Jakko-in Temple

Ohara is a sprawling rural community situated in a wide plain (hence the name) northeast of Kyoto. It still belongs to Kyoto, even though it lies more than 30 minutes by bus outside of what I would consider the city limits. Ohara is famous for its oharame – local women who used to peddle firewood, flowers or produce in Kyoto – Sanzen-in Temple with its beautiful moss gardens, and the former nunnery Jakko-in.

Jakko-in is a tiny temple that lies in the opposite direction of Sanzen-in at the end of a little valley. The walk there is very pleasant, it leads first along a little stream, then though the community. Judging from the number of souvenir shops and cafes on the way, it must be less popular than Sanzen-in. And had it not been mentioned in the Heike Monogatari, I guess it would have been forgotten long ago.

But let’s start at the beginning, in 594, when the temple was established by Shotoku Taishi to pray for the soul of his father, Emperor Yomei. At that time, Buddhism had only recently been introduced to Japan. Therefore, one of the first nuns of the country (who also happened to be the wet nurse of Shotoku Taishi) moved to the temple. Subsequently, Jakko-in became a retreat for nyoin, female members of the Imperial family and daughters of other high-ranking families. It seems, however, that taking vows was not a requirement to live there.

According to the temple, the third nun only moved there in 1185, and it’s because of her that Jakko-in is famous to this day. Her name was Kenreimon-in Tokuko, daughter of Taira-no-Kiyomori and mother of Emperor Antoku. Sounds familiar? The Taira (or Heike) fought against the Minamoto (or Genji) clan in the Genpei War (1180–1185), which was immortalized in the Heike Monogatari mentioned above. Sadly, the entire Taira clan was wiped out , and even Emperor Antoku, a mere boy of 6 was killed. Kenreimon-in spent the rest of her days in Jakko-in praying for the souls of her son and relatives.

From the temple’s entrance, stone steps lead straight up to the main hall. It is home to a statue of Rokumantai-Jizoson, the protector of children. There are also wooden statues of Kenreimon-in and her servant Awa-no-Naishi, only the second nun ever to live at the temple. Her garments are said to have been the model for the oharame’s clothes.

Sadly, none of this is original, not the building, and not the statues either. The temple was burned down in an arson attack in May 2000, and all you can see are reproductions. The main statue especially looks very modern; it is dressed in a colorful garment that I would call garish to the point of kitsch. However, on asking, I was told that that this is the original look of the statue when it was – supposedly – created by Shotoku Taishi himself, according to old documents.

To find out more about the temple, the nuns, and the arson attack, you can visit the treasure house which holds a lot of artifacts. The most interesting of these are more than 3000 wooden statues of Jizo, roughly 10 cm tall, that were all found inside the main statue after the arson. The original, badly burned statue, an Important Cultural Asset, is not usually on display.

Since the temple is so small, the gardens are not very extensive. The ones surrounding the main hall are the most beautiful, and there is a stump of a 1000-year-old pine that sadly did not survive the fire. It is said that this part has been maintained since the time of the Genpei War, and right now, you can hear tree frogs croaking in the little pond beneath the former pine. Another pond with koi carp and a little waterfall lies to the north of the main hall, and on a lower level, there is a tea house with yet another pond in front of it.

Kenreimon-in is still present at the temple. Just south of the main hall, a marker indicates her former residence, and once you leave the temple and take the steps uphill just outside of it, you can visit her tomb.

All in all, I found Jakko-in a nice experience. I like to visit places that are not overrun by tourists, and being just a bit off-season does help as well in this respect. The staff are very friendly and happy to answer questions.

Greenery Day

Happy national holiday!

The purpose of today’s Greenery day is for people to enjoy the great outdoors of Japan – and also to remember Emperor Showa, who, despite all his shortcomings, had a great love for nature.

So do I, as long as nature doesn’t manifest itself as insects in my bedroom…

Daigo-ji in Kyoto by David Emrich on unsplash

Winter Wonderland

Today, I wanted to write about something completely different. But then, weather happened… It has snowed several days this winter already, which is quite unusual for Kyoto. Here’s Saginomori Jinja in the snow from last Friday. The snow has gone from the streets now, but it’s still pretty cold. Pumpkin does not approve and neither do I…

Saginomori Jinja

I’ve been exploring my new neighborhood, and there are some interesting sights nearby my house. I have visited the shrine a few times now, first time during the koyo, last time this afternoon. That’s why the trees go from full color to bare and back in the following photos.

Access to Saginomori Jinja

Saginomori means “Heron’s Forest”, and the shrine itself dates back more than 1000 years, to the beginning of the Heian Period. It was established at a different site at the foot of Mt. Hiei (which is not far from here), where it served as the ubusunagami (guardian deity of one’s birthplace) for seven villages. It was relocated to the present location in 1689. The shrine is dedicated to Susanoo-no-mikoto, the younger brother of sun goddess Amaterasu.

main hall of Saginomori Jinja

It is a relatively small shrine with a single dance stage and a worship hall at the end of a long access road that leads up the hill. The trees surrounding it, however, are majestic and look very old.

Dance Stage of Saginomori Jinja.

An interesting feature is the bridge at the southern entrance to the shrine. This little stone bridge was once part of Shugakuin Villa (not far from here either) where it spanned the Otowa river in front of the entrance. Many emperors walked over this bridge when they came to relax at Shugakuin, but today it’s for the likes of you and me, who take the shortcut to Manshu-in Temple via the steps right after it.

Emperor's Bridge at the south end of the shrine.

The collection of ema votive tablets – one for each of the 12 zodiacs – is very cute. I plan to buy one when I go there early next year for my hatsumode.

Ema Votive Tablets with 12 zodiac animals (and herons).

The shrine also boasts a large yaegaki stone wall and says that whoever touches it will be blessed with “good marital and romantic relationships”. Always worth a try, isn’t it?

Yaegaki Lucky Stone Wall

Kinkaku-ji, Plain

Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavillion, is probably one of the best-known tourist attractions of Kyoto. The two top floors of the temple are covered in leaf gold; the third floor with the main Buddha relics is gilded inside as well (and not accessible to the public).

However, the temple as you see it today – I’ve written about it before – is not the same one as built in the 14th century. The original building was set on fire by a novice monk of the temple in 1950, and was restored in 1955. At that time, gold leaf was added quite liberally to the top two floors, and some people question whether this is historically accurate.

At any case, here is an image of Kinkaku-ji from some time in the Meiji period. It has been colored by hand and does not show much golden sparkle, but this may be just because of the age of the building. It’s absolutely stunning, and, compared to the modern building, it feels much less sterile. What do you think?

An old photo of Kinkaku-ji

Kitano Tenmangu Shrine

Kitano Tenmangu is one of the most popular shrines in Kyoto, among locals and visitors alike. Not only does it have a huge flea market (Tenjin-san) each month on the 25th, but many students of all ages visit before an important exam to pray to the God of Wisdom that is enshrined there. The year 2021 is an especially good year to visit Kitano Tenmangu because of its connection with the ox, this year’s zodiac animal.

Wooden Statue of Sugawara-no-Michizane.Kitano Tenmangu enshrines a real historical person, Sugawara-no-Michizane as its main deity. Born in 845, he was a precocious child, writing poetry from a very young age. He became a renowned poet and scholar and eventually a courtier, where he was supported by Emperor Uda. However, after Uda’s retirement, rivals from the Fujiwara family slandered Sugawara-no-Michizane, and he was forced into exile in Kyushu in 901. He died there two years later without returning to the capital, and was buried in Kyushu. Now, the story goes that after his death, Kyoto was hit by natural disasters and a number of Fujiwara courtiers and even the emperor’s family met with illness and personal tragedies. In search for the reason, Shinto priests reported that Sugawara-no-Michizane had appeared in their dreams. Thus, in 947, Kitano Tenmangu was built to appease the angry spirit of Sugawara-no-Michizane, and he was deified and enshrined as Karai Tenjin, the God of Fire and Thunder. In 987, he was elevated to Tenman Tenjin, the God of Scholarship, and today, Kitano Tenmangu is the head shrine of around 12,000 other Tenjin shrines all over Japan. 

The approach to Kitano Tenmangu from the south starts at a large stone torii and follows a path lined with stone lanterns. At the end lies the shrine’s impressive romon gate, a bit elevated from the outer grounds and the main entrance. It is flanked by the common statues of komainu lion-dogs and zuishin warriors and is known for its beautiful carvings and the large lantern right above the path.

On the other side of the gate the precincts open wide. To the left lies the emasha exhibiting large wooden tablets, typical presents to shrines. During the New Year’s period people come here to write their very first calligraphy of the year, and the best ones are exhibited afterwards. Further down this path lies the plum garden of Kitano Tenmangu. These were the favourite trees of Sugawara-no-Michizane, and more than 1500 trees can be found in the precincts. The fruits are pickled and sold in December, to be put into tea on New Year’s day as a good luck charm.

To the right lies the shrine’s treasure house, where many valuable gifts that were presented to the shrine over the centuries are stored and exhibited. The most important treasure is the Kitano Tenjin Engi Emaki scroll below which depicts the origin story of Kitano Tenmangu.

Painted Scroll showing the founding of Kitano Tenmangu in Kyoto.

However, the main buildings of the shrine lie straight ahead from the romon gate. You must pass through the sankomon gate, the “Gate of Three Lights”, behind which lies a lovely courtyard with the outer and main prayer halls straight ahead. At Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, these two prayer halls lie under a single, wood-shingled roof, which is very unusual and called the yatsumune zukuri style. The two main gates and the main hall show the typical architecture of the Momoyama period with intricately painted carvings, golden ornaments and pretty lanterns. They were donated to the shrine by Toyotomi Hideyori in 1607, and the main reason why Kitano Tenmangu is designated as a National Treasure.

Another historically important feature of Kitano Tenmangu is often overlooked by the casual visitor. It’s the so-called Odoi, a slightly elevated hill at the western end of the precincts that was once part of the city’s fortification wall. From there, you have a nice overview of the shrine to one side, and the lovely momiji valley on the other through which a little stream flows. As can be expected, this part is especially beautiful during the the koyo in autumn and the aomomiji fresh leaves in spring.

Okay, enough teasing: What’s the connection with the ox? Well, Sugawara-no-Michizane was born in the year of the ox, and thus, oxen or cows are seen as his messengers. Another story goes that when he was supposed to return to Kyoto, he died on the way, and the ox that was pulling his cart lay down on the street and would not get up anymore. In any case, throughout Kitano Tenmangu, you will find many statues of cows. These are called nade ushi, stroking cows, and the idea is that you first rub your ailing body part and then its counterpart on the cow to transfer your malaise to the statue and get rid of it for good. Definitely worth a try!

Statue of a black cow with red bib in Kitano Tenmangu.

Because it is visited by so many high school kids preparing for their university entrance exams, Kitano Tenmangu is very busy throughout the year. Like at all other shrines, you can buy goshuin stamps and omamori charms, mostly related to scholarship. Since I like useful stuff, I bought a lovely wooden box of pencils with the shrine emblem and wise sayings on them. Not sure it helps with the wisdom though…