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Nanzenji Temple Kyoto

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Nanzenji History | Nanzenji & Zen | Nanzenji & Vegetarian Food

Nanzenji Temple Complex, Kyoto 南禅寺

by Alan J. Wiren

Nanzenji Temple, Kyoto, Japan

If you're looking for the quintessential Japan don't miss Nanzenji. This temple is home to priceless treasure, echoes Japan's most violent history, and preserves a culinary style dating back eight hundred years. Nanzenji's origin is steeped in the mysticism of Zen.

Legend has it that when Emperor Kameyama withdrew to his retirement palace in Kyoto, disturbing things began to happen there. Doors flew open by themselves and the royal family felt ghostly hands press upon them. The Buddhist priest called to perform an exorcism burnt incense, prayed and chanted, but to no avail.

The emperor turned next to the Zen priest, Fumon. In the year 1290, Fumon sat down in the palace and began to meditate. When he was through, the spectral squatter was gone. So impressed was Kameyama with the power of Zen (the story goes) that he handed over half of his palace to Fumon in order that he might teach Zen there. Kameyama also became a student in the new school and granted himself the title of Great Priest.

Sanmon Gate, Nanzenji Temple, Kyoto

The huge wooden Sanmon Gate, Nanzenji Temple, Kyoto

The beginnings of Nanzenji Temple

Sanmon Gate, Nanzenji Temple

When Kameyama turned over the remainder of the palace to Fumon, Nanzenji, which has remained the world's most important Zen temple to this day, was complete.

Whether or not you believe in ghosts, the story illustrates Japan's political state at the time. The samurai class had taken over the government, in all but name, from the emperor. The order of succession had skipped the eldest male, splitting the royal bloodline. It was often easier for an emperor in those days to wield influence from under the tonsure of a priest, than from under a crown.

What Kamayama had done was to give a headquarters to the Zen sect of Buddhism in direct defiance of the established Buddhist authority whose headquarters was a temple at Mount Hiei. Zen was something of an upstart in Japan, introduced from China only a century before. Seemingly incidentally, he had introduced Zen into the imperial family as well.

Aqueduct, Nanzenji Temple, Kyoto

The Meiji period aqueduct at Nanzenji Temple in Kyoto

The Power of Zen Buddhism

Emperor Kamayama had taken two great steps in fostering power for the Zen movement in Japan, and the trend continued after the grant of Nanzenji.

It became customary for Shoguns to take Zen priests as their advisers, and five more Zen temples appeared in Kyoto, all under the stewardship of Nanzenji. This was also a time when a temple might maintain a standing army, and the monks at Mount Hiei did not sit still while Zen Buddhism gained its foothold.

In 1393 they marched on Nanzenji and razed it to the ground. Ultimately this served as the first demonstration that destroying the property could not keep Nanzenji down. Zen was a movement, not only for the religious and political elite, but of the common people, and Nanzenji was its icon.

Nanzenji Temple

The temple was rebuilt, severely damaged in a fire half a century later, and once again completely destroyed during the Onin War in 1467. It was rebuilt for the last time one hundred thirty years later. Nanzenji has received restorations and gifts from some of the most wealthy and powerful people in Japanese history, and has become a treasure trove of artistic and historical artifacts.

The first thing you will see, as you approach, is the Sanmon, one of the largest temple gates in Japan. It is made of wood, impressively blackened by age. Its name means "Three Gates" and you may pass through any of three great portals that represent the paths of liberation offered by Zen Buddhism. In addition to passing through the gate, you may climb up the steep staircases inside it. They lead to an upper deck that surrounds the gate's central chamber.

The chamber is home to a carved Buddha with a jeweled crown, flanked by sixteen statues of arhat (Buddhists who have achieved enlightenment). The columns that stand on either side are painted in a style that harkens back to the Indian origins of Zen.

Nanzenin, Nanzenji Temple

The deck affords a view of Kyoto and the Nanzenji complex, spread out on either side. Although Nanzenji once comprised sixty-two subtemples, it has been reduced to nine. Zen Buddhism is still taught there, so not all of them are open to the public.

The subtemple said to be the heart of Nanzenji is Nanzen-in. In its temple building are the partial remains of Emperor Kaneyama and his statue. Outside there is a garden that centers on a pool, fed by a waterfall, with a path that goes completely around it, so you may see the pool and its islands from any angle.

The current visitor's center of the complex is a sprawling building called the Hojo. An entire section of the Hojo building was imported from a grand palace built in Fushimi City by the last shogun of Japan's Warring States Period. It is filled with scores of fusuma (sliding paper doors) painted with gilt backgrounds and images of leopards and tigers, or at least what the artists thought leopards and tigers must look like, having never seen either one.

Nanzenin, Nanzenji Temple, Kyoto

It is surrounded by gardens, either of stone and gravel, or landscaped with mossy-banked pools. They are examples of the Japanese art of reproducing the world in miniature, framed with a simple elegance. Wandering through the Hojo you will find, tucked in here and there, priceless objects donated by patrons of Nanzenji.

Shojin Ryori - Zen vegetarian cuisine

The subtemple Choshoin preserves something more ephemeral, but no less valuable. At the time Nanzenji came into being, a new way of dining was gaining popularity among the residents of Buddhist temples. Shojin Ryori is a style of vegetarian cuisine that emphasizes simplicity, but is by no means dull. Rather it focuses the senses on singular tastes and textures by combining them in delectable harmony.

Choshoin serves lunches in this style, and in an environment that could not be better suited to it. Arrive before noon, and you will probably be able to choose a seat on the tatami covered floor of the temple's interior, on the deck overlooking the carefully styled garden, or on a deck built out over the pond that skirts the edge of the garden. There you can enjoy a Japanese lunch the way Choshoin has been making them for the past three hundred years.

Getting to Nanzenji Temple

Nanzenji Temple is a short walk from the Keage subway station on the Tozai Line of the Kyoto subway. By bus, take city bus #46 to the Kyoto Kaikan Bijitsukan-mae stop or bus #5 or Raku Bus #100 to the nearer Nanzenji/Eikando-mae stop.

Nanzenji Temple
Tel: 075 771 0365

Bicycle is a good way to see Nanzenji and the temples and shrines heading north along Philosopher's Path: Eikando, Kumano Nyakuoji Shrine, Reikanji Temple, Anrakuji, Honen-in and finally Ginkakuji. Allow 20-25 minutes at a leisurely speed as you ride slightly uphill. The Nomura Museum is also within easy walking distance of Nanzenji.

Text and Photos by Alan Wiren

Chosoin, Nanzenji TempleNanzenji Temple, Zen temple
Nanzenji Temple, Kyoto Nanzenji Temple, Kyoto, Japan

Nanzenji Temple, Kyoto

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