Click here to view a photo album of the Zen temples we visited.
The Heart of Zen?
“This is the heart of Zen.” While walking through Nanzen-ji temple, I overheard a man repeatedly whispering that phrase to his wife (or possibly, to himself; his spouse didn’t seem to be acknowledging him) while simultaneously snapping photos with a giant iPad in a no photo zone.
Is Kyoto the heart of Zen? While I tend to think that the heart of Zen isn’t a place at all and, if it were, it would be wherever you are right now. But if one place is the heart of Zen, Kyoto may well be it. It is, at least, the heart of the Rinzai school — one of the main branches of Japanese Zen Buddhism.
Shortly before my journey to Kyoto, I had a chance to speak with my old Zen teacher, with whom I’d long been out of touch. He referred to Kyoto as “temple city”: a title that certainly does fit. Kyoto has over 1600 temples — far too many to visit in one trip. I managed to squeeze in at least ten — from the heavily touristed Kinkaku-ji to the more remote and quieter Ikkyu-ji.
Perhaps I was looking for inspiration and motivation to renew my meditation practice with the enthusiasm I once had, though I knew that in a short trip I wouldn’t find any Zen there that I didn’t already bring with me. But I did find a few quiet spots to sit amid the crowds of other tourists also seeking the heart of Zen while simultaneously Instagramming.
Here are ten of them: click one of the images or buttons below to jump to your temple of choice, read about what to expect at temples, or just skip the summaries and read the whole post. At the end, there’s a map of the temples mentioned in this post.
Founded by an iconoclastic monk turned folk-hero, this remote temple offers some quiet away from throngs of other tourists.
Large temple in Nonomiya (Arashimaya area). Beautiful gardens…but my favorite moment was sitting on the tatami watching the rain until it stopped.
This is a subtemple of Nanzen-ji, but don’t rush by it on your way to the larger temple. Worth stopping to stroll through the gardens.
Visit the lovely gardens at Eikando Zenrinji when you walk the Philosopher’s Path.
Some Advice for Visiting Zen Temples:If you’re a tourist visiting Zen temples, here are a few things to know:
Carry a Pocket Full of Yen
If you’re familiar with visiting churches and cathedrals in Europe or North America, you may have the habit of paying for admission via credit card. Don’t expect to do this in Japan. While some shops, including some of the souvenir shops at the larger temples, may accept credit cards, I didn’t encounter a single temple that took credit card for admission.
Admission to most of the temples seemed to be in the ¥400-500 range. I carried around a pocket full of coins and smaller bills during days with heavy temple-visiting. Also, bring some small coins for offerings at some of the temples you visit.
Shoes off at the Door
If you’re a regular at Buddhist temples, you’ll be used to this — it’s a pretty hard rule to forget when you visit the temples. Most have numerous signs with English translations reminding you to remove your shoes as well as convenient places to leave your shoes on entering.
There also doesn’t seem to be any hard-and-fast rules about dress code — jeans are OK but do keep it in mind that you’re visiting temples and dress respectfully.
Also (and this should go without saying) please respect other posted rules as well. Some temples invite photography; others have posted signs requesting that visitor not take photos in certain areas — this mostly applies to indoor spaces or specific pieces of art. I know the temptation of getting a picture of that relic or impressive tiger screen, but resist.
Do I Have to Follow any Rituals?
As a foreign visitor just there to see the temple, you don’t have to follow any rituals, aside from leaving your shoes by the door, but you may wish to out of respect. If you carried small coins in with your pocket full of yen, you might find that at some temples and shrines there are places to throw these as offerings.
A couple of other things you might notice:
At Zen temples, you’ll find that many have the same purification fountains common at Shinto Shrines, used in a ritual called temizu. Here’s the procedure, using the ladle to scoop the water:
- Wash your left hand
- Wash your right hand
- Put some water in your left hand, and use it to rinse your mouth, spit the water out beside the fountain; don’t swallow.
- Return the ladle to its original position.
You might also find incense burners. If you purchase incense to burn, put it in the censer and fan the smoke toward yourself as if it were purifying or healing you.
One more thing you’ll find at each temple is a large map of the temple buildings and grounds. Most of these don’t have any English translation but can help with your sense of the layout of the grounds.
The (Ten) Zen Temples of Kyoto:
Official name: Rokuan-ji. The temple has been a World Cultural Heritage site since 1994. The golden color and lavish gardens make it one of the most visited Zen temples of Kyoto.
Called Kinkaku-ji, or the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, the pagoda is not merely golden in color. Real gold foil on lacquer actually covers its top two levels.
Each level of the temple is representative of a different style of architecture. According to the brochure from the temple, the first level is in 11th-century imperial style, the second level is in the form of the warrior aristocracy, and the top level is in the “Chinese zenshu-butsuden style.” I appreciate the discrepancy. A hodgepodge of styles plagues any decorating I try to do myself, though not in such a grand way, unfortunately.
The pavilion has been subject to more than one fire — in fact (according to the venerable Wikipedia), though the original temple was built in 1397 and undoubtedly did have some gold covering, the present structure was a 1955 rebuild after an arson and likely now has a much thicker gold coating than the original ever did.
Of course, tourists all flock to see the Golden Pavilion — but there’s much more to see here: ponds, a tea house, lovely gardens make it worth braving the crowds to visit this gem.
Not really silver, but worth a visit. Prepare for crowds — one of the busiest Zen temples of Kyoto.
According to this post, the moniker arose to contrast it with the Golden Pavilion. An alternate explanation is that the moon’s light gave it a silvery appearance.
While the temple interior is generally not open to the public, the grounds, moss garden, ponds, and rock garden are enjoyable. The rock garden features a sizeable cone-shaped structure meant to symbolize Mt. Fuji.
This large temple complex is the head of the Tofukuji sect of Rinzai Zen. While you’re there, look for the large cloud dragon on the ceiling in one of the buildings.
My photos don’t really do this temple justice — cross bridges that look over the gardens, view (the exterior of) the oldest steam bathhouse of its type, and walk through a large gate as you enter the grounds.
But my favorite part of my visit there was “discovering” the giant cloud dragon painted on the ceiling of one of the buildings. My eyes were drawn through the grate to the Buddha in the center of the room, but it was the friendly security guard that encouraged me to look up instead, and then actually encouraged me to stick my camera through the slats to get a photo.
One of the most famous Zen temples of Kyoto, there’s a lot more here to see than just the world-famous rock garden.
Ryoan-ji was originally a country house of a noble clan but became a Zen training temple in 1450. It’s been a World Heritage site since 1994.
The temple’s Zen garden is world-famous and is widely considered to be the best example of this type of garden. While it’s lovely, I visited many rock gardens in Kyoto (and some elsewhere before that). Perhaps my aesthetic sensibility is off — I enjoyed the rock garden here, but I enjoyed the rest of them just as much.
I visited near the end of my day at a time when there were many crowds — the pond there is stunning, and I noted a little island (or, perhaps I should say, peninsula) with a bright orange tori at the other side of the pond, but never made it there. There are other little islands in the pond as well, and an enticing little boat I fantasized taking out for a paddle.
5. Otagi Nembutsu-ji
Small temple with many mossy stone figures. A bit remote, but one of my favorite Zen temples of Kyoto.
However, I’m glad I didn’t miss Otagi Nembutsu-ji. It’s a bit outside of the central part of Arashimaya, a considerable walk or bus ride, but worth it.
Entering means climbing into a world of stone figures, each with their own personality — some playing sports (I noted boxing and tennis), some laughing, some praying, some serious, some comical.
The figures are of Rakan, the disciples of Buddha. Fire destroyed the temple again and again over the years and the temple was even relocated from its original location. There are approximately 1200 figures here, sculpted by supporters during the most recent restoration of the temple (1981-1991). The figures seem like they should be older, like they’ve stood watch over the temple for centuries instead of decades.
Ikkyu was an iconoclastic Zen monk known for drinking and romancing women. His temple is one of the more remote Zen temples of Kyoto. Why did I go out of my way to visit? See sentence #1.
But it was a worthwhile adventure. Aside from a group of tourists with some noisy kids, I was the only visitor at the temple at the time, and it offered a bit of quiet apart from the crowds at other temples I’d been visiting.
So, why did I venture all this way when there were so many temples I didn’t see closer to the city center? Ikkyu himself.
I’m not much of a rebel myself but are drawn to stories of rebels or people who operated a bit out of the mainstream. Ikkyu, the Zen priest and poet who founded this temple (official name: Shuon-an) fits the description. Known for drinking, sex, and breaking other Buddhist taboos, writing poems such as:
Lots of arms, just like Kannon the Goddess;
Sacrificed for me, garnished with citron, I revere it so!
The taste of the sea, just divine!
Sorry, Buddha, this is another precept I just cannot keep.
Ikkyu claimed that his behavior was part of his enlightenment.
While I’d question that if someone made that claim today, I can agree with the quote from Ikkyu on his cenotaph:
Do not do badness. Do the right thing.
If only we always knew what the right thing was…
Ikkyu-ji, his temple and the place he spent his final years, died, and was buried, was worth a visit. Visitors there can find a quiet place to sit, can find a moment of tranquility gazing at it’s Zen garden. The grounds are beautiful in the Spring — in the fall, they’re said to come alive with Autumn colors.
There’s an area near the cemetery there that has stone figures lining the path (though not as much as at Otagi Nembutsu-ji), and if you like relics and things like that, there’s a wooden statue of Ikkyu that’s said to have Ikkyu’s own hair planted on its head and mustache. I respect signs that say “no photography”…so no photo here, though there’s one on the temple’s website.
If you visit, go into the small Museum Treasury, which was put in place to display and protect the ink writings of Ikkyu. But other treasures are on display here, as well — there’s a skull, which I assume is the one that Ikkyu used on his staff, a Rakusu (which I hope was Ikkyu’s…I don’t read Japanese), and several caricatures of Ikkyu.
Ikkyu became such a folk hero in Japan that there’s even an anime about him.
While you’re at Ikkyu-ji, if the kitchen is open, you can also sample the Ikkuji Natto. If you’re not familiar with Natto, it’s a type of fermented soybean that’s commonly eaten in Japan and said to be very healthy. The recipe at Ikkyu-ji is said to be handed down by Ikkyu himself.
Combine a visit to this temple with a walk on the Philosopher’s Path…and make sure to buy a tea ticket and stop to sip some matcha while gazing at the waterfall. Nanzen-ji was one of the top five Zen temples of Kyoto.
Nanzen-ji began in 1264, was ranked above the five great Zen temples of Kyoto, and is the head temple of the Rinzaishu-Nanzenji school of Zen Buddhism. The buildings you’ll see today are from 1570-1600, as the original buildings were destroyed during three fires.
While you’re at the temple, when you’re done viewing the Zen garden and looking at the tiger screen, make sure you buy a tea ticket. When you’re ready for tea, just sit on the tatami in the tea room, gaze at the waterfall, and someone will be by to take your ticket and serve you tea. Relax.
Zen temples of Kyoto are frequently World Cultural Heritage Sites. This one has astonishly beautiful gardens.
Tenryu-ji has been through eight since its founding in 1339, so most of its buildings date to the Meiji period (1868-1912).
Like Tofukuji, Tenryu-ji has a large and impressive cloud dragon painting in the Dharma hall. However, it only dates back to 1997, replacing an older cloud dragon that could not be restored (though the put the remaining part of it on display occasionally). I missed Tenryuji’s ceiling cloud dragon as it’s only open to the public on weekends and certain other days, but there was a large cloud dragon behind glass in a hallway.
The gardens are stunning; however, my favorite part of my visit was when a rainstorm started outside, and I was in the open but covered, tatami area. Sitting on the tatami and gazing out at the pond and gardens while the rain fell was a needed break in a busy day of sightseeing.
One of the smaller Zen temples of Kyoto that many hurry past on their way to the larger Nanzen-ji, Konchi-in is renowned for its “Crane and Turtle” dry garden.
I don’t have any decent photos of the renowned “Crane and Turtle” garden, but it’s a dry Zen-style garden. I enjoyed strolling on the paths at this temple; there’s a tea house here as well, but tickets are separate from the main temple.
Eikan-do Zenrinji is, techinically, not a “Zen” temple, though is the same in appearance. It started out as a Shingon temple, and now is of the Jodo (Pure Land) school.
Technically, I guess Eikan-do is not really a Zen temple, as it’s of the Jodo sect, but shares the same features as the other Zen temples. I particularly loved the waterfall in the gardens, and a quiet altar room with an area where you could stop and sit for a bit (but close the screen behind you to prevent “monkey invasion”…perhaps I liked this sign more than the actual room itself).