Located at the foot of the wooded mountains to the north west of Kyoto, Koetsuji and Genkoan temples offer visitors a fantastic mix of architecture, culture and nature sightseeing. The mountains to the north of the two temples are known as Kitayama (the north mountains), home to the famous Kitayama pine. The area also has a wonderful collection of maple trees, making it a perfect destination for enjoying the autumn foliage, which is usually at its best in November and early December.
Koetsuji is the former home of Honami Koetsu (17th century), the leader of one of Kyoto’s most influential art movements, the Rinpa school. This school drew on older Japanese motifs and images, tended to be highly decorative, and heaving based on the changing seasons and nature. Like the Renaissance men, many artists of the period were skilled at a number of different arts, and Koetsu, who was a master of calligraphy, lacquer, ceramics, and tea, was no exception to this. The whole area is said to have been the semi-official headquarters for this arts movement.
This temple has a wonderful garden that looks across to the mountains to the south of the temple grounds. In any season, especially autumn, it is a truly wonderful sight. The long sloping fence of bamboo within the garden is said to be a highlight of the garden, as are its tea rooms.
On the same street, but slightly to the east, is Genko-an, also a wonderful temple in autumn (or any time of year for that matter). The main feature here are the windows within the temple, one round (called the ‘the window of enlightenment’) and the other bell-shaped but imperfect (the ‘window of uncertainty’), which beautifully frame the maple trees and the garden outside.
This is also one of a handful of temples that is said to have inherited the blood-soaked floorboards of Fushimi-Momoyama castle. Fushimi-Momoyama castle, which was built to the south-west of Kyoto, was so important culturally and politically that it became, along with Azuchi castle in Shiga, the basis for the very name of the period (Azuchi-Momoyama period- 1568-1600). Though this period was relatively short, it is said to have been a period of great artistic heights, something like Japan’s Baroque, and famous for its flamboyant use of gold. The Fushimi-Momoyama castle was sieged in 1600 and many of the samurai inside committed suicide, soaking the corridor floors with blood.
If you stare for long enough, you may be able to make out imprints of hands and feet! The idea of using these floorboards inside temples is to give peace to the souls of these unfortunate men.
The area around these temples is well worth exploring, and still holds some of the charm of an old rural town. Walking west of Koetsuji down the hill and around through the valley to the left is especially enjoyable and you may come across some discoveries of your own.
Access: 15 minutes by City Bus Line 1 from Kyoto city subway Kitaoji Station (15 minutes from Kyoto) to Takagamine Genkoan-mae stop.
Costs: Koetsuji 300Y. Genkoan, 400Y. Both open from about 9-5 everyday.