Kyoto’s Great Zen Temple

December 4, 2014


By Chinami Aizawa, Marino Tekuchi and Nao Mochizuki


Nanzen-ji is one of Kyoto’s great Zen temples. It is located in Sakyo ward at the foot of the eastern hills near Sanjo Street. Nanzen-ji has large grounds and many things to see, so it is an especially good place to take a walk. Also, there are many other famous sightseeing spots nearby, such as Heian Shrine, the Lake Biwa Canal, Murin-an, Eikando, the Kyoto Zoo, the Municipal and Modern Art Museums and the Nomura Museum.

As you see in the pictures, an especially good time to visit Nanzen-ji is in November when the leaves of the maple and gingko trees change into red, yellow and gold. This temple is not only popular among foreign tour groups, but also for Japanese. In November is is better to visit on a weekday as the weekends are very crowded with people.

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What to see at Nanzen-ji

In Nanzen-ji temple there is no water to purify ourselves by gargling and washing our hands. Such water basins are found at shrines and not temples. Nanzen-ji’s great sanmon (gate), built in 1628, is rated as one of the top three temple gates in Japan. It is not enclosed so it is accessible at any time of the day or night. On the second story is a chamber that contains paintings of celestial maidens, a wooden statue of the Buddha and 16 rakkan. You can see wonderful views of Nanzen-ji and Kyoto city from here. There are many souvenir shops and yudofu restaurants on the road leading up to the temple. Many events are held at Nanzen-ji throughout the year.

Fee areas; We cannot enter the garden of the Hojo (head priest’s quarters), the second story of the sanmon gate, or the sub-temple of Nanzen-in without buying an entrance ticket. In general visitors pay about 500 yen to see each one of these places. However, the entrance fee for Nanzen-in is 300 yen. Nanzen-in was the retirement villa of Emperor Kameyama and has a beautiful pond garden. It is located in back of Nanzen-ji on the other side of the aqueduct.

Famous Cuisine

The area around Nanzen-ji is famous for yudofu—a tofu hotpot. Tofu is prpared in many ways in the restaurants around Nanzen-ji. For example, in summer, tofu is served chilled with ginger and myoga. People sometimes eat tofu with flavored with kudzu paste on top. Boiled tofu, or yudofu, is served in in a nabe (hotpot) at the table and warms you up in winter. One famous yudofu restaurant, Shousouin, unfortunately closed a few years ago, but it had been serving tofu ever since the Edo era.


In 1264, Emperor Kameyama built Zenrin-ji dono as a detached palace in the eastern hills of Kyoto. Twenty-five years later, in 1289, he became a Zen priest and converted his palace into a Zen temple. He dedicated this temple to a famous priest of Tofuku-ji Temple, Daiminkokushi. This temple later became known as Nanzen-ji (“Southern Temple of Enlightenment”). At that time, Emperor Kameyama changed his title to Mukan Fumon and served as the temple’s first head priest. He believed that the chief priest of Nanzen-ji should be the best Zen priest in all of Japan. So from then on, “The chief priest of Nanzen-ji” was always thought to be the best Zen priest in Japan.

In 1334, Emperor Godaigo ranked Zenrin-ji dono as the best among the “Gozan.” “Gozan” meant “the Five Mountains”, and was a system of ranking the five greatest Zen temples of Kyoto.

In 1467, Nanzen-ji temple was burnt down during the Onin War. The temple had been rebuilt, but full-scale reestablishment started much later, so it languished for years.

The quarters of the head priest  (Hojo) features three dry landscape gardens (karesansui). The first and largest is said to be built by Kobori Enshu around 1600. The garden is called “Toranoko-watshi-no-niwa” (Tiger cub crossing the river), because of the placement of the stones. In the Hojo, there are about 40 paintings, the most famous of which are tigers painted on fusuma by Kano Tanyu. They are Important Cultural Properties. Visitors can also request green tea here.

After the Meiji Restoration, the Lake Biwa canal or aqueduct was built through the grounds of Nanzen-ji temple. It was used to bring water to Kyoto from Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture. This sight became famous for the citizens of Kyoto.

Today, Nanzen-ji is known as the best Zen temple in Japan.


Lake Biwa Aqueduct


How to get to Nanzen-ji

Visitors can access Nanzen-ji by bus or train. If you want to get there from Kyoto station, take the number 5 bus and get off at either at “Kyoto “Dobutsuen-mae” or “Nanzen-ji Temple Eikando-michi”. It takes about 30 minutes and costs 230 yen. The buses on this route run about every ten minutes, though at peak times the bus is packed full like a can of sardines. If you take the east-west subway, get off at Keage Station and walk north.

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