Zen Temples of Kyoto
Kozanji temple

Zen Temples of Kyoto


Zen Buddhism has a long history since it was imported to Japan from China in the 12th century, replacing an earlier form of Buddhism. It has certainly left its aesthetic mark on the landscape of Kyoto, due to the vast number of temples throughout the city and surrounding mountains. It might be an interesting challenge to attempt to wander through the city without catching sight of one, because there are more than 1600 temples here.

Artistry is at the heart of the Japanese Zen temple architecture and garden design. The temples are a mirror that reflects the culture of a people who value diligence and formality, as well as subtle elegance. The gardens of Zen temples were designed for contemplation and meditation. Their creation aims to bring elements of nature (such as water, stone and space) into harmony. The composition of “natural” objects conceals profound meanings and integrates philosophy and spirituality in its nuances.

Aside from the temples’ ongoing function as places of practice and worship, they also provide opportunities for the residents and visitors to enjoy diverse architectures and spectacular, well-maintained gardens. In this article, we take a whirlwind tour through 7 temples, each wonderful and unique in its own way.

I loved the quiet places in Kyoto, the places that held the world within a windless moment. Inside the temples, Nature held her breath. All longing was put to sleep in the stillness, and all was distilled into a clean simplicity.The smell of woodsmoke, the drift of incense; a procession of monks in black-and-gold robes, one of them giggling in a voice yet unbroken; a touch of autumn in the air, a sense of gathering rain.

Tenryuji, Arashiyama

Tenryuji temple, Kyoto

A short journey to the west of town lies Mt Arashi (Arashiyama) and the popular destination of Tenryuji. Established in 1339, Tenryuji is one of Kyoto’s thirteen world heritage listed temples. The garden is maintained in its original design. Generation upon generation of monks have adhered to the principles set out almost 700 years ago when the garden was designed in harmony with the surrounding landscape.

Visitors here can dine at Shigetsu, and experience the uniquely Zen Buddhist cuisine shojin ryori. Originally the diet of monks, a shojin ryori meal is vegetarian dishes prepared with a focus on aesthetics. In all aspects of a Zen monastic life, consideration of aesthetics is part of the daily life and food is no exception.

The experience doesn’t stop at the temple gates. Arashiyama is noted for its bamboo forest. This stunning path through lush, green bamboo is adjacent to the gardens of Tenryuji. It’s a magical way to cap off a contemplative visit to the temple.

Sagano bamboo forest, zen garden in Arashiyama, Kyoto


Grounds of Shunkoin temple, Kyoto

Western travellers who want to be more hands-on with their temple experiences would do well to visit Shunkoin. The deputy head priest (Rev Taka) is fluent in English and very active in promoting meditation and mindfulness techniques.

Shunkoin is not open for casual visits, but there are ongoing Zen mindfulness and philosophy classes held in both English and Japanese (details on their blog Shunkoin Temple Today)

The dry stone garden at Shunkoin is raked daily with care. These Zen gardens can be found throughout temples in Kyoto. They serve as an abstract imitation of nature and are designed to help the observer comprehend the true nature of life.

Saihouji, Matsuo

Moss garden at Saihou-ji temple, Kyoto

One of the earliest examples of Zen gardens is the moss garden of Saihouji. It was originally a garden of fine sand, but a period of neglect in the 19th century (a millennium after it was created) transformed it into a paradise for around 120 varieties of moss. Evidently, this accidental transformation only increased its beauty as it is maintained in its mossy form until today.

The garden pre-dates the introduction of Zen Buddhism to Japan. It is on a small island in the middle of a pond shaped to resemble the written word for heart and mind, kokoro 心

Saihouji has other gardens, including a traditional dry stone garden, and collectively they are recognised as a historical landmark and Special Place of Scenic Beauty – a high level official government recognition of the importance of the site.

Rokuonji, Kita-ku

Reflections of Kinkakuji in the snow, Kyoto

Another one of the Special Places of Scenic Beauty is Kyoto’s most enduringly popular and grand temples, Rokuonji. Its drawcard building is Kinkakuji – the Golden Pavillion. Visitors stream to this location all year around to see the fantastic, 3-tiered golden building shining and reflecting on the still lake. The three separate floors of the pavilion are each constructed in distinct architectural styles.

Like most of the temples in Kyoto, this is not the original building. Most have been restored or completely rebuilt. The Golden Pavilion was destroyed and rebuilt only recently. In 1950, after having been spared destruction for over 500 years, it was burnt to the ground by a young acolyte as a personal vendetta against beauty. His tragic story is captured in the novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.

Yatadera, Teramachidori

Lanterns of Yata-dera temple at night

Not all temples are grand and majestic. Teramachidori (lit. temple town street) in the centre of town is now a touristy shopping arcade, but historically it was a street dedicated to temples, dating back to the early 16th century. You can still visit a temple here. Nestled between souvenir stores and offering a modicum of serenity amidst the hustle, Yatadera is open into the evening and is brightly lit with candles and lanterns.


kiyomizudera at night, Kyoto

An hour’s walk east, to the edge of the CBD, across the Kamo river and up the steep slope of Otawa you will find one of Japan’s most famous temples, Kiyomizudera (pure water temple).  This extremely popular destination for locals and tourists alike is a majestic wooden temple – all constructed without a single nail. For tourists, it is a must-see for those who appreciate Japanese art, culture, garden landscape and architecture, as well as to view a stunning panorama of the city beyond a sea of cherry and maple trees.

The walk to the top can either be a pulse-racing dash, or a stroll past vendors selling traditional sweets. Finally arriving at the top, visitors are welcomed to Kiyomizudera with a vast balcony where you can catch your breath. The balcony has a 13 meter drop and it was once said that if you jumped and survived your wish would come true. Don’t try this yourself though, as the practice is now banned – apparently only 85% of those who jumped survived! (No statistics are given about how many of those survivors had their wish granted).

Throughout the compound, there are many beautiful traditional scroll paintings and fine examples of calligraphy on display. The previous Chief Abbot Ryokei Wajo was a master who continued to produce great works until he passed away at the age of 109. There are also beautiful picture scrolls on display, amongst other cultural relics.


Forest steps of Kouzan-ji temple in Kyoto

Far away from the bustle, nestled in thick forest, Kouzanji is an unassuming place for the invention of one of the modern times’ cherished art forms. It is said that in this place the first manga was created. The monk Toba Sojo created the Scroll of Frolicking Animals. The five scenes depict various animals in actions which are thought to possibly be satirical responses to court and religious life. The scrolls have no written words and are considered a national treasure.

Kouzanji is one of many temples that feature in the book The Old Capital, by Nobel Prize winner for Literature Yasunari Kawabata. In that story, the protagonist Chieko’s story unfolds among the backdrops of some of Kyoto’s memorable shrines and temples. While visiting Kouzanji, Chieko sees a reproduction of the Scroll of Frolicking Animals.

These have been just a handful of the many beautiful, historical temples that lend much to the atmosphere of this city. If you are fortunate enough to visit Kyoto, may you too share in the sense of peace and wonder.


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