The Beautiful Sub-temples of Nanzen-ji

December 9, 2014

By Eri Aoki and Shoko Osawa

Tenju-an and Konchi-in are sub-temples (tachu) of Nanzen-ji, one of the great Zen temples in Kyoto. This temple complex is nestled in the eastern hills of Kyoto in Sakyo ward. This city has so many famous places, such as Kiyomizu-dera, Kinkaku-ji, and Nijo Castle, that visitors seldom come to these small yet beautiful sub-temples. Many tourists visit these temples in November because of their autumnal tints.



This small sub-temple was built in 1336 as a dedication to the third Chief priest of Tofuku-ji, Daiminkokushi. Emperor Kameyama, who had converted his palace into a temple that would later be renamed Nanzen-ji received help from this priest. Tenju-an was destroyed in a a huge fire that engulfed Nanzen-ji in 1447. One-hundred and thirty years passed before it was reconstructed with the help of Daimyo Hosokawa Yusai.

After entering Tenju-an, visitors follow a geometric stone path to the east side of the main hall, which is a dry landscape garden that features two “islands” of moss and a pine tree in a sea of raked white gravel. Pines and maples trees form the backdrop of this garden and the maples are especially beautiful in the spring and autumn. Another stone path leads to the back garden, which consists of a small pond and a larger pond surrounded by maple trees. There are many carp (koi) in these ponds. The landscape style of these gardens is said to be typical of the gardens of the 14th century. Visitors cannot enter the main building, but can visit the garden.

In the back of the temple there is a small cemetery —the gravestones of many famous people including the founder of the Kyoto Shimbun (newspaper), are here.

Visitors can also see famous paintings by Touhaku Hasegawa on the fusuma sliding doors of the main hall. These paintings of pine trees were painted in 1602 in Zen ink-painting style; they have been designated as Important Cultural Properties.

Tenju-an has special night illumination from November 15th to 30th. During that time the temple will be lit up from 17:30 to 21:00. Fee: Adult 500 yen, high school student 400 yen, junior high school student 300 yen.

Tenju-an is located just south of the huge sanmon gate of Nanzen-ji.



Konchi-in, another small sub-temple of Nanzen-ji, was constructed by Yoshimochi Ashikaga in 1605.  This temple is famous for a garden that was designed by Enshu Kobori. It is called Tsurukame no niwa—“Crane and Turtle Garden.” The main garden has two facing arrangements of rocks and trees that represent a crane and turtle, which are symbols of happiness and longevity. One of the rock arrangements represents a “takarabune”, a treasure ship carrying the Seven Gods of Good Fortune in a sea of snowy white sand. The garden is gorgeous and powerful. This garden was built with the purpose of bringing happiness to visitors. On the left side of the garden is a pond that is built in the shape of the Chinese character for heart or “kokoro” (心) It has a small shrine and beautiful moss.

This temple has four buildings. The main hall was constructed in 1611 and is an Important Cultural Property. Next there is a tea-ceremony room. It is also an Important Cultural Property, and was made by Masaichi Kohori. Another important building that is located on a hill behind the garden is Tosho-gu, which was built to follow the instructions of Ieyasu Tokugawa’s last words.

Konchi-in is located on the south side of the street leading up to the main gate of the entrance to Nanzen-ji.


Our thoughts

After we went Tenju-an and Konchi-in, we felt really proud of Japanese culture and tradition. Before going, we thought this was just another sightseeing place. As children we felt temples were boring places. However, we found that there is a lot of history and traditional Japanese thinking in these temples. Also we discovered how the atmosphere changes with the seasons.

Nanzenji is accessible by the number 5 bus (get off at the stop called  “Dobutsu-en Mae”) or by the east-west subway line. Get off at Keage Station and walk north 5 minutes.

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