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Bloody Temple Ceilings of Kyoto

Japan flag. The Blood Soaked Ceilings of Kyoto

Koshoji | Yogen-in | Shodenji | Genko-an | Hosen-in

The Blood Soaked Ceilings of Kyoto

by Alan J. Wiren

Blood stain at Genkoan.

Warrior's blood will be above your head when you visit a small number of Kyoto's temples. It is nearly four hundred years old, blackened with age, but those ceilings are awash with it.

You can find the imprints of faces, hands, and feet. It is macabre, and that might be enough of a motivation, but if you take a tour of these temples, you will encounter some exquisite and uniquely Japanese art, and paradoxically, become acquainted with a gentler side of the Japanese persona. What follows is a guide for that tour, but first let me tell you how the blood got to those ceilings in the first place.

In 1592 Toyotomi Hideyoshi had ended Japan's feudal age by bringing all of Japan under his own rule - a bloody task in itself. Getting on in years, he handed over his title to his nephew and built a retirement palace in what is now the city of Fushimi: a grand affair that brought together the simplicity of the Senno Rikyu style of architecture and the flamboyance of the Azuchi-Momoyama period. It was there that Hideyoshi died. The power structure he left behind was an unstable one, soon challenged by Ieyasu Tokugawa. Tokugawa garrisoned Fushimi Castle with 2,000 troops led by his loyal retainer, Torii Mototada.

When the defenders learned from spies that a force of 40,000 was approaching, Mototada made the choice to remain behind, allowing Tokugawa to lead his campaign westward and consolidate his hold over all Japan.

Mototada delayed the attackers for eleven days. In the end, his forces were reduced to just ten. Surrendering with honor, they opened their bellies onto the floor of Fushimi Castle. When Tokugawa returned, their blood had soaked so deeply into the floor it was impossible to remove.

The third shogun of the Edo Period, seeing no need for the remains of Fushimi Castle, had them broken up, sending various parts to other castles and temples around Japan. The blood soaked floorboards were incorporated into the ceilings of five temples in Kyoto Prefecture.

Koushouji Temple, Uji, Kyoto.

Koushouji Temple, Uji, Kyoto

Koushouji Temple, Uji.Koushouji Temple, Uji.

Koushouji Temple, Uji, Kyoto

Koshoji (Koushouji Temple)

Koushouji (興聖寺) is furthest from Kyoto city center, in Uji city. It is a sprawling building, centered on a square dry garden. On the side opposite the gate you will enter a passage running along the garden, bounded by a fusuma from Fushimi Castle painted with a peacock. Look up and you will see thick, dark - brown boards smudged with patches of darker, brownish black. About halfway along you will find two white circles. One marks off a footprint, the other the trails of five fingers.


Hideyoshi was something of a ladies' man and Yougenin (養源院) is a small temple that was built for his last concubine, who bore him a son. It is not far from JR Kyoto Station. Yougenin burned down two years after its construction, but was rebuilt, largely with rooms from Fushimi Castle.

Entering the main hall, you will be guided to a room that opens toward the hall's entrance. This was Hideyoshi's study. Then you will be shown another room with fusuma painted with gilded images of pine trees. Here, Hideyoshi would hold audience with lesser lords of the land. The ceilings of the halls outside these rooms look very similar to the one from Koushouji. When you leave the audience hall, the guide will point out (with muted pride and the aid of a bamboo pole) where a face and two hands made their indelible marks, and the trail of blood that ran from the body.

The guide will also point out the fusuma at both ends of the passage outside the audience hall. These did not belong to Fushimi Castle, but are painted with figures of quite contented-looking, rather roly-poly animals in pastel shades. These were created to give a feeling of calm to the warrior's souls.

Yougenin Temple, Kyoto.

Yougenin Temple, Kyoto


The souls have been given a pastoral residence at Shoudenji (正伝寺). This temple is approached on a long path through a shady wood. Within its walls a shichigosan (seven five three) style garden creates the harmony of odd numbers that originated in Taoist philosophy. Trimmed azaleas comprise the groupings that are set in evenly raked gravel. The building facing the garden is entirely from Fushimi Castle. Above the passage on the garden's edge you can see clear hand prints.

Shoudenji Temple, Kyoto.

Shoudenji Temple, Kyoto


The most well known features of Genkouan (源光庵) are two windows in the main hall that look out onto a less orderly, but no less inspiring, garden of flowering trees and stone lanterns. One window is square, representing four human afflictions: life, old age, illness, and death. The other is round, representing Zen awakening.

Turn away from these windows and walk over to the opposite wall. Just to the right of the center of the ceiling is a very clear footprint.


By now you will understand that this centuries old blood was brought to these temples to bring peace to the souls of the men who spilt it. One would be hard pressed to find a better place for that than Housenin (宝泉院). After a half hour's bus ride out of the city center, and a hike alongside a mountain stream, you will pass though the gate. Turn left and you will find yourself in one of the most elegant rock gardens in Japan. It is a miniature world where every proportion contributes to its harmony, and seductive forms and textures fascinate.

Genkoan Temple.Genkoan Temple.

Genkoan Temple, Kyoto

Returning to the right hand path will take you to the temple hall. Beside the entrance a cheerful, little waterfall splashes over moss-covered stones. Inside you will pass by a tiny, enclosed garden centered on a pool where carp swim lazily, and on to the main hall. The walls there are glass panes that stand open in good weather and look out onto a garden that has been aptly named "Difficult to Leave." It features a large and ancient pine tree that maintains its form with the help of bamboo braces. Sit down on the red carpet and a kimono clad server will soon come to whisk powdered green tea for you in an earthenware bowl.

Now look up. The boards along the outer edge of the ceiling are a river of blood.

Shoudenji Temple.

Shoudenji Temple, Kyoto

Directions - how to get to the "Bloody Temples"

Koushouji (Koshoji) is best seen in a separate trip, although you can combine it with some of the other popular destinations in Uji. Take the Keihan Uji line to Uji Station. Outside, turn right, then walk along the Uji River until you cross a bridge over a tributary. The gate to Koushouji is a few minutes farther, on the left.

The four other temples can be seen in one day. Although it requires an early start, this is an inexpensive option, since you can purchase a one day pass for Kyoto's bus and subway system for 1,200 yen. Be sure to read the instructions on the map provided with the pass. Some sections of the bus routes are not covered by the pass, and there are many alternatives to the route suggested below.

Yougenin (Yogenin) is on the # 100, 206, or 208 city bus route from JR Kyoto Station. Get off at the Hakubutsukan Sanjusangendo mae stop. The temple is just across the street from the east wall of the large Sanjusangendo Temple complex.

To find Shoudenji (Shodenji), Take a #1 city bus to the Jinkoin mae stop. To the east is a small warren of streets. It would best to Google a map of this area, but generally you want to head uphill to the northeast until you come to the temple gate at the foot of the mountain. Once inside the gate, the path will lead directly to the temple.

Genkouan (Genkoan) is on the #6 city bus route, very near the Takakamine Genkouan mae stop. A sign at the bus stop will point you in the right direction.

To reach Housenin (Hosenin), either take a #5 city bus to the Kokusaikaikan mae stop, or the subway to Kokusaikaikan Station. From there, board a #19 or 25 Kyoto bus and get off at the Ohara stop. Follow the signs for Sanzenin. When you reach Sanzenin, continue past it on the same path. There are many small temples here. The path will take a jog to the left and pass over a small stream just before the gate at Housenin.

Map To The Temples

All five temples are marked on the map below along with Jinkoin.

If the map does not load when using Internet Explorer (IE) on a Windows PC, please hold down the "Control" key and refresh the page

Koushouji Temple.

Koushouji Temple, Kyoto

Text and Photos by Alan Wiren

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Muroji Temple, Nara: A Dragon Runs Through It
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