曼殊院 White Stone Rivers

When you live in Kyoto temples have a tendency to blur into one-another. It’s easy to get into the mindset that once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all. Hopefully through my blog you’ve learned that actually almost all the temples in Kyoto have an interesting history or quirk that makes them special. They also have their unique stamp of course. That being said, the act of visiting a temple is often the same; have a wander around, get a stamp done, take pictures of things that look interesting and then on to the next one, so it’s always pleasant when you find something truly different, or just something you haven’t done before. On Saturday I found one of those temples.


Manshu-in 曼殊院 is a temple near Shugakuin and was number 4 on our ‘temple trail’. It was the only temple that we paid an entrance fee for and it will certainly stick in my memory. The reason being that this is one of those wonderful sprawling temples with passageways and rooms and a zen garden; you pay your money and then you go into the temple itself in your socks to explore.

In Japanese houses and temples you certainly don’t wear shoes, ever, but the temple floors were very cold! They had a basket of very warm looking knitted socks at the entrance but I didn’t realise that they would be necessary until my feet were already turning to ice. Despite my feet complaining at the unforgiving freezing wooden floor, I really enjoyed looking around and seeing all the artwork, artifacts and architecture the temple had to offer.

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This temple allows you to take photos of the garden but does not allow photos of the inside or artwork. I only realised this after I’d taken some pictures and I’m sure they won’t mind too much if I share them with you – after all you may choose to visit after seeing them! Manshu-in has screen paintings done by several very famous Edo period artists, such as Kano Tanyu, Kano Eitoku and Kanyu, each with their own distinct style. The screens were beautiful and definitely worth going to see. There were also several Buddhist artefacts as well as a collection of old cooking equipment. There were a few signs in Japanese explaining the exhibition but not very much and nothing in English. Bear in mind that there were far more screens and objects than those pictured here as due to aforementioned photo-ban I didn’t take pictures of most of them.  In fact the writing in photo number two to the right of the screen reads ‘photography prohibited’ in Japanese… whoops!

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All around Manshu-in is a beautiful Zen garden, complete with raked gravel, rocks and trees. In fact, it has an ancient spreading white pine tree that is 400 years old! It’s being propped up but seems to still be going strong. The gravel parted the islands of greenery like a river and the red matting on the temple decking made me feel like I was on the set of a Japanese historical drama. Unsurprisingly this garden has been designated a national place of scenic beauty. Unlike a lot of Zen temples you are not allowed to sit on the outer decking to contemplate the gravel, but to be honest in the winter you wouldn’t want to expose your backside to the cold that your feet are already going through. These photos are guilt-free as you are allowed to take pictures of the outside.

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Manshu-in was founded in the 8th century but it was moved to its present location in 1656. It is often called Manshu-in Monzeki 饅衆院門跡; Monzeki is a honourific granted to a temple if it traditionally has a member of the royal family as a high priest and Manshu-in’s first head priest was the Emperor’s nephew.

It is also linked to Buddhist royalty as it was founded by Saicho, the founder of the Tendai school, a great figure in Japanese Buddhism. I even had to write an essay on him in my first year of university. He travelled to China (like a lot of monks did, remind you of my previous post?) to bring back Buddhist texts. Two of the ships sent to China sank but Saicho’s made it, sealing the future of Japanese Buddhism.

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Tendai is still one of the main schools of Japanese Buddhism and (without going into specifics because I really don’t understand all the varying Buddhist strands) they believe in a comprehensive approach to Buddhism, supporting all ways to reach enlightenment while also reconciling Shinto beliefs with Buddhsim by declaring that Shinto gods are simply a representation of universal Buddhahood and therefore acceptable to worship. Apparently Saicho was also the first to bring tea to Japan, which if it’s true was pretty monumental and probably as important as bringing Buddhist teachings (depending on who you ask).

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We also met a very nice cat outside Manshu-in which would not stop meowing. Very pretty cat. I think cats like temples because I see them around temples a lot. Or maybe it’s because I live in Kyoto and temples are everywhere.


Definitely a fun temple to wander round at your leisure, looking down passageways and coming across tiny courtyards with gardens in the middle as well as the garden round the outside. The temple entrance fee was 500円 (£2.80) and worth it in my opinion – being allowed to walk around the inside of a temple is fairly rare and were the artwork in a museum you’d probably pay the same just to see the paintings without the garden or the temple.

京都御所 Following Imperial Footsteps

Yesterday I was lucky enough to go around Kyoto Imperial Palace – though usually closed to the public without prior appointment, the Imperial Household Agency opened up the palace for the Autumn viewing this week (30th Oct – 5th Nov). These viewings are infrequent (twice a year) so it was an opportunity not to be missed and was definitely worth seeing. The Imperial Palace or 京都御所 (Kyoto Gosho) is located in the Imperial Palace Park which happens to be right next to where I live. The park itself is beautiful, covering around 24 acres. Within it are two restricted areas – the Imperial Palace and the Omiya Palace (the palace for retired emperors and empress dowagers – today it is used as the official visiting residence when the Emperor visits Kyoto).

 This post may end up being somewhat of a history lesson as it concerns Kyoto’s past as the Imperial capital, hopefully you’ll find it as interesting as I do, though if not there are loads of pictures below. While I’ve studied Japanese history before I find we looked at specific events without pulling together a continuous narrative – by looking at one building’s history you can get a good sense of Japanese history as a continuous timeline and really appreciate how old Kyoto actually is. I’ll talk about the history in between the pictures as it breaks up an otherwise daunting wall of text. Also the pictures give you a better idea of what I’m talking about.

The palace itself is beautiful with amazing gardens. I was given an English-language leaflet when I entered but it turns out that they have directly copied everything from the Wikipedia article on the palace – obviously  they’ve hired a lazy translator or they didn’t want to pay for one. The palace includes the buildings used for coronation ceremonies (only the current Emperor was crowned in Tokyo, the others were crowned in Kyoto) and the residences themselves. You can’t actually go inside any of the buildings but they have opened up the screens for the public to see. There are also beautiful stroll gardens that are worth the trip alone.

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The Kyoto Imperial Palace is no longer the residence of the Emperor; the Emperor moved to the capital Tokyo after the Meiji restoration in 1868 as he (in theory) was now in power. Prior to this the Emperor was based in Kyoto as a figurehead while the Bakufu (Samurai-based Shogunate) held government in Tokyo. Though the Emperor moved to Tokyo it is debatable how much power he actually obtained, however this marks the shift in Japanese history away from Shogunate-based government towards a government centred around the Emperor. The Meiji restoration in itself is fascinating and worth reading about as it is the birth of modern Japan – in order to understand Japanese history up to WWII you should probably start with the Meiji restoration and its causes.

Along with the opening of the grounds, there were also various displays of flower arrangements and historical artifacts. The sedan chair used by the Empress to travel from Kyoto to Tokyo in 1868 was on display; it took her 20 days to get there and the chair was pretty small – I doubt she was in a good mood when she arrived. The flower arrangements were incredible. I knew that flower arranging or 生け花 (ikebana) was an art form in Japan but I never realised how beautiful it was. These aren’t just picking nice colours and putting flowers in a vase – the Japanese pay attention much more to the form of the flowers and creating an overall structure as well as the colour scheme, making it more like painting or drawing with flowers.

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The Kyoto Imperial Palace is not the original building that was constructed in 794 – Japan has always suffered from fires and natural disasters and it burned down 6 times in the Edo period alone (a period spanning around 250 years). However, the palace has been faithfully reconstructed time and time again in the Heian architecture style (Heian period: 794 – 1185). Originally the palace was a ‘secondary residence’ of the Emperor but became used more and more frequently until it became the official Imperial residence in 1331 with the coronation of  Emperor Kogen. The palace was therefore the primary residence of the Emperor and the Imperial Court for 537 years.

The stroll gardens were also fantastic. A bit like the flower arranging the focus is on form and ‘nature’. I say nature in quotes because every tree and bush has been pruned to perfection, giving the impression of a garden that has grown exactly as it is meant to, as if all the trees and plants know the same rules and are following them. The bridges seemed to blend in with the nature, not standing out as man-made or out-of-place – the creation of a natural garden has also been taken to artistic levels.

P1010571P1010584P1010586 P1010595 P1010599 P1010602 P1010606 P1010612The architecture itself was impressive – hundreds of wooden supports underneath the roofs made them seem as if they were sitting on nests. The pattern of sliding doors and screens that went into the palace in layers showed how everything could be opened up or sectioned off to allow privacy. The screens themselves were beautiful and some appeared to be decorated with gold leaf. The Imperial Household Agency had also put up a number of figures wearing the clothes of the time to show what people would be wearing as they lived in the palace.

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Sadly I missed the opportunity to watch the ancient game of Kemari – basically a game of keep-me-up with a deerskin ball. Japanese nobles would try to keep the ball in the air for as long as possible using their feet, head, hands etc. The game was non-competitive but I can imagine it got pretty heated. They would play wearing traditional court clothes of the era – think large kimonos with long sleeves, hardly ideal sports attire.

My visit to the palace was actually pretty short – it took me about an hour to go round everything thoroughly. Despite it being quite a short tour I would strongly recommend it. Even if you are visiting Kyoto when the palace is shut you can book a free tour with the Imperial Household Agency – you just have to do it a few days in advance and you can book online in English.