大原 Pure Voices in the Mist

Today I would like to talk about the other three temples I visited with my parents when we went to Ohara, a town just North of Kyoto. These three temples are united in their purpose, as all three are Tendai sect temples dedicated to the practice of Shomyo, a type of Buddhist chant that has existed in Japan since the 9th century.

The first temple I would like to talk about is also the oldest of the group. Raigo-in 来迎院, was founded by the great teacher En-nin in the 850s especially for monks to practise the new art of Shomyo 声明 (meaning ‘pure voice’). Shomyo is a Buddhist chant practised by both Tendai and Shingon sects. The chants follow a pentatonic scale, also known as the Yo scale, which follows the pattern D E G A B in Western musical notation. This means there are no semitone gaps (such as a black and white key next to each other on a piano), instead there are gaps of two or three semitones. This makes the scale sound ‘happy’ and prevents any clashing chords. Shomyo is said to have influenced a lot of Japanese folk music and vocal style.

While Raigo-in itself was not particularly spectacular, featuring a simple garden and hall with statues of worship, the path behind the temple leads to a beautiful waterfall known as 音無の滝 – “waterfall without sound”. It was given this name when Ryonin, another great teacher, came to visit Raigo-in. He went to meditate by the falls and declared in a magic spell that the falls must not drown out the sounds of the Buddhist chants. The falls are said to have fallen silent. I can tell you that the falls are definitely not silent, and make the normal amount of noise for a waterfall, so perhaps the spell has worn off. Nevertheless, they are very pretty.

The next temple on our musical pilgrimage is Jikko-in 実光院, my favourite temple of the three. This temple was founded in 1013 and was also intended for Shomyo practice. As we entered we were instructed to ring a gong, presumably as part of the tradition of this particular temple. We bought tea tickets (temple entrance fee + tea fee) and sat in the temple building looking out into the gardens. The gardens feature cherry blossoms that bloom all year round, with a spectacular weeping cherry right in the centre.

The pond at Jikko-in was designed so that the nearer side of the pond represents everyday life and the further side represents paradise. The pond is also said to be in the shape of the tradditional Chinese character for heart 心, though I couldn’t really tell. Really beautiful gardens and definitely worth visiting – it is very close to Sanzen-in, the main attraction of the area, so it could be a good secondary stop.

Finally we visited Shorin-in 勝林院, very close to Jikko-in. This temple was founded in 1013 by En-nin’s disciple. It was also intended to allow monks to practice Shomyo and the temple featured a Shomyo audio display (you press a button and shomyo chants play in the temple hall). This temple is famous for the Ohara Mondo, or Discussion at Ohara, in which Kenshin of the Tendai sect invited a teacher of Pure Land Buddhism (a rival sect) to discuss faith. It is said that during their discussion the principle Buddha statue of the temple dispersed light from his hand and enlightened the listening masses.

This temple is also not as spectacular as those surrounding it but the hall itself was beautifully carved with images of dragons and flowers. The sound display inside also gave us an idea of what all these temples are dedicated to.

After we had visited the 5 temples I have covered so far in today’s and yesterday’s blogs, we set off for a walk through the mountains to Kurama (which I have covered here and here). We followed the Tokai Nature Trail, a trail that spans over 1,000 miles of Japan. We got a little lost initially and ended up walking along the road for a good portion, but we eventually found the path.

It was a rather rainy and misty day, and we got a little damp, but I really liked the effect of the mist on the mountains. We saw some parts of the mountains in Kyoto that most people don’t visit and got a good amount of exercise (those hills are steep!). We were a little nervous about the signs that warned about bear sightings in the area, though I understand that they are very rare and the Japanese subspecies is much smaller than those in the rest of Asia, weighing 60 – 120kg. I still wouldn’t want to run into one, but they seem less scary than a grizzly bear.

We also met a very pretty cat that was hiding from the rain in a bush by the path.

There were a number of small travellers’ shrines on the path through the mountains, including one shrine that told the tale of a monk walking through the mountains who had seen a vision of the Buddha. A convenient story as no one else was around, but he got his little plaque on a mountain road nonetheless. We were hoping for a view of the town from the top but the trees were so tall and thick we couldn’t see anything.

We eventually arrived in Kurama after around two and a half hours of walking and got the train back down to Demachiyanagi station. It was a really good day out despite the weather.

Apologies if this blog took longer to load; I’ve had to switch image hosting from WordPress to Dropbox due to running out of space. I will be compressing my images in future so as to save space and hopefully improve loading times. 

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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.