Sunday, September 26, 2010

Nanzen-ji - The Garden Temple

31st October, 2006 - A bit further on from Eikan-dō is the temple known as Nanzen-ji and it's associated gardens. Whilst the temple was first established around 1291, it remains a working Rinzai-Zen temple complex to this day. Nanzen-ji is known as the South Temple of Enlightenment.

It was initially on the site of an Imperial villa (built by Emperor Kameyama after having abdicated in 1274 due to the turbulent relationship with the Kamakura shogunate). There were two palaces constructed: an upper summer palace, and a lower winter palace. Unfortunately for the retired Emperor, retirement did not go smoothly... and indeed the villa suffered constant strife from a recalcitrant ghost. Apparently - the ghosts identity is lost with time, and I'm not sure if this was "Freddy" kind of strife, or more "Casper" kind of hijinx... either way it had to stop. The priest Fumon (from Tofuku-ji) was called in to exorcise the ghost, for which he was rewarded with the granting of the lower winter palace for religious services. Not bad work if you can get it... Indeed, I'm sure there was a healthy business in summoning (as well as exorcising) ghosts back in those days. From that point on, Kameyama became a devoted follower of Zen Buddhism.

The Hodo of Nanzen-ji

Only forty years later, the resultant temple Nanzen-ji had become of great importance - indeed, it was now annouced by Emperor Go-Daigo as sitting above the Five Mountains of Kyōto Buddhism: Tenryu-ji, Shokoku-ji, Kennin-ji, Tofuku-ji and Manju-ji. This was later supported by shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, who was seeking leverage against the more established Buddhist temples of Kyōto and Nara.

One of the entrances to the study hall  used for special occasions, Taihougenkan
Such was the tension within the power structures of Kyōto that the temple was attacked by the infamous monks of Enryaku-ji in 1393 AD - these monks had played an important role in Kyōto's history... having often come down from their mountain temple to lay waste to temple and court alike over the centuries. The temple was destroyed again in 1447... and again in 1467 (during the Onin War)... to be rebuilt in 1597. The Japanese are definitely persistent.

Support for the temple was to continue all the way through until the Meiji Era, when the power of Buddhist schools was degraded by a Shinto-biased government.

The temple has one of the remaining great gates of Kyōto, the San-mon (also known as the Tenkanoryu-mon), which is one of the three largest remaining in Japan. This current gate dates from around 1628. Apparently the view from the second story balcony is quite good - but alas it wasn't open when we arrived. The gate is also famous for the tragic story of Iahikawa Goemon... an ill-fated bandit who had hidden within the gate itself. After one adventure (attempted assassination of Hideyoshi himself... or so one legend goes), he was caught and sentenced to death, along with his young son, in 1585. A horrible death - to be boiled alive in oil. This gruesome tale is the basis of kabuki plays, manga and for the movie released in 2009 under the name Goemon.

Approach to Nanzen-ji through the San-mon

Looking through the gate... from the outside

Looking through the gates... from the inside

There is a lot to see in and around Nanzen-ji... however, here I have to admit that we had  (and I groan to write these words) started to become templed out. Also, for me the attraction of Nanzen-ji is not the great gate, nor the history of the temples beginnings... but rather the gardens that accompany it. I should add here that there's a very good dry garden to be found in the temple - but we didn't get a chance to see it.

The gardens surrounding the temple are beautiful and a source of tranquility as the evening draws on and the crowds melt away with the growing of the shadows.

Garden paths outside the main temple 

An unlit stone lantern
The most impressive part, in my opinion is the sub-temple of Nanzen-in, and it's gardens. There is a separate charge to enter this sub-temple, but it's worth it. It's supposedly designated as one of three scenic and historic spots of Kyōto (according to the official web-site)... not sure what the other two are.
Nanzen-ji belfry on the hill

The temple itself started as the detached upper palace. The sub-temple was destroyed in the Onin war, and subsequently re-built around 1703. The surrounding garden was originally designed in 1300’s (and is credited to Muso Soseki) though the present garden layout most likely little resembles that original design.

It's not hard to realise just how close to nature the temple lies, lying well in truly in the lap of the Eastern mountains.

The ponds are the centre-piece of this garden - except in Autumn, when the golden maple display takes centre-stage. We just had to make do with slightly yellowing golden leaves.

Whilst the leaves may far from golden, we didn't feel at all disapointed.

Water is a hugely important part of Kyōto, as it is for the temple itself. We'll see in the next post just how much water has shaped this part of Kyōto.
One of the waterfalls that feeds the ponds

The path leads all the way around the ponds, allowing yourself to disappear into the if into the ancient wild-lands of Japan. I felt that if I just stayed still a little bit longer, roots would have sprung from my own feet.

Yet the cultured aspects of the garden are never far from view... and for all it's seeming wildness, the garden is  very much a constructed thing. The upper pond is known as the Songen-ike Pond, and is supposedly shaped like a dragon - and within it sits an island known as Horai-sima. The lower pond has an island in the shape of the Japanese character for heart, . I guess I'm not that abstract a thinker, as I never saw anything that looked particularly like either of those things.

Whilst the specific shapes of ponds and islands escaped me - the beauty of the garden did not. There was something wonderful about the light through the canopy, and the brilliantly clear, reed and lily covered waters. It may be a small garden, but it's one of my favourites... and has the added advantage of being little visited.

The Hojo  exhibits a number of styles, including: hinoki-zukuri (made from Japanese Cypress); irimoya-zukuri (a roof style where each side slopes down, and the two ends are faced with a gable as well); and kokera-buki (a roof consisting of a thin layer of cypress shingles). Through the veranda, a series of large tatami-floored rooms can be seen (but not entered).
The Hojo of Nazen-in - from the bridge across the ponds
Part of Emperor Kameyama's body has been interred in a small shrine within the Nanzen-in...thankfully not on public display. Seeing body bits has never really been a turn-on for me when it comes to holiday locations... well... dead body bits at least.

The veranda of the Hojo, with outlook to Kameyama's memorial
And this brings to an end our temple hopping in this journey through Kyōto... we only pop through one other temple on our way home.

It was definitely a great experience to have seen so much of the historical living treasure that are the temples and gardens of Kyōto. And whilst I know a lot of people have the view that "seen one temple, seen them all", I hope that I've been able to show that they're all beautiful and unique... and we had barely scratched the surface with the temples we had been able to visit.

It's important to remember that you don't need to go in with a huge understanding of either history or Buddhism (though it doesn't hurt) to enjoy visiting these temples. For me, they are the backbone of Kyōto  - an ironic twist on the fact that Buddhism was the very reason that Emperor Kammu relocated his capital from Nara - to escape the power of the Buddhist orders. Over twelve centuries later, it's hard to see what real power Buddhism has on Japan now, but perhaps the influence is as much ubiquitous as it is singular these days.
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  1. Couldn't agree more, every temple is not only visually unique, but there is also a distinctive "feel" to each temple. Perhaps a very busy tour schedule, where you have only a few minutes to visit each temple, is not the best way to see Kyoto.

  2. Alas... this is the perenial question... breadth versus depth. To be honest, unless you live there - or come back that often that you can afford to, I'm not sure that most people have the opportunity to really relax and take Kyoto in. For us, we saw and experienced a huge amount that we could not easily do with children (and given that there was a bun in the oven already, we knew we could not do this sort of holiday again.

    I would highly recommend taking time - and I hope that my blogs provide a little more of the picture that allows people to decide what they like. Having said that - I would also encourage people that want to see a lot to say, it IS possible.

    We had a great time on this day - but started just a little too late to be able to enjoy Nanzen-ji fully. The good thing is that we know, next time around, what we want to see. ?:)

  3. Good article with photos of silence.

    When I was a student, I went to Kyoto alone, often with a night bus from Tokyo. I liked spending a time in a rather quiet temple, like Shisendo.

    This November, Katya and I are planning to go to Kyoto. It will be a short trip, staying one night. Even though, we are looking forward.

  4. Envious to be going to Kyoto in November. Can't wait to get back there. One day. I could so easily see myself relaxing in a reflective repose in one of the many quieter temples. I loved the tourist thing here - but I know there's so much more to enjoy away from the tourists.