A Glimpse of Kyoto's Beautiful Nanzen-ji Temple

In Kyoto alone, there are over 1,000 temples, varying in design and size. Some of them are more popular with tourists than the others, such as Ginkakuji. Another popular temple with a rich history is the Nanzen-ji temple. Here is a quick overview of Nanzen-ji temple. 

Nanzen-ji is a Zen Buddhist Temple established in 1291 by Emperor Kameyama on the site of his detached former palace. Founded in the middle Kamakura Period, destroyed by fire in 1393, 1447, again in 1467, rebuilt in 1597 and expanded during the Edo Era, Nanzen-ji is one of the five Great Zen Temples of Kyoto. 

The 22-meter high gate at the entrance of the temple called Sanmon gate, which was originally built by Todo Takadora in memory of those who had died in the siege of Osaka Castle in 1615, was rebuilt at the beginning of the 17th century in Higashiyama. It is also here where you can see beautiful cherry blossom trees that bloom during a segment of spring. 

lienyuan lee [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The History of Nanzen-ji Temple, found in Northern Higashiyama, Kyoto

Nanzen-ji has an interesting legend - it is said that when Emperor Kameyama retired to his palace in Kyoto, disturbing events started to happen. Doors opened by themselves and the royal family felt ghostly hands press on them.  A Buddhist priest was summoned to perform an exorcism.  He burned incense, chanted, and prayed, but nothing happened.  

The emperor then called a Zen priest named Fumon, who sat down in the palace and started to meditate.  After he had finished, the ghost was gone. Emperor Kameyama was so impressed with the power of Zen that he bequeathed half of his palace to Fumon to enable him to teach Zen there. The Emperor also became a student in the new school, giving himself the title of Great Priest.

Roots of Zen

This was the beginning of the strong foothold of the Zen sect of Buddhism, which was introduced from China barely a century before. Even the royal family was not spared from its influence. After the Zen movement had taken over Nanzen-ji, five more Zen temples sprouted in Kyoto, all under the stewardship of Nanzen-ji. Of course, the Buddhist monks at Mount Hiei did not take this lightly.  In 1393, they marched on Nanzenji and burned it to the ground. 

The temple was then rebuilt, followed by being severely damaged in another fire half a century later, and then destroyed in 1467 during the Onin War. One hundred thirty years later, it was rebuilt for the last time.

By BriYYZ from Toronto, Canada (Zen Garden, Nanzen-ji Temple) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

More about the Garden by the Nanzen-ji Temple

Most of the old garden was lost in the repeated fires that ravaged Nanzen-ji Temple. A new Zen garden, called the Leaping Tiger Garden, was created by Koburi Enshu after 1611 and is an excellent representative of the dry garden (karensansui) style.  The rock garden is famous for its rocks that are said to resemble tigers and cubs crossing through the water, or as a turtle and a crane, which incidentally were animals associated with the Isles of the Immortals. What is strikingly unusual about this rock and gravel garden are the large rocks grouped with maples, pines, and moss, located against a plain white wall behind the raked gravel. 

The Story of the Aqueduct in the Temple Grounds of Nanzen-ji

Outside the Hojo, the former head priest’s residence and Nanzen-ji’s main hall is a large brick aqueduct that traverses the temple grounds.  The aqueduct, also known as “Suirokaku”, was constructed during the Meiji Period (1868-1912) and is part of a canal system that was constructed to carry goods and water between the Kyoto and Lake Biwa in neighboring Shiga Prefecture. 

By BriYYZ from Toronto, Canada (Viaduct, Nanzen-ji Temple) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Built in 1890, the raised red brick aqueduct is part of the Lake Biwa Canal which supplies to this day, 97% of Kyoto’s water. The aqueduct is 93 meters long, 4 meters wide and 14 meters high.  Water flows along it at 2 tons per second. Another name that Suirokaku goes by is simply “Kyoto Aqueduct”.

Visit Oku-no-in Shrine: A Hidden Gem near Nanzen-ji Temple

The Oku-no-in Shrine is located up a hill and in the woods about 200 meters east of Nanzen-ji Temple. Said to be the best part of Nanzen-ji overlooked by most visitors, the small shrine is hidden in a forested hollow where pilgrims pray standing under the falls, sometimes even during winter.  This is not surprising because the way to the shrine is a small, unmarked dirt path that runs out the back of Nanzen-ji.  

Oku-no-in is found beneath a mountain waterfall that has made its mark into a cleft of a rock.  The walk on the way there passes through a mountain forest lined and full of bamboo groves, tall maples, and leafy ferns.  There are small washbasins and prayer stop shrines along the carved stone steps of the path.  What sets this shrine apart from the rest is the audible water gurgling that seem to whisper that one is entering a special place. This hidden secret waterfall grotto located about 200 meters up in the hills behind the temple is the literal and figurative highpoint on Nanzen-ji.

Enjoy the Culture of Japan at Nanzen-ji Temple: Experience a Personal Tea Ceremony

Near the front of the Nanzen-ji Temple complex is a traditional tea room.  One can sit in these beautiful quarters and experience the cha-no-yu tea ceremony with an extraordinarily impressive view of a waterfall and drink hot green tea.  The matcha tea is accompanied by “wagashi”, a traditional Japanese sweet. 

One can sit in the room, relax, and sip tea, and unwind for as long as one wishes with no time limit.  Also, within the grounds of Nanzenji is the Nomura Art Museum, where the focus is on the tea ceremony and Noh.

Eat at the Nanzenji Junsei Restaurant

Though Nanzenji is most commonly associated with the temple, there are a few restaurants that also carry this name. One of them, the Nanzenji Junsei, is essentially a tofu restaurant. It serves steaming hotpots of delicious tofu, accompanied by a host of meats, fish or vegetables with numerous side dishes making for a unique and tasty dining experience. 

The dinner setting is next to a beautiful garden and the service is pleasant and efficient.  The soybean milk served before the meal is reputedly one of the best.  The dishes are beautifully presented and taste good, light but not bland.  The restaurant set up is very traditionally Japanese—with gardens that feature multiple waterfalls and meandering streams.  The water in the waterfalls and streams is clean and attractive, with numerous koi in the ponds. The pines and trees were nicely pruned.

Rated 4 out of 5 by 230 reviewers on TripAdvisor, Nanzenjei Junsei takes 114th place out of Kyoto’s 13,104 restaurants. Among individual ratings of service, value, food, and atmosphere, it scores highest in the aspect of the atmosphere (4.5 stars) while the value is its lowest at 3.5 stars. Service and food both score 4 stars. Located at Nanzenjikusagawacho, Sakyoku, Kyoto 606-8437, Kyoto Prefecture, Nanzenji Junsei offers has vegetarian options and is open from 11 A.M until 8 P.M. 

Have the Best Tofu Ever at Okutan Nanzenji

What is so unique about Okutan Nanzenji is that it allows a serene break from the world—a quiet mindful meal of pure vegetarian food of the type served to monks in the monastery next door.  Okutan provides a wonderful meal in a peaceful garden setting, complete with shoji screens and tatami mats. The tofu dishes are excellent, especially the sesame tofu. 

The food is served in a series of courses, but starts with sesame tofu and yam soup, followed by fried tofu on sticks, then boiled tofu in heated bowls, followed by seaweed, okra, melon and sweet potato tempura, rice with pickles and tea.  Savor the experience as much as the meal, with charming service seated in front of a beautiful temple garden. One will never think of tofu in the same way again.

Rated 4 out of 5 by 59 reviewers on TripAdvisor, Okutan Nanzenjei takes 1,380th place out of Kyoto’s 13,104 restaurants. Among individual ratings of service, value, food, and atmosphere, it scores highest in food and atmosphere, both at 4 stars, while the lowest scorer is valued at 3 stars. Service is 3.5 stars and food scores 4 stars. Okutan Nanzenji is located at 86-30 Fukuchicho Nanzenji Sakyoku, Kyoto 606-8435, Kyoto Prefecture.

Hotels near Nanzen-ji Temple

If you want a hotel or ryokan that’s located near Nanzen-ji, you have several options that you can pick from, depending on your budget and situation. 

  • In case you don’t mind a 3.2-kilometer distance from Nanzeji Temple, the Hotel Nikko Princess Kyoto will surely offer you a satisfying experience. A night here can be costly at 23,595 yen per night, however, the hotel has been showered with praises by reviewers, incurring 4.5 stores out of 1,117 reviewers on TripAdvisor. Among the 407 hotels in all of Kyoto, Hotel Nikko Princess Kyoto sits at 19th place. Their rooms are spacious, and the entire hotel has a very traditional, yet cozy atmosphere to it. 
  • A slightly more expensive hotel with a short distance of .5 a kilometer away from the Nanzen-ji temple is The Westin Miyako Kyoto. At around 40,000 yen a night, you get premium service that includes a magnificent breakfast buffet, pool access, and room service. As it is very popular with tourists with currently 2,601 reviews on TripAdvisor, it’s important to note that this hotel is a non-smoking hotel. With its clean, spacious, and comfortable rooms, The Westin Miyako Kyoto is quick to run out of booking slots. It is given a 4-star rating on TripAdvisor and is ranked 54 out of the 407 hotels in Kyoto. 
  • Kyoto Traveler’s Inn is a nearer and much cheaper option. It is only .08 of a kilometer away and costs less than 10,000 yen a night. For its price, it offers decent amenities, such as free wifi, non-smoking rooms, dry cleaning, a restaurant, and air conditioning. While it isn’t necessarily near means of transportation – like a train station, it is near many favorites for sightseeing around Tokyo – one of them being the Nanzen-ji temple. Out of the 217 reviews, it got on TripAdvisor, it garnered a rating of 3.5 stars, and is currently ranked as 163rd out of Kyoto’s 407 hotels. The address of Kyoto Traveler’s Inn is 91 Okazaki Enshojicho, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto 606-8344, Kyoto Prefecture on the map.
By KimonBerlin (https://www.flickr.com/photos/kimon/2636723390/) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Visit the Pantip Website to Read about an Experience of Travellers in Nanzen-ji

Pantip is a website that has forums written in Thai language and is very popular in Thailand to discuss ideas, and to report findings online. If you’re from Thailand and would like to travel or tour Kyoto sometime to explore from Gion to Nanzen-ji, there is an entry about a Thai man’s four-day trip to Kyoto in the Pantip website that could help guide you. He details his entire trip (including his visit to the Nanzen-ji temple), which can give you tips on what to add to your itinerary. He even takes photos of the leaves changing colors, as he visited during the Koyo front, which happens during Autumn, and ends around December.