The Grand Chion-in Temple of Kyoto

A guide to the Chion-in Temple in Kyoto

Map of Chion-in Temple

This particular temple is one of the largest and popular in all of Japan. It is located in Rinka district of the city of Higashiyama in Kyoto. It is somewhere in the eastern side of Kyoto, and is considered as the major tourist attraction in the area. It has a total area of about 14 hectares and is built on soft sloping hills. This particular temple is close to two other tourist spots known as the Maruyama Park and the Yasaka Jinja.

ttshr1970 [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

This particular temple is known to be the head temple of what is called as the Pure Land Sect of Buddhism, or Jodo-Shu. This particular sect was founded in the early 11th century and its primary teaching is that people who have reached enlightenment shall be reborn to paradise (Pure Land).

Important structures inside the Chion-In Temple

By Lombroso [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
  • Chionin Temple Bell – This particular temple bell is known to be the largest in all of Japan. It has a weight of 74 tons and a total height of 5.4 meters. It usually requires equipment and numerous men to be carried. In fact, it is so large that it requires roughly 25 men to ring it. There was a time in Japan’s history when the bell represents the power and importance of a temple. With Chionin having the largest bell and the most important Sanmon, it could only mean that the Chion-in temple was a very important structure in Japanese culture and history.
  • Chionin Temple Garden – There are two gardens inside the entire complex. One is the Hojo garden which is a popular destination for its Cherry blossoms and Autumn foliage. This garden was established in the early 1600s and still survives up to this day. The other garden inside the temple grounds is the Yuzen’en Garden which was constructed to commemorate the founder of Yuzen style dyes. It was redesigned in 1954 and is one of the most famous gardens in the country.
  • The Sanmon – This particular structure, which literally means gate of three liberations, inside the temple complex is known to be the most important gate in any Zen Buddhist temple. The gates inside a Buddhist temple usually represent a certain ideology or philosophy. These gates are the Kumon (gate of emptiness), musomon (gate of formlessness), and muganmon (gate of inaction). These are believed to be the gates of enlightenment.

It is found between the outer gate and the main hall. It is like a gate towards the “Hall of Buddha”. It is particularly important because there was a time in history when not all people are allowed to enter the main temple halls. It is a gate only for the privileged. The larger the Sanmon, the more significant the temple is and the more powerful its leaders are.  Since Chion-in has one of the largest sanmons in Japan, it means that it is one of the highest ranking.

  • The Tahoto, or the Pagoda – This is a Japanese style pagoda which literally translates to “many-jeweled pagoda”. What is interesting about this is that it has even-numbered tiers and are usually made up of only two tiers or stories. The second story is usually habitable but cannot be accessed at present times due to age. This kind of pagoda is special because it has a square base with circular upper parts – an architectural marvel of the times. The circular upper parts are known as “tortoise mounds” because that is what they literally look like.
  • The Amida hall, or the Amida-do – The Amida-do is a building inside the temple complex that enshrines the statue of the deity known as Amida. This is a Buddhist style structure with traditionally styled roofing. What is special about this particular hall is that it is grand, but not as elaborate as other ancient structures in Japan. It focuses on simplicity and that rustic-style gives off its unique beauty. The entire structure is made up of wooden columns and beams with its roofing made from clay tiles. There is a large simple stone pathway leading up to this hall.

History of the Chion-in Temple in Japan

The site for which the Chionin temple was built is believed to be the place where a monk named Honen first preached. This man was the founder of the Jodo Sect of Buddhism and in hopes of helping others reach enlightenment through him, he fasted to his death.

Although the temple was established in the early 12th century, the Tokugawa Shogunate financed its reconstruction as a means of showing the world the power of not only the Shogunate but also the Jodo sect. Since there is a promise of being reborn in Jodo (or the Pure Land), many people seek enlightenment through its teachings.

The Highlights of the Chionin Temple


The Amida, or the Amitabha, is one of the deities which are honored and worshiped in the Chionin Temple of Japan. This is the principal Buddha or the Jodo Sect and is known for his countless past lives and infinite good deeds. His name literally translates to “infinite light” pertaining to the never-ending merit he had gained from all his good doings. He is therefore known as the “Buddha of Immeasurable Life and Light”.

Chion-in Temple New Year

In Japan, the New Year celebration is important in welcoming prosperity and good luck for the coming year. This is why it is common to make a sound to drive away bad omen and bad spirits. Since the temple is home to Japan’s largest temple bell, it is only apt that it is put to good use to drive away evil spirits, and bad omens.

By OSU Special Collections & Archives : Commons [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

During the New Year celebrations of Kyoto, the gigantic bell is rung to be heard as far as the sound can reach. Since the ritual for ringing the bell is so elaborate, there are rehearsals held every year during the 27th of December. For a simple task, why is it required to have rehearsals?

First, the bell is too heavy to be rung by a single individual. Usually, it takes about 20 to 30 people to pull the strings and ring the bell. On top of that, monks need to bend over backward to strike the bell. This man, hanging on the rope, shall guide all the others on when to pull and strike the bell. He will shout ‘Hi, Hitotsu’ at each strike. The bell usually starts ringing at 10:40 PM until midnight in one-minute intervals.

Irimoya Roof Style and Nightingale Floors

The Aoyama, also known as the East Asian Hip-and-Gable roof, this is the common design of temple roofs and other ancient structures in Japan. It is believed to have been of Chinese origin which effectively spread throughout East Asia like in Korea and Japan.

What makes this special is that it is a good kind of architecture for places that experience heavy snow. It is sure that the roof will allow snow or ice to easily slide off the slope, avoiding additional weight to the roof beams.

What is interesting and special about the temple is that it was designed with nightingale floors. They were designed to literally squeak when walked upon. These are wooden plans for which the nails would rub against a clamp or a jacket to create chirping noises. This kind of interior design is actually an interesting security feature that will let inhabitants know that there are people walking around the halls. Through this, no one can go through the corridors without being detected. Many Japanese castles and temples have this kind of design.

The Hall of One Thousand Mats

There is a certain part of the temple which is a huge assembly place. It was so large that it was dubbed as the hall with one thousand mats. However, there are only about 400 tatami mats located in the entire space. This was commonly used as a place for prayer gatherings, meetings, and the like. People can go to this hall for prayer and also meditation.

The Kyozo

In every well-preserved temple, especially for a temple of this rank and importance, there are surely libraries that will house important documents and books for the monks. The Kyozo is also known as the Sutra Library because it literally has about 6,000 books of sutras and other Buddhist teachings. This library dates back to the early 1600s.

Travel Tips to Chionin Temple

Chionin Temple Opening Hours and Temple Entrance Fee

What is interesting about this place is that it never closes even at night. It is accessible 24 hours in a day, for seven days a week. Other temptravelles in Japan usually close during the New Year holidays. However, since they have a celebration or an event held every New Year, they do not close at that time. What makes it even more special is the fact that admission or entry to the temple is free of charge. People who travel to this temple will surely find the trip worthwhile.

By そらみみ [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Access to the Chionin Temple

There are different ways to get to the Chionin temple in Kyoto. Since it is located in quite a small proximity to the Maruyama Park and the Yasaka park, it is sure that there are a number of public transportation available in the area.

One way to get to the Chionin Temple is through taking the Tozai Line heading to the Higashiyama station. This trip usually takes about 15 minutes from the Kyoto station and costs about 260 yen. Roughly, from the train station, a short 10-minute walk is needed to get to the temple. On the other hand, people can take a bus from the Kyoto station to the Chionin-mae bus stop. This is roughly a 20-minute trip costing about 230 yen. From the bus stop, it will only take a few minutes towards the temple gates. There are also hiking trails near the Chionin temple going to and from the Shogunzuka mound. People can take this route as well.

Proximity to other Tourist Destinations in Japan

Kyoto once was the capital city of Japan before it was transferred to Tokyo. Since Kyoto is such a famous city – culturally rich and historically important – it might be a good idea to create an itinerary when visiting the place. There are also a number of accommodation and hotels available around the area. There are also ryokans and onsens available for those who are tired after a full day of sightseeing. There are a number of tour destinations surrounding the Chionin Temple.

  • Yasaka Shrine – Known as the Gion Temple, this is one of the most famous shrines in all of Kyoto. It is the main celebration site of the Gion Matsuri which his held every July of every year in the city.
  • Maruyama Park – Located just behind the Chionin temple, the Maruyama park is a popular destination for viewing cherry blossoms in spring. There are seats and tables laid out in the park for people to easily enjoy the Hanami celebrations.
  • Shogunzuka Mound – Located at the eastern side of the Chionin Temple, the Shogunzuka mound is a popular hiking spot for those visiting the city. It is believed that this was where Emperor Kanmu first surveyed the valley for which he would build his capital city of Kyoto.
  • Kodaiji Temple – This particular temple is located south of the Chionin temple. It is fairly small and was built to commemorate Toyotomi Hideyoshi and his wife. Unlike the Chionin temple, the Kodaiji belongs to the Zen sect of Buddhism.
  • Kiyomizudera Temple – Located a few steps away from the Kodaiji temple, this is known as the “Pure Water” temple. It belongs to the Hosso sect which is considered as one of the oldest schools of Japanese Buddhism.
  • Heian Shrine – A shrine located north of the Chionin temple, this is a fairly younger temple dedicated to the spirits of the Emperors that ruled Kyoto. In particular, it is dedicated to the first and last emperor of the city. The shrines are replicas of the original Imperial Palace from the Heian period. It is known as the Heian shrine because the word “Heian” is the old name of Kyoto when it was still the powerful ancient city that it was.