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Special Feature on Rinzai Sect

Take a Spontaneous Temple Tour


Recently, I had some business in Osaka, and the entire day before was free, so I decided to visit Kyoto.
In this trip, I visited four temples of the Rinzai sect.
I embarked on this journey without any prior preparation, using just the subway and buses, making it a truly spontaneous temple tour.
I've written down my experiences and impressions exactly as what I felt at that moment.
Some of my observations might come off as a bit critical, and there might be things I've misunderstood. However, I would appreciate it if you could read it with an open mind, considering it as the perspective of a single tourist.

Grounds of Myoshin-ji Temple
Grounds of Myoshin-ji Temple

Breathtaking views at Nanzen-ji Temple (located in Nanzen-ji, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto City)

First, I headed to Nanzen-ji using the subway from Kyoto Station.
Given the prominence of the temple, the subway gate had a clear sign indicating the exit for "Nanzen-ji". I had to walk a bit after leaving the station, but I was able to get to the temple without any issue.

Entrance to the approach of Nanzen-ji Temple
Entrance to the approach of Nanzen-ji Temple


・The temple is famous for the legend of Ishikawa Goemon. ・Well-maintained and clean, with consideration for visitors. ・Few explanations available, so prior research is necessary. Nanzen-ji Temple is the head temple of the Nanzen-ji branch of the Rinzai sect.
Established in 1291 by the Daimyo Kokushi, it is located on the eastern side of Kyoto City.
The temple is famous for the kabuki play "Sanmon Gosan no Kiri", which tells the legend of Ishikawa Goemon climbing on the temple's Sanmon gate and exclaiming "What a breathtaking view, what a breathtaking view!". Indeed, the view from atop the Sanmon is breathtaking, with the blue mountains in the distance.
Buildings constructed when the temple was founded no longer exist, having been destroyed in a fire during the Muromachi period.
The existing structures were built after the Momoyama period.
Note: Permission from the temple is required to publish photos of the grounds. I couldn't obtain permission due to time constraints, so no photos are included.

What I loved about Nanzen-ji Temple:

①It's clean and well-maintained.
One of the standout features of Nanzen-ji Temple was its cleanliness.
As mentioned, the Sanmon, associated with the "Ishikawa Goemon legend", allows visitors to go inside. To reach the top, however, you must climb a very steep staircase.
While climbing up the stairs is somewhat manageable, descending can be terrifying since you can see straight down.
Yet, when there were not so many visitors there, temple staff were seen wiping and cleaning this steep staircase. When I asked one of them, they mentioned that they clean it every day.
Personally, I'd be too scared to clean it.
Apart from this, there were no weeds on the grounds, which suggests tha they maintained and cleaned the temple on a regular basis.

②The acrylic panels and metal mesh had holes, making it easier to see the Buddhist statues. Another good point was that in places where important items were displayed, they were protected behind acrylic panels or metal mesh. However, parts of these barriers were cut out, making it very easy to see inside.
Many tourists come from abroad, so it's kind and helpful for them if Buddhist statues and paintings are easy to see.

Disappointing points about Nanzenji Temple

①There was limited information about the temple. The first issue was the lack of information about the temple. Some tourists might wonder, "What is this temple about?" Upon entering the gate that Ishikawa Goemon once climbed, I received a pamphlet for worship. However, the pamphlet did not include a map, so even though it had descriptions of the buildings, it was hard to figure out which building they were referring to. Additionally, there was a video guide playing at the main hall of Nanzenji Temple, but the English subtitles were very small, making it difficult for foreign visitors to read.

②A colorful compact car was parked in a photogenic spot. Within the temple grounds of Nanzenji, there are smaller temples known as "tatchu" where monks conduct the training.
I understand that temples are primarily places of practice, not tourist spots. However, in front of a beautiful, moss-covered gate of one of these tatchu, two colorful compact cars were parked. It felt like a waste to have such a picturesque spot obstructed by cars.
Those who came to take photos probably couldn't capture that spot, which must have been disappointing.

Gazed at by the dragon at Myoshin-ji Temple (located in Hanazono Myoshin-ji Town, Ukyo Ward, Kyoto City)

Next, from Nanzenji, I took a short walk to a bus stop, took on a bus, and headed to Myoshin-ji. The bus ride took about 40 minutes, swaying gently along the route.
Since I usually drive myself, it was nice to sit back and enjoy the view outside.
There was a bus stop named "Myoshin-ji," and there were big signboards after getting off, so I was able to head to the temple without getting lost.

Sanmon of Myoshinji-Temple
Sanmon of Myoshinji-Temple


・Japan's largest Zen temple. The whole temple feels like a town. ・Incredible consideration for tourists in terms of facilities. ・Some minor oversights were disappointing. Myoshin-ji Temple is the head temple of Myoshin-ji branch the Rinzai Sect.
It was founded by Master Muso in 1337. It's located in the Ukyo Ward's Hanazono area, a place that once blossomed with flowers throughout the seasons. It's said that the temple was constructed based on an imperial villa built by Emperor Hanazono who loved this location.
Within the grounds of Myoshin-ji, there are about 46 "tatchu" (smaller temples). It's said to be the largest Zen temple in Japan. Despite being within the temple's grounds, it felt like walking through a town.
The ceiling of the main hall has a painting of a cloud dragon by Kanō Tan'yū, said to make eye contact "from any angle of 360 degrees." It was incredibly magnificant.

What I Loved about Myoshin-ji Temple:

①Barrier-free facilities and consideration for the elderly. One of the impressive things about Myoshin-ji Temple was the installation of gentler stairs next to the original steep ones.
Old buildings tend to have steep and narrow stairs, where one might easily misstep. However, with stairs that aren't too high and are wider, I think they are much easier for the elderly and small children to take.

Stairs newly built (Backside)
Stairs newly built (Backside)

Furthermore, all the small steps in the corridors inside the buildings were equipped with slopes. The elderly can sometimes fall down even at the small stairs, so I thought such considerations would be very helpful and appreciated by them.

②Plenty of Signboards, Making Navigation Easy Another good point was that there were many signboards. It was my first time visiting Myoshin-ji Temple. At the temple's entrance, there was a map displaying many "tatchu" (small temples), and I was initially overwhelmed, wondering, "Where should I go?" However, with signboards installed at various places within the temple grounds, it became clear that I should simply follow them for my visit.
Additionally, the pamphlet I received when touring the main hall included a map of the entire temple grounds. There was also a separate map for the inside of the main hall. Despite the vastness of the temple, these tools ensured I could tour without getting lost.

The backside of the pamphlet featured an illustration of Unryu (cloud dragon)
The backside of the pamphlet featured an illustration of Unryu (cloud dragon)

Things that were disappointing at Myoshin-ji Temple:

①Loud voices from the staff members.
The next point of disappointment came during my tour of the main hall, Ohojo (Large Guest House), and Daikuri (the kitchen area for monks). From the temple office situated adjacent to the corridor, I could hear loud voices. Though I didn't understand the technical terms they were using, it seemed they were discussing some temple event or something of the sort over the phone.
Despite the pamphlet advising visitors to "Please refrain from private conversations as it may disturb others," the temple staff were speaking quite loud, which made the message seem not persuasive.
I wondered if perhaps the person on the other end of the call was hard of hearing. However, given the opportunity to view such a valuable building, I wished I could have done so in a more peaceful environment.

②Lack of updated information at the entrance. This might have been something I neglected, but after visiting the temple, I visited a cafe. The cafe staff asked me, "Did you photograph the Japanese stweartia at Myoshin-ji Temple?"
Apparently, a few days earlier, the local newspaper had run an article withphotos stating that the Japanese stewartia in the garden of the temple were in full bloom.
That day, being the peak of summer, a large group of tourists was queuing in front of the garden. Thinking, "I don't want to wait," I skipped the garden visit. However, if I had known about the blooming Japanese stweartia, I would have definitely queued up for it.
For locals, it might be common knowledge that "Myoshin-ji Temple is famous for its Japanese stewartia." Still, I thought it would be beneficial and considerate for tourists if such timely information were displayed more noticeably at the temple's entrance.

Think about Sengoku period at Daitoku-ji Temple (located in Murasakino Daitoku-ji Town, Kita Ward, Kyoto City)

After having lunch at a café near Myoshin-ji temple, I walked for about 20 minutes to Ninna-ji temple. From there, I took a bus from the nearby bus stop.
There wasn't a direct bus from Ninna-ji temple to Daitoku-ji temple, so I got off at the bus stop near Daitoku-ji temple and walked for about 10 minutes to get there.
If it had been the nearest bus stop to Daitoku-ji temple, I don't think I would have gotten lost. However, for the bus I took, the back entrance was the closest, so I hesitated a bit there, wondering, "Is this the right place?" It would have been better to enter from the main gate, even if it meant taking a bit of a detour.

Entrance of Daitoku-ji Temple
Entrance of Daitoku-ji Temple


・A temple where you can feel the history of people like Ikkyu and Sen no Rikyu up close. ・A place where you can experience the daily life of a temple. ・It's unfortunate that there isn’t a sense of connection between the temples. Daitoku-ji temple is the head temple of the Daitoku-ji branch of Rinzai sect.
It was founded in 1315 by Daito Kokushi.
Although the temple was devastated during the Onin War that took place in the Muromachi period, it was revived by the famous monk Ikkyu Sojun, who is well-known from the TV anime "Ikkyu-san." Subsequently, Toyotomi Hideyoshi built a temple in memory of Oda Nobunaga, and other Sengoku-era warlords such as Ishida Mitsunari and Maeda Toshiie constructed temples there as well. It's also a temple closely associated with the famous tea master Sen no Rikyu.
The main hall of Daitoku-ji temple is not open to the public, so I visited the publicly accessible Tachu (smaller temples) this time.

What I liked about Daitoku-ji temple:

①Feeling History Up Close Through Notable Names on Signs: One of the things I appreciated about Daitoku-ji temple was how closely I could feel its history.
At the entrance to each tachu, there were signs set by Kyoto City, and some of these signs had names of historical figures that I recognized.
While the main hall was not open to the public, and most of the tachu were not available for viewing, it was fun just to walk by and recognize a name on a sign and think, "I know this warlord!"
While I'm not particularly knowledgeable about history and didn't recognize some names, I believe those familiar with the Sengoku period would feel joy just walking around Daitoku-ji temple, reading the names on the signs.

Temple with Oda Nobunaga's grave (not open to the public)
Temple with Oda Nobunaga's grave (not open to the public)

②Experiencing the Everyday Life of the Temple: This was my second time to visit to Daitoku-ji temple. The first time was during a middle school trip on our free day.
However, all I remember from that visit was having matcha tea.
I had wondered why I didn't have stronger memories from the first visit, but during this second trip, I realized it's because there's "nothing" there, if I could interpret in a good way.
The pathways between the tachu had very few signs. Maybe because there weren’t many places to visit, there weren't too many tourists when I went. This made me feel not so much like a tourist, but more like someone associated with the temple.
The temples in my hometown aren't as famous as those in Kyoto and aren't open for tourism, but I wondered if entering one would give me the same feelings I had at Daitoku-ji temple.

Tranquil temple grounds
Tranquil temple grounds

What disappointed me about Daitoku-ji temple:

①Lack of Connections Among the Tachu
One thing that was a bit disappointing was the apparent lack of connections among the small temples. In one of the Tachu I visited, there was a map (signboard) indicating other Tachu available for viewing. However, one of those turned out to be closed to the public.
There was a sign at the entrance reading "General Visit Suspended."
It was particularly disappointing because this Tachu was a bit of a walk away, and I had gone there sweating in the midsummer, only to find it closed.
Given the limited number of Tachu open for viewing, it would be great if they could share information and update the signboards accordingly.
Additionally, some of the signs set by Kyoto City were old, and some of the lettering had faded to the point of being unreadable. I wish they would replace or refurbish them.

②Inconsistency in Maintenance Among Tachu Another point of disappointment was the inconsistency in maintenance across the Tachu. While there were only a few open for viewing, some were well-maintained, while others might need to be more carefully maintained. Considering those temples had a very long history, it might be understandable, but one tachu even had a shared entrance for male and female restrooms, which surprised me—it was like the setup I hadn't seen since elementary school (with the women's section in the front and the men's at the back).
While I've heard that some countries are moving towards unisex restrooms, I believe those are all individual private rooms. Luckily, no one else was using the restroom when I was there, but it would have been uncomfortable if I had encountered a man when I was there.
Furthermore, while pamphlets about its own history were available at each tachu. Although I understood the history of each temple individually, I did not understand the history of the Daitoku-ji Temple as a whole, which was not written in the pamphlets I received.

A Disappointment That It was Not Open to the Public!! Koshou-ji Temple (located in Horikawa Dori Teranouchi Agaru, Kamigyo Ward, Kyoto City)

Lastly, on my way back to Kyoto Station, I visited Kōshō-ji temple.
Kōshō-ji temple is the head temple of the Kōshō-ji branch of the Rinzai sect. It was established in 1603 by the monk Kiou Enni.
It is located about a 15-minute walk from Daitoku-ji temple.
Before my visit, I had checked the temple's website. The homepage had a message stating, "Only those with a devout faith in the Buddha are permitted to worship. We ask for your understanding." Seeing this, I thought to myself, "While I may not be deeply religious, I have faith, so I should be alright," and didn't make any further preparations before heading out.

The Entrance of Kōshō-ji Temple
The Entrance of Kōshō-ji Temple

Upon reaching the entrance, I realized that the temple was not open for general viewing. The website's Q&A section mentioned, "Please refrain from visiting for sightseeing purposes." I had made my decision to visit based on the homepage’s information alone and hadn't checked the Q&A beforehand (which I did later on).
If the homepage had clearly stated, "Visitors for sightseeing are not accepted," it would have prevented misunderstandings like mine.
From what I've seen on the temple's website and social media, the temple grounds are stunning. If they ever decide to open to the general public, I would love to pay a visit.

In conclusion

This time, under the blazing sun, I was able to pay a spontaneous visit tofour temples of the Rinzai sect. Had I researched the history of these temples and the types of buildings there were before setting out, I might have learned even more. I also think I could have toured the temples more efficiently (and perhaps could have visited another one). Next time, I'd like to study properly before visiting.

Main Hall of Myoshin-ji Temple
Main Hall of Myoshin-ji Temple

Each of the four temples had its own unique character. Even though they all belong to the Rinzai sect, I was surprised by how different the atmospheres were.
I had been wondering why, despite all being under the Rinzai sect, there are so many "XX-ha" (branch). I was glad to learn that these sub-sects emerged due to their particular histories at various times.
I believe there might also be a temple of the Rinzai sect in my town. The next time I pass by a temple, I plan to properly check the signboard to see which sub-sect it belongs to.

Thank you for reading until the end

【Reference Materials】
Information about the history of the temples was sourced from pamphlets and websites of each temple.