A quaint farming village located about an hour north of Kyoto city proper by bus, Ōhara has long been home to a particular musical style of Buddhism called shōmyō, with most temples in the area practicing. Enjoyed as a nature-filled trip from the hustle and bustle of city life, tourists can dress up in the traditional Ōhara-me women’s costume or take their time leisurely exploring the historic temples, sampling local delicacies, and taking in gorgeous gardens that show off different colors and flowers depending on the season.
The biggest temple in Ōhara, Sanzen-in is a lovely place to visit no matter the season. Local shops and restaurants line the path from the village bus stop to the temple gates, and tourists can enjoy the more rural sights after travelling from the city proper. Over a thousand years old, Sanzen-in is a Tendai sect temple established by the sect founder, Saichō (767 – 822). It is a monzeki temple, where members of the Imperial family traditionally served as the head priests. The Guest Hall features a gorgeous framed garden where you can enjoy green tea and a Japanese sweet for a small fee, and the temple offers an area to copy sutra as well. Sanzen-in’s various gardens reflect the seasons and are particularly famous in the summer for hydrangeas and in autumn for the fall colors. The path through the grounds meanders around small halls with ancient histories and through moss gardens dotted with smiling little jizō statues, making for an enjoyable and relaxing trip. Before you go, you have the opportunity to view some of the temple’s oldest treasures within an exhibit hall as well as browse a rather well stocked shop.
Founded eight hundred years ago in affiliation with the nearby Shōrin-in, Hōsen-in is a small temple that boasts two gorgeous gardens and fascinating architectural points throughout its grounds. Upon entering the temple you will catch sight of the top of a large pine tree shaped to resemble the iconic Mt. Ōmi-Fuji, a main feature in the two-sided framed garden viewable from within. Visitors are served green tea and a sweet, and taking a seat to enjoy the garden while sipping tea can be a good chance to de-stress. Interestingly enough, the ceiling of this hall was constructed using the oily, bloody floorboards of a castle where a large ritual suicide took place in order to pacify the lost souls. Another point of interest is the water basin in the right corner of the veranda where two bamboo poles stick out of the wooden boards. Put your ear to one of the poles and enjoy the melodic sound created by water in cleverly constructed dripping basins beneath your feet. Just inside the temple gate and down some steps is another garden, the Hōraku-en. Featuring a stone bridge and interesting stonework shapes, it’s a quaint way to finish up your visit to Hōsen-in.
The one temple in the Ōhara valley not in the same close-knit area, Jakkō-in can be accessed by travelling through countryside scenery up to a hilly area about fifteen minutes away. Founded in 594, this temple is most famous for being the nunnery where Empress Dowager Kenreimon-in, whose family all perished in a great battle, spent her last days in cloistered solitude. Though the main hall and its ancient contents were severely damaged by arson in 2000, it was rebuilt in 2005. The once great hime komatsu pine tree that was mentioned in the Tale of the Heike was also damaged by fire and later withered, though the trunk still remains. On the grounds are several small gardens with ponds, cherry trees, moss, and mountain trees, as well as a large iron lantern donated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi when his concubine Yodogimi had the temple restored in the 1600’s. The path leading up to the main hall is particularly beautiful, and like many temples in Ōhara, Jakkō-in is most lovely, (and most popular), when the fall colors set in.
Otonashi no Taki
An uphill hike past Sanzen-in and Raigō-in temples into the surrounding mountains, those feeling up for some exercise can take themselves to the “silent waterfall”, Otonashi no Taki. The scenery along the way definitely reminds you that you’re far into the countryside, with crumbling stairs and towering trees on either side. Upon approach you might begin to notice that the waterfall isn’t exactly quiet, despite its name. The moniker actually comes from a story that says a priest at the nearby temples, which were famous as training grounds for Buddhist chanting, became annoyed at the sound of the waterfall interfering in their studies and ordered the waterfall to be silent. It’s said that this was effective, so perhaps all that sound comes from the water hitting the rocks and not the water flow itself. A waterfall that fans out over the rocks on its way down about 3 or 4 meters, the Otonashi no Taki is an option for Ōhara visitors who want to take a short break from temples.
Jikkō-in is a small temple located near the large Sanzen-in in Ōhara where visitors can enjoy a cup of green tea while looking out over a charming garden or taking a close look at instruments used in the shōmyō Buddhist chanting traditional in the area. The charming Keishin-en Garden features a pond and waterfall as well as “borrowed scenery” from the mountains across the valley, and also is home to a special type of sakura that blooms in autumn and lasts until spring.
Located next to other famous temples, Shōrin-in has an important place in the history of shōmyō, Tendai Buddhist chanting, that was nurtured in the temples of rural Ōhara. The first training hall for shōmyō in Japan, Shōrin-in’s formal name is Gyozan Ōhara-dera. Though Shōrin-in is often overlooked due to the fact that the exterior of its main hall can be easily seen without entering the precincts, this temple contains some gorgeous Buddhist statuary within its single hall and was once the site of a great doctrinal debate between famous monks almost a thousand years ago. Follow the beckoning golden light of Shōrin-in’s shining Amida Buddha and take a look inside.
One of the many Tendai sect Buddhist temples in Ōhara, Raigō-in is somewhat removed from the others and offers a peaceful sanctuary located near the Otonashi no Taki waterfall. Founded as a dōjō at which monks practiced shōmyō Buddhist chanting, a form of musical worship which influenced the development of later Japanese music, Raigō-in practices shōmyō to this day. Though the only remaining building on the property is the main hall, it contains a trio of statues classified as Important Cultural Properties that includes the Medicine Buddha, as well as boasts an interesting painted ceiling featuring Buddhist angels.