic views over the surrounding gardens and also into rooms inside the temple, where painted screens are displayed

    Exploring the interior of such buildings is just as much fun as exploring the outside

    Exploring the interior of such buildings is just as much fun as exploring the outside

    There are a dozen temples in the complex, with a handful of those open to the public at any given time (most require a small fee to enter), including Konchi-in and Tenjuan. In the main complex, the mighty wooden gate is the main attraction, popular for its association with Ishikawa Goemon, the Japanese Robin Hood immortalized in kabuki plays and loved by Japanese up and down the country. It was in this gate that the outlaw hero hid after the attempted assassination of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and not too far away that Ishikawa Goemon was executed in an iron tub full of boiling water.
    After exploring this grand gate, a winding path will lead you to the abbot’s residence to view the dry garden and a series of beautifully painted screens.

    With its setting against the Eastern Hills and the Higashiyama mountain range, Nanzenji is a wonder in all seasons, but in autumn, the grounds really come to life with a large number of trees that display a fantastic array of colours. The maples around the old temples turn fiery red and the surrounding hills answer in an even deeper shade of red, with strips of yellow as far as the eye can see. Many come to the temple in late November simply to snap a photo of this beautiful autumnal foliage.

    The approach to the main temple building flanked on both sides by brilliant red colours

    The approach to the main temple building flanked on both sides by brilliant red colours

    There is also a large red-brick aqueduct that slices through the complex grounds that was constructed in the Meiji era as part of a canal system to carry water and other goods between Kyoto and neighboring Shiga. The aqueduct has long since become nothing but a relic of an earlier time, but it’s fascinating to imagine the construction project that brought fresh water to the center of Kyoto. This aqueduct has also, somewhat surprisingly, become a hotspot for young couples to come and photograph themselves for social media.

    The red-brick aqueduct that slices through the temple complex, was once used to ferry goods from the neighboring prefecture of Shiga to Kyoto city

    The red-brick aqueduct that slices through the temple complex, was once used to ferry goods from the neighboring prefecture of Shiga to Kyoto city

  • On any given day you are likely to see scores of twenty something year-olds clad in traditional wear, getting creative between the large red-brick arche’s. It certainly adds an interesting element to the temple, and allows for some up-close people watching, which can also be fun!

    A young couple enjoying the visually interesting scene of the aqueduct, making photographic memories of their trip along the way

    A young couple enjoying the visually interesting scene of the aqueduct, making photographic memories of their trip along the way

    It would not be hard to fill an entire day wandering the grounds of Nanzenji, poking around the gardens and perhaps trying to join one of the zazen classes open to the public. But there is plenty to do around this temple, too. You could make a side trip to the Nejirimanpo Brick Tunnel and the other Meiji vintage brickwork in the area, or, even better, find the southern end of the Philosopher's path and explore nearby temples, winding up eventually at Ginkakuji.

    Nanzen-ji Zen Temple
    rating

    4.5

    2140 Reviews
    place
    Kyoto Kyoutoshi Sakyou-ku Nanzenjifukuchichou
    phone
    0757710365
    opening-hour
    [12/1-2/28] 8:40-16:30 [3/1-…

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