At the end of the Kamakura period, Mukanfumon Zenji (Daimyou Kokushi), a high-ranking Zen monk, suppressed mysterious incidents frequently happening at the Imperial villa called Zenrin-ji-den, situated at Nanzen-ji Temple’s present location. The Emperor Kameyama became a devoted follower of Mukanfumon Zenji, and converted his villa into a Zen temple in 1291, investing him as the founder. This was the beginning of Nanzen-ji Temple.
Later, the temple enjoyed its peak, when it ranked higher than the Kyoto Gozan (the five most important Zen temples in Kyoto). However, it fell into ruin during the Onin-Bunmei War. In the Edo period, the 27th successor Ishinsuden Zensi (Honko Kokushi) promoted its restoration and built Sanmon, Daihojo and Kohojo in its precinct of 660,000 square meters. He also created gardens in Daihojo and his residence, called Konchi-in.
In the Edo period, many gardens were created in the sub-temples of Nanzen-ji. Therefore Nanzen-ji was renowned not only as the head of Zen Buddhist temples but also as a scenic place. Scenes such as many visitors gathering in front of its gate were depicted in many pictures remaining today. It also became a theme in many poems. In a book titled “Nanzen-ji ni asobu” (Playing in Nanzen-ji) Sanyo Rai composed poems about its approach and of the green pines of the Higashiyama mountain in its background. We can know about Nanzen-ji at that time from this book.
In the Meiji period, its precinct was reduced by two-thirds, to 198,000 square meters, by confiscation, and its 25 sub-temples were reduced to 12. However, many buildings, including Sanmon, were preserved, and the whole precinct was designated as a National Historic Site.
When entering the precinct, visitors first arrive at Sanmon, which has been designated an Important Cultural Property. Sanmon is an abbreviation of San-gedatsu-mon, referring to the three gates for spiritual liberation in Buddhist teaching, which are Ku (emptiness), Muso (formlessness) and Musa (natural status). So it is a religiously important building, dividing the secular world from the sanctuary. At the same time, Sanmon has been popular as a landmark. There is a well-known word, “what a superb view”, spoken by Goemon Ishikawa (a bandit), in the kabuki drama “Sanmon Gosan-no-Kiri”.
Walking along the approach, visitors next come across a brick building called “Suiro-kaku” (High aqueduct), of the Lake Biwa Canal on the right side before entering Honbo. This structure was built, crossing the temple grounds, in the Meiji period. It has been designated a National Historic Site of modern civil engineering.
In the precinct, not only pine trees, which were the theme of poetry in an earlier time, but also cherry trees and maple trees were planted and visitors can enjoy watching flowers, fresh greenery and maple leaves from season to season. In addition to gardens designated as National Scenic Sites, like Nanzen-in, Hojo (Ohojo), and Konchi-in, many gardens were created in precincts of sub-temples. Among them, visitors can see gardens of Nanzen-in, Konchi-in, and Tenju-an.
Please visit each following garden’s site for details of gardens in Honbo such as Hojo Garden.