Formerly known as Zenrinzen-ji, Nanzen-ji is a Zen Buddhist temple in the Higashiyama area of Kyoto. Surrounded by beautiful mountains, it is one of the most well-known Rinzai Zen temples in Japan. It was originally Emperor Kameyama’s retirement villa and it includes a temple hall and garden centered around a pond. Nanzen-ji is home to a sanmon (a great gate that holds importance within Japanese Buddhist temples), an exquisite European style canal and also multiple sub-temples, each with its own charm. You can enter the Nanzen-ji complex free of charge, but the Abbot’s Quarters and each sub-temple has its own entrance fee. The area is one of Kyoto’s best spot to view the romantic red and orange autumn leaves in the fall.
Nanzen-ji is home to a sanmon (a great gate that holds importance within Japanese Buddhist temples), an exquisite European style canal and also multiple sub-temples, each with its own charm.
Sanmon Gate & View
The giant gate you see as you walk into the Nanzen-ji complex is called a sanmon, or “mountain gate” (“mountain” being a traditional way to refer to temples). Built in 1628, the gate is also called “Sangedatsumon” (Gate of the Three Liberations) and is the most important gate within the Japanese Zen Buddhist temple. Standing at 22m high, it was built by Tōdō Takatora to memorialize those who died in the Siege of Osaka Castle in 1615. The gate has also been featured in famous movies such as Lost in Translation. Not only a great photo spot, by paying an admission fee you can climb up the stairs of the gate to see a 360 degree view of Kyoto and the Nanzen-ji complex. A little warning… the Kyoto-esque view makes it very worth it, but the stairs are steep- be prepared to use every muscle in your legs.
Hōjō (Abbot’s Quarters)
As you make your way through the Sanmon Gate and walk towards the back of the complex you will find a building called the Hōjō. The Hōjō, which served as the abbot’s quarters, is the main structure at present and a National Treasure. The building contains simple and exquisite rock gardens, a Bodhisattva Kannon statue, and various works of art, including a famous sliding-door painting by Kanō Tan’yū entitled Tiger Drinking Water. Established by Emperor Kameyama, the building has been destroyed by fire three times. The current building was constructed after the Momoyama period.
Konchi-in Temple is one of the sub-temples of Nanzen-ji. It is believed that the temple was built in the 1400s by Daigo Tokuki, the 68th Chief Priest of Nanzen-ji. The temple was originally situated in northern Kyoto, but was relocated to its present location in 1605. The abbot’s quarters were originally located at a famous castle called Fushimi Castle, where this hall had been built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi for his beloved mistress, Yodogimi.
Past the canal and up the stairs you will find a little temple called Nanzen-in. Nanzen-in has a spectacular garden that dates from the 14th century. Especially pretty in autumn, it is one of Kyoto’s most popular spots for viewing fall colors. It is said that the Nanzen-in garden is a true representation of Kamakura period style. The garden also features a pond in the shape of a dragon called Sogen-ike Pond, believed to have been designed by retired Emperor Kameyama himself.
One of the charms of Nanzen-ji is the beautiful tea room near the front of the temple complex. For just 500 yen you can sit in a beautiful room with an outstanding view of a waterfall and drink hot green tea. The matcha tea also comes with a traditional Japanese sweet, or wagashi. There is no time limit, so you can sit in the room, relax, sip on your tea and unwind for as long as you wish.
This European style canal is called Sosui, and it is a waterway that connects Kyoto City to Lake Biwa in Shiga. The canal, which looks like something out of a Ghibli Film, is a very popular photo spot amongst locals as well as overseas tourists. The construction of this canal began in 1881 and took nine years to complete.
Nanzen-ji began its history as the detached palace of Emperor Kameyama (1249 – 1305), who built the villa in 1264 while still serving as emperor. Encountering a crisis while serving as cloistered emperor with his son ruling publically, he eventually entered the Buddhist priesthood in 1289 after being outmaneuvered by political rivals and stripped of much of his former influence. Becoming a student of the Zen Master Busshin Daimin Kokushi, Emperor Kameyama eventually donated his detached palace and grounds for the construction of a grand Zen temple in 1291.
Despite its status, Nanzen-ji stands not first-ranked in the famous “five mountains” system of Zen temples… but above it. Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu elevated Nanzen-ji above the system in 1385 in order to place another temple as first ranked without stripping Nanzen-ji of its importance.
Unfortunately, Nanzen-ji was destroyed by fire multiple times during the Muromachi period in 1393, 1447, and 1467. Nanzen-ji was finally rebuilt from 1597 when Ishin Sūden, a powerful advisor to the Tokugawa Shogunate, was appointed as chief abbot and managed to raise the funds. The layout of the temple and number of sub-temples has varied over time, expanding to its fullest during the Edo Period. The majority of its architecture dates from the 17th century onward.
Even now, Nanzen-ji remains one of the most important Zen Buddhist temples in Japan and operates as the headquarters of Rinzai Zen.
〒606-8435 京都府京都市 左京区南禅寺福地町86
- General Admission: ¥500 (Hōjō, Sanmon Gate)
- High School Students: ¥400 (Hōjō, Sanmon Gate)
- Junior High, Primary School: ¥300 (Hōjō, Sanmon Gate)
- General Admission: 08.40 – 17:00 (March – November), 08.40 - 16:30 (December – February)
- Closed: No closing days