Kenninji and Kyoto’s Zen Temples

Tuesday, July 16, 2013 Category : KYOTO


Kyoto has an amazing amount of Buddhist temples. Some of them small enough to sit in front of a house (like those to Jizo found throughout the city), some of them like a town in themselves (like the Daitoku ji temple complex). In Kyoto you can find the headquarters of most Japanese Buddhist sects, including many of the most significant Zen temples. Along with Nanzenji in Kyoto’s east and Tenryuji in the west, Kenninji temple is one of the head temples of the Rinzai school of Zen, which came to Japan from China in the 12th century.

Though these other temples are also very impressive and well worth a visit, Kenninji offers the visitor a chance to relax, enjoy a number of different gardens and other amazing artworks, all at the edge of the Gion geisha district. It is also considered to be the oldest Zen temple in Japan, and the home of Japanese tea. In addition, the head monks of Kenninji make an effort to support contemporary art by holding regular exhibitions, and introduce visitors to Zen meditation (held the 2nd Sunday of every month from 8am in Japanese with some English information provided).

Kenninji Temple:

This temple was established in 1202 by the Buddhist priest Yosai after he visited China on a number of occasions to learn about Buddhism. During these visits he also brought back tea from China. This was the first tea to be successfully cultivated in Japan, and lead to the popularization of the drink across the nation. There is a memorial stone dedicated to tea in the outside garden. Stepping into the temple you should find a large painting of two demon-like gods on your left, this is The Gods of Wind and Thunder’, a masterpiece of the early Edo period (approximately 1600-1640) painted by Tawaraya Sotatsu.

To the left of this you will find a series of passages and rooms leading to Zen gardens. Many of these are famous gardens in their own right, such as Chouontei “the garden of the sound of the tide”, which has three standing stones at its centre (representing Buddha and 2 monks).  The garden with a tree at its centre surrounded by a round patch of moss is called the “circle, triangle and square” garden. Can you find these shapes within it? According to Zen Buddhism everything in the universe is represented by these shapes.

Walking through the temple you will find a number of rooms with paintings on the walls and hanging scrolls in an alcove. These are mostly tea ceremony rooms, as the temple has also served as a home for this artistic and spiritual practice. Many of the paintings on these walls are worth a close look, such as those of boys playing with boats.

Continuing past an extensive pebble garden, you can walk to an adjoining building where you can find the stunning and powerful ‘Twin Dragons’ ceiling painting. This is actually a new addition to the temple, being painted in 2002 to celebrate the 800th year since the establishment of the temple. Entrance to Kenninji is 500Y.

5 Dragon roof4 Sand garden

Getting to Kenninji:

Kenninji can be reached from the Gion Shijo subway station or Kawaramachi station on the Hankyu train line. From there it is a pleasant 10 minute walk across the bridge and along Shijo street (where you could easily spend the day looking through the amazing traditional shops), then down Hanami koji street which forms the centre of the Gion geisha district. It is at the end of this street. You can also get buses 100 and 206 from Kyoto station, though these can get very crowded during peak seasons.

It is recommended to allow some time to look around Shijo street and the Gion area as it offers some of the best shopping and sightseeing in the city. You may even be lucky to spot a few geisha!

View Kenninji in a larger map