The Nanzen-ji Temple Complex

The Nanzen-ji, (南禅寺) is the first cultural stop on our nakasendo journey. This temple complex will be your introduction into just how magical these places can be in Japan. This zen temple complex is one of the five great zen temples of Kyoto. It is well worth pausing momentarily to take in the massive Sanmon Gate, that stands majestically on the path to the Main Temple, the sublte karesansui (dry zen style travel garden) of the Hatto Hall, the expansive main hall and the wide walkways that encourage meditative strolling.

Best of all, the main complex is surrounded by small but excellent sub-temples, each of which is well worth a visit. These include Konchi-in, Nanzen-in, and the Tenju-an. The Meiji era aqueduct that runs through the temple grounds is also impressive in its own right and worth exploring.  In fact this complex has 62 temples, and so it is not possible to dedicate enough time to see everything.  Entrance to the Sanmon Gate and Hatto Hall are included in the tour.

What to see at Nanzen-ji

•Sanmon Gate;
•Hatto Hall and the karesansui garden;
•The Hojo;
•The aqueduct

Interesting Historical tid-bits

From an historical point of view, this temple is rather interesting. It was gifted to Zen Buddhism by Emperor Kameyama (13th century). Apparently, as legend foretells, he had built a summer villa at the temples current location. However, it was haunted with a number of supernatural happenings.

The emperor tried a number of remedies that were unsuccessful before inviting a zen monk named Fumon to rid his residence of these supernatural occurrences. Rather than chanting, Fumon seated himself within the villa grounds and meditated forcing out the evil apparitions. Impressed with the outcome Emperor Kameyama dedicated the lower portion of his palace grounds to Zen Buddhism so that Zen Meditation could be practiced there.

Unwittingly, the Emperor had established a second place of worship in a new style of Buddhism in opposition to the warrior monks on Mount Hiei. As you might expect, the monks came down from their mountain complex and sacked the Nanzen-ji burning it to the ground.

The Temple was burnt down and rebuilt or restored a number of times (1393, 1447 and 1597), including the 15th Century Onin Civl War that decimated the original temple buildings. Toyotomi Hideyoshi restored the buildings and donated a Buddha Hall to the Nanzen-ji. It was also gifted some land around this time - some 27 forested acres.

The sanmon gate constructed in 1296 was also demolished in 1447. It was rebuilt in 1616 by the ruling Tokugawa Clan and now stands in dedication to the dead soldiers of 1616. The complex comprises of 62 other temples built between 1616 and 1668.

The Nanzen-ji became one of the Five Great Zen Temples of Kyoto. As headquarters of the Nazen-ji branch of the Rinzai school of Zen it is also one of the most important zen temples in the world.  

Rinzai Zen was introduced to Japan by the Chinese Priest Ensai in 1191 and has a strong emphasis on the use of koans, paradoxical puzzles or questions with the purpose of assisting the practitioner to overcome normal boundaries of logic.

Sanmon Gate

The gate is 22 metres high and also known as the Tenka Ryumon – the greatest Dragon Gate on earth) and is considered one of the three great gates in Kyoto (the other two being the Sanmon Gate at the Chion-in Temple and the Goedomori Gate at the Higashi Hongan-ji Temple).

The gate is in the Zen style including a gabled roof of baked clay tiles and with 5 pillars and three entrances, symbolising the three roads to Buddhist liberation. The gate was rebuilt by Todo Takatora (a feudal lord in the 1600s) after it was burnt down from fire at the time of its construction.

You will be able to clamber up the steep wooden steps inside the gate to the second floor and take in the commanding view across Kyoto. You can walk around the balcony and see some of the different sub-temple buildings that make up this complex. Behind the gate is the Hatto (Dharma Hall), a large lecture hall which cannot be entered by the public.

The outlook to the  Hatto is particularly impressive as the path is lined with many maple trees and is rather spectacular during the autumn. Looking inside the gate you will be able to take a peek at the many Buddhist statues and treasures stored inside.

This gate is also famous for a kabuki scene from the play Sanmon Gosan no Kiri (The Golden Paulownia Crest) that features Ishikawa Goemon – a Japanese Robin Hood character who hid inside this gate until his capture.  This play was written expressly for kabuki and in its original format consisted of five acts.  The play was an all-day event.  In modern times only the one act is performed with Goemon and Samon Gate at the focal point.

This was the most famous act titled “Sanmon Gosan no Kiri” (“The Temple Gate and the Paulownia Crest”) in which Goemon is first seen sitting on top of the Sanmon gate at the Nanzen-ji. He is smoking an over-sized silver pipe called a kiseru and exclaims “The spring view is worth a thousand gold pieces, or so they say, but ’tis too little, too little. These eyes of Goemon rate it worth ten thousand!” Goemon soon learns that his father, a Chinese man named So Sokei, was killed by Mashiba Hisayoshi (often used in kabuki as an alias referring to Hideyoshi) and he sets off to avenge his father’s death.

Temple Complex

Past the Hojo is the former head priest’s residence and the Nanzen-ji’s main hall. The Hojo is famous for its rock garden. The rocks are said to resemble tigers and cubs crossing through water. The fusuma (sliding doors) are also highly valued pieces of art, with realistic depictions of tigers done in gold leaf. Interestingly, the entrance to the Hojo is through the former temple kitchen (kuri), and if you glance to the right you can find a small tea room with a view of a miniature waterfall.

Behind the Hojo you may notice a rather odd sight. A Meiji Era (1868-1912) large brick aqueduct that passes through the temple complex. The aqueduct was part of a canal system that was constructed to carry water and goods between Kyoto and Lake Biwa in neighboring Shiga Prefecture – where we will be heading next to visit Hikone Castle.

The Nanzen-in Temple is located behind the aqueduct and the former location of Emperor Kameyama’s original retirement villa. There is a mausoleum of the former emperor, a temple hall and a garden with a pond that is particularly pretty in the autumn that can be found here.

A short distance away is another small sub-temple called the Tenjuan Temple dedicated to the Zen Master who served Emperor Kameyama in his religious studies. A small hall, gate and study that date to the 17th century. This sub-temple is known for its two small rock gardens and ‘pond garden’ that is also particularly pretty in the autumn when illuminated in the evenings.

The Aqueduct

Outside the Hojo visitors will come across a rather peculiar sight - a large brick raised aqueduct running through the temple complex.  It was built during the Meiji Period (1868 - 1912) as part of a canal system created to transport water and goods between Kyoto and Lake Biwa in neighbouring Shiga Prefecture.

The aqueduct is 93 meters in length, 14 meters high and water flows along it at a rate of 2 tonnes every second.  It was built in the style of Roman raised aqueducts and today has a pedestrian walkway along the top.  Interestingly, while all the rivers in Kyoto flow southward, the incline of the aqueduct has been carefully calculated so that water flows northward.  

At the time of its construction there was a lot of opposition from the locals.  However, due to its vital role in delivering fresh water to Kyoto and now a little over 100 years old its colour has faded giving off a muted atmosphere with moss covered brick that blend in so well with the aesthetics of the temple complex.  

Next, we head to Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture, the source of Kyoto's water and our first night accommodation on the nakasendo.