大原野 Under the Sakura Sea

When my parents came to visit (which was quite a long time ago now…) we decided to head to Oharano. This town is rather out of the way but we decided to go to get out of the crowds and check out some temples that I had read about in the wonderful book Exploring Kyoto: on Foot in the Ancient Capital by Judith Clancy (I strongly recommend this to anyone spending a considerable amount of time in Kyoto). It was very out of the way, requiring 2 trains and a bus to get there, but I enjoyed getting out of Kyoto and into new territory. We visited a number of temples and shrines that day, all of which I enjoyed, though some were better than others.

The first shrine we came to was Oharano shrine 大原野神社, founded in 784 as the new shrine to the kami of the Fujiwara family. The Emperor had moved the capital to Nagaoka-kyo that same year and the powerful Fujiwara family needed a family shrine near to the new capital. It is said that the Fujiwara family kami accepted the move and appeared riding a deer. The Fujiwara family animal is a deer, it is the same deer that appears at the Fujiwara clan shrine Kasuga Taisha in Nara. The capital was moved by Emperor Kanmu due to the increasing influence of Buddhism on the court in Nara. See this post for more background on Buddhism and politics in Nara.

Oharano Shrine continued to flourish even after the capital moved to Heian-kyo (modern Kyoto), and in 965 Emperor Murakami ordered that imperial messengers should announce important events to the kami residing at this shrine. Also please note the little turtles in the picture above! Pretty rare sight but they are native to Japan.

The shrine should have been peaceful but we had walked straight into a corporate hanami event. Hanami 花見 (literally ‘seeing flowers’), is the ancient tradition of sitting under cherry trees during full bloom and getting very drunk (it started around 700AD). Well, at least that’s what it is in practice. This was a corporate-style event complete with microphones, pre-packed lunches and business suits. This meant that we couldn’t get anywhere near the lovely weeping cherry that Oharano shrine is famous for, but at least we got a taste for true Japanese corporate hanami, further cementing my view that I don’t ever want to work for a Japanese company in Japan.

The next stop was mercifully much quieter. This next temple was Shobo-ji 正法寺, a temple founded as a hermitage by Chinese monk Chii-Daitoku. Though there is very little information about Chii, he was the disciple of a very influential Chinese monk called Jianzhen, who tried to visit Japan 6 times before finally succeeding. One of his failed attempts led to an infection that rendered him blind, meaning he never got to see Japan. Jianzhen still ended up presiding over Todai-ji in Nara, the most important temple in the country at the time, and he ordained former Emperor Shomu and former Empress Kotaku.

Though Shobo-ji, originally known as Ohara-ji, was burned down in the Onin war (1467 – 77), it was restored under the name Shobo-ji in the 17th Century. The temple features a beautiful zen rock garden with views over to the Higashiyama mountains. The garden is famous for the rocks that look like different animals, such as mice, elephants and frogs. Some of the images were a bit of a stretch, but I could see most of the ‘animals’ the monk pointed out.

Shobo-ji also had an inside section with screens and scrolls which we were allowed to take pictures of (usually it’s banned). A really lovely temple and definitely worth a visit if you are in the area.

The next temple was a little way away from the other shrines, through the forest. We went through a rather dilapidated gate with a sad looking protective statue and up the hill past some rather worn out older Japanese who praised our youthfulness in getting up the slope (it wasn’t really that steep…). The temple at the summit was Shoji-ji 勝持寺, better known by the  name Hana-dera 花寺, meaning ‘temple of flowers’. It is famous for the cherry blossoms that surround the temple. We were a little late for full bloom but there were still blossoms on the trees.

Shojiji was founded in 679 and is famous for the Saigyo cherry tree that can be found here.  This is a special type of cherry tree that was planted (or created, it’s unclear) by the poet Saigyo. Saigyo (1118 – 1190) was a poet of the Heian period. He was a body guard of the retired emperor until age 22 when he suddenly decided to become a monk. He took the religious name Saigyo, meaning Western journey, as a reference to the Western Paradise of the Amida Buddha. His poetry is fairly melocholy, lamenting the decline of Buddhism as a feature of Japanese politics and the sense of disillusionment with Buddhism felt by the Japanese people. His poems focus on sadness, loneliness, his path of Buddhism and his thoughts on the Buddhist teaching of releasing desire and its conflict with his love of nature.

An example of one of Saigyo’s poems is:

願わくは花の下にて春死なむ  その如月の望月のころ

Let me die in spring under the blossoming trees, let it be around that full moon of Kisaragi month.

Kisaragi is the classical Japanese for February, and the kanji 衣更着 sometimes used to write it (sometimes its 如月) means ‘wear more clothes’. Normally a monk would pray to die facing West towards the pure land, but Saigyo, despite his name, wishes to die surrounded by his beloved cherry trees. Perhaps he would be happy to die at Shojiji. The third generation of Saigyo’s cherry tree still lives in the gardens of Shojiji.

Finally we got a taxi from the station to Yohsiminedera, a rather out-of-the-way temple in the mountains. Though it was a little far it was worth the visit, with a huge main gate and sprawling temple complex. It cost 500円 (£2.60) entry but it was definitely worth it.

Yoshiminedera 善峯寺, is a Tendai sect temple dedicated to Kannon, a Bodhisattva of Mercy. It was founded in 1029 by the monk Gensan as a personal retreat. It too was destroyed in the Onin war but it was rebuilt in 1621. If you are wondering, the short version of the Onin war is that it started as a dispute over shogunal succession and ended up starting the Sengoku-jidai, or ‘warring states period’ that lasted a hundred years.

Yoshiminedera is famous for its Yūryu no Matsu 遊龍の松, or ‘playful dragon pine tree’, a pine tree that has been trained to grow horizontally and stretches over 40m. This pine is 600 years old and used to be over 50m but 10m were cut off due to insect damage. It is indeed very long and supported by props in several places. It is intended to look like a dragon swimming through waves, and I could see the resemblance, though if you imagine the outline of a ‘dragon swimming through waves’, a long wavy line probably sums it up pretty well –  not exactly a challenging shape but still impressive for a tree.

Praying at Yoshiminedera is said to ease the symptoms of neuralgia and lumbago, and the temple has medicated baths that open twice a year (2nd Sunday of May and October) which are said to cure these diseases. I can imagine it gets very busy on those two days and the complex car park was  huge so they are definitely prepared. It is also very popular in the Autumn.

We had to phone a taxi to get back from Yoshiminedera as we went late in the day and it was deserted. Mum pointed out that I now bow on the phone when speaking to Japanese people… I suppose I am internalising Japan quite a bit. Tomorrow I am off on a spontaneous solo trip to Ise to visit one of Japan’s most sacred shrines, so no blog posts on the weekend, but I will have lots of material for next week!

大原 Blood on the Ceilings, Princes in the Halls

Today I want to tackle one of my ‘temple knots’ – when I visit several temples in a day, it can take me a lot of effort to sort them, research the history and edit the photos in order to blog about them. I think I have finally completed my research on Ohara: the sequel – I have already visited Ohara (see here), but I returned with my parents to see the other temples and walk over the mountains to Kurama. As we did a lot I’ll split the day into a few posts. Today I want to talk about the two temples that I enjoyed the most.

The first temple I want to talk about is the most popular temple in Ohara. It is famous in Autumn for its beautiful leaves, and many people say that going in season is not great as it is so packed that you can’t really enjoy the maples. We went in off-season, just after the cherry blossoms had peaked, so we had the temple mostly to ourselves.

P1070683 P1070578 P1070579 P1070577 P1070576

This star-temple is Sanzen-in 三千院, founded in the 8th century by the founder of Tendai Buddhism, Saicho. This temple has a large complex sprawling up the mountain, and you can get stamps from each building. I settled with two so as not to be too greedy and because I was rapidly filling up my stamp book at this point. I have since bought a new one.

P1080915 P1080916 P1070573 P1070571 P1070570 P1070569

We started by exploring the halls of the first building before emerging into a beautiful moss garden with paths winding up the mountain to the other halls. The oldest hall sits in the centre of the complex. Founded in 985 this structure, Ojo Gokuraku-in, was rebuilt in 1143 and remains standing to this day (a near-miracle for Kyoto standards).

P1070564 P1070560 P1070559 P1070557 P1070553 P1070552

Ohara is known as somewhere noblemen would go in order to peacefully study Buddhism out of the political intrigue and bustle of the city. It was to Sanzen-in that the second son of the Emperor Montoku (826 – 858) travelled in order to practice Buddhism. This became a tradition and Sanzen-in has had several members of the imperial family as head priests, giving it the special title of Monzeki 門跡.

P1070550 P1070541P1070539 P1070535 P1070532

Half way up the hill was a small tea-house run by a couple of nice ladies, that was giving out tea for free. I had a rather interesting salty tea and a very nice sweet tea, both of which containing gold leaf. I bought a packet of the sweet green tea.

P1070538 P1070530 P1070529 P1070526P1070540

At the top of the temple there were racks of small figurines of Kannon, goddess of mercy, that had been donated by worshippers. I think that this is in order to gain good Karma or attain steps towards enlightenment. Some people had added extra charms to their statues, I assume in order to improve their luck.

P1070548 P1070543x P1070545 P1070546 P1070547P1070542

Sanzen-in is a great place to visit all year round, especially with the leaves falling in the Autumn. I would also recommend going in the off-season for a nice tranquil adventure around a large temple garden with several beautiful buildings. Entrance costs 700円 (£3.70).

P1070520 P1070685 P1070500 P1070506 P1070509 P1070510 P1070513 P1070515 P1070517

The second temple I want to talk about is the third that we visited. Hosen’in 宝泉院, was founded in 1012 and is home to a number of interesting features. Entering the temple you notice the large pine opposite the gate which is shaped a bit like Mt Fuji. This tree is over 600 years old. In addition there is another 300 year old tree in the temple gardens.

P1070643 P1070644 P1070645 P1070648

The gardens are famous for their ‘picture’ style – you can sit inside the temple looking out at the gardens and the surrounding wooden temple structure makes you feel like you are looking at a painting. There were many people sitting in the temple enjoying the grounds, as well as a nice monk who was explaining the features of the temple to visitors.

P1070649 P1070651 P1070655P1080920

This temple is known for its feature of chi-tenjo 血天井, literally ‘bloody ceiling’. Above the area where people sit to look at the tranquil gardens is a ceiling with a much less peaceful history. The boards of the ceiling originally belonged to the floor of Fushimi castle. This castle was built in 1592 as a retirement palace for Toyotomi Hideyoshi, however, when his regime fell it was commandeered by Torii Mototada, a vassal of the rapidly rising Tokugawa clan. In order to secure the shogunate, it was vital that the Tokugawa clan defeat its rivals, and it was rumoured that a force of 40,000 would be descending on their castles near Kyoto, with Fushimi castle first in line for attack. Mototada promised to sacrifice himself for the good of the Tokugawa clan.

P1070662 P1070664 P1070678 P1070680

It is said that they held out the castle for ten days against the besieging forces, with a garrison of 2,000. During the siege an arrow with a message tied to it was fired into the castle. The message addressed one of the defenders, informing them that the attackers held his wife and child and that they would be crucified unless he betrayed his people. Soon after a fire was set within the castle, but the defenders fought on until there were only ten of them remaining. Seeing that they could not hold the castle much longer, Mototada and his men committed seppuku, ritual slitting of the belly, so as to die honourable deaths. In holding the castle for so long they had given the Tokugawa time to gather their troops, securing victories that led to the Tokugawa shogunate, which lasted over 150 years.

P1070667P1070669 P1070670 P1070673 P1070675

The ceilings of several temples in Kyoto used the bloodied planks from the castle in order to commemorate these men and their embodiment of samurai spirit. A grim story, but still very  interesting. The blood was not very visible on this particular ceiling but I think I could see some.


I would recommend visiting Hosen’in if you find yourself in Ohara – it has several really interesting features and is a tranquil, relaxing temple. The zen-style gardens around the side of the temple were also beautiful. Next time I will talk about the other three temples I visited in Ohara.