April 12, 2004

by Naomi Kawahara & Kasane Kondo

Nanzen-ji Temple was ranked as the highest temple of the Zen sect. It was established by a former Emperor, called Kameyama, in 1291, and a statue and picture of him can be found in the main temple building. When he was emperor, he was well trained in Zen philosophy, and left these words to mark his place in history, ‘I wish to establish Nanzen-ji so that everyone in the world can come to be accepted for who they are and receive kindness.


This is a very impressive gate, which is 22 meters high. A famous episode concerning Sanmon is when Ishikawa Goemon, an infamous outlaw whose life is dramatized in Kabuki, looked down from on top of the gate and praised the beauty of the scenery surrounding the temple. You can go up on top of the gate yourself, and retrace this villain’s footsteps.

Kano-ha (Kano school)

There are two main buildings in the temple complex, called ‘Dai-hojo’ and ’Ko-hojo’. They hold 124 paintings on paper sliding doors and screens which are designated as important cultural properties. These pictures were painted by the Kano-school of artists; Kano Motonobu, Kano Eitoku, Kano Tanyu, and so on. Above all others, the ‘Mizunomi-no-tora (a tiger drinking water)’ in Ko-hojo is recognized as the greatest work to be painted by Kano Tanyu.

Karesansui (dry garden)

In Seiryo-den, there is a Karesansui garden. It is made up of sand, stones, rocks and moss and designed so as to replicate the flow of the ocean and land. The main feature of the garden is the regularly traced ripples in the sand. The root of its development came about through the necessity of making a garden in an area with a poor water supply and limited space. This style of garden is strongly influenced by Zen philosophy. Usually it is the focus of meditating individuals, who face it from an indoor position in total silence.

Suirokaku (Aqueduct)

After this water carrying technique was employed in Europe, some examples were designed and built in Japan, only by Japanese architects. They drew the water from Lake Biwa in Shiga prefecture, which is the largest lake in Japan. Film companies often use this site as a location for dramas.

Yu-Tofu (hot- bean curd)

There are some fine bean curd restaurants to be found around Nanzen-ji. During the Edo-period (1603-1867) there was a good high quality water supply here, so making tofu was very profitable at that time, and some restaurants on the approach road to the temple served visitors their unique and delicious yu-dofu. Since then it has become one of the most popular of Nanzen-ji’s characteristics. One of the shops has even been in existence for 360 years.

You can enjoy both the interior and exterior of Nanzen-ji temple. It comes as a pleasant surprise to be able to stand on top of the Sanmon gate and cast your eyes over the surrounding area, or to go to a yu-dofu restaurant to take a rest. In winter, you can see beautiful nearby mountains covered with snow, while in spring, you can enjoy the wonderful sight of maple tree leaves.

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