Nanzen-ji Temple was originally built in the late thirteenth century as the imperial villa of Cloistered Emperor Kameyama. In 1291, however, he converted it into a Zen temple and installed a Zen master by the name of Mukan as its head abbot. Emperor Kameyama is said to have converted to Zen Buddhism after Mukan was able to quell a series of ghostly happenings that had occurred at the villa.
Nanzen-ji Temple later reached the zenith of its influence when it and was ranked above medieval Kyoto’s “Five Temple” (gozan) hierarchy of Zen monasteries established to strengthen Zen’s ties to the Japanese state. Despite being devastated during Japan’s period of civil war during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Nanzen-ji Temple was later restored during the Edo period by Ishin Suden, the temple’s 270th head monk. It was then that edifices such as the current Sanmon Gate and the large and small abbot halls (Ōhōjō and Kohōjō) were reconstructed on its 660,000m² grounds. This was also the time when famous gardens were built in front of the temple’s large abbott hall and at the Konchi-in sub-temple where Ishin Suden himself lived.
During the Edo period, Nanzen-ji Temple created many sub-temples and became well-known not only as the head temple of a Zen Buddhist sect, but also as a place of scenic beauty. Historical pictures show that many people visited Nanzen-ji Temple during this period. These pictures show crowds of people not only on the temple’s grounds and inside its gardens, but also in front of the Sanmon Gate. The temple also became the subject of many poems. In the Confucian scholar and poet Rai Sanyō’s poem “An Excursion to Nanzen-ji Temple,” there are descriptions that call to mind the scenery of olden times through their descriptions of the pine trees around Nanzen-ji Temple’s main entrance path and on the Higashiyama mountains in the background.
During the Meiji period, land confiscated by the government resulted in Nanzen-ji temple’s holdings being reduced to 198,000m², 1/3 of what it once was. Its 25 sub-temples were also reduced to only twelve. However, many of its buildings, including the Sanmon Gate, still exist today. The entirety of Nanzen-ji’s temple grounds has been designated a national Cultural Property.
As you enter the grounds of Nanzen-ji Temple, the first thing you see is the Sanmon Gate, which has been designated an Important Cultural Property of Japan. In Japanese, Sanmon means “three gates,”” a reference to the three gates of emptiness, formlessness and nonconstructedness that lead to enlightenment in Buddhist monastic training. From a religious viewpoint, then, it is an important structure that divides the sacred realm of the temple from the secular world. At the same time, however, Sanmon has long been widely regarded as a popular landmark, as illustrated by the famous line “What a superb view!” spoken by the bandit Ishikawa Goemon in the kabuki play “”The Temple Gate and the Paulownia Crest”” (Sanmon Gosan-no-Kiri).
Walking along the main entrance path into the main temple, one encounters a brick structure to the right; this is the aqueduct of the Lake Biwa Canal that was constructed through the temple grounds during the Meiji Period. This aqueduct has been designated one of Kyoto’s Civil Engineering Heritage Sites.
On the premises, not only are there pine trees planted that in an earlier time were the theme of poetry, but also cherry blossoms and maple trees, so that there are flowers, fresh greenery and autumn colors that can be enjoyed according to the season. Also, in addition to the Nanzen-in, Hojo, and Konchi-in Gardens, each of which have been designated Places of Scenic Beauty, there are many other gardens that have been created on the grounds of Nanzen-ji Temple’s many sub-temples. Of these, it is possible to see the gardens at Nanzen-in, Konchi-in, and Tenju-an.
For information about each of the gardens in the main temple, including the famous Hojo Garden, please visit their individual pages below.
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