20 Dec Our Lynch Family Favorite Japan Shrines, Temples, & Castles
In the midst of all the noise and complexities of the Tokyo metropolis, Meiji provides a quiet, stoic oasis for rest and reflection. Once past the torii (gate) at the entrance, one can savor the natural smells and lush greenery of the 120,000 evergreen trees that cover the expansive 175 acres. Based on Shinto tradition, be sure to write your prayers on the wooden blocks just outside the shrine.
Yasukuni Shrine (Controversial yet interesting!)
Yasukuni Shrine was founded in 1869 in honor of the Kami (spirits) who fell in the Boshin War that restored the Meiji Emperor to power in 1868-9. Since then Yasukuni has expanded to include the war dead of all Japan’s subsequent conflicts and now the names, or the Shrine would say “souls,” of over 2.5 million fallen are enshrined here.
The shrine became controversial when Japan’s wartime leader General Hideki Tojo and 13 other Class-A war criminals (found guilty of war crimes by the allied forces after World War II) were enshrined there in 1979. Entrance to the shrine is through a massive gray, metal torii gate, said to be the tallest in the country at 22m (72 feet) and a stately avenue of cherry and gingko trees. Of particular note is the State of Kamikaze Pilot, a bronze statue representing a kamikaze pilot stands to the left of Yushukan museum’s entrance.
Along with Toshogu and Rinnoju, Futarasan Shrine is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Temples of Nikko site designation. The big draw of Futarasan is Shin-kyo, “The Red Bridge,” the sacred bridge over the Daiya River. This bridge represents a special place in Japanese culture and is considered one of the three most beautiful bridges in Japan. It is famed as the spot where Buddhist monk Shodo Shonin, founder of Nikko, was carried across the river on the backs of two huge serpents.
Although not part of Futarasan Shrine, we feel a walk to nearby Kanmangafuchi Abyss/Gorge is a most pleasant experience. This is one of our most liked surreal sites near Nikko, an approx. 20-30 minute walk from Nikko proper. The Abyss is a collection of jizo statues (the small stone statues of the Buddhist protector of travelers and children) set along a lush, wooded path. Please note one of the statues mid-way is known as Bake-jizo, who mocks travelers foolish enough to attempt to count all the jizo (supposedly uncountable and a bit reminiscent of our beloved Koyasan). The small gorge alongside the trail adds to the mystical, natural setting of this site.
Set in a beautiful forest, with its entrance marked by a huge tori, Toshogu Shrine dates back to 1650. Toshogu is the final resting place for Tokugawa Ieyasu of the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan for over 250 years (up to 1860). The shrine complex offers many nice walking opportunities.
Dating back to the 8th century, Fushimi Inari includes a wandering pathway around 3 miles up the mountain lined with hundreds of beautiful red torii, now faded to look orange. Fushimi is the most famous of several thousand shrines dedicated to Inari across Japan. Inari is the Shinto god of rice, and foxes are believed to be his messengers, hence the many fox statues found along the pathway. Many of the menacing kitsune statues have a symbolic key to a rice granary held in the mouth, and most of the statues are adorned with a red votive bib called a yodarekake. The ten’no no yodarekake, or “drooling bib for the Emperor” was a scarf worn inside the kimono, but the ‘yodare-kake’ or ‘suga’ used at Inari most likely symbolizes a Samurai throat protector of lamellar armor, scale plates or chain mail.
Depending on how high you walk along the pathway, this can be a long, somewhat taxing trek. Much less crowded than the other shrines, Fushimi’s natural surroundings seem serene and mystical. Walking up the pathway early in the morning is an ideal time to visit this wonderful place. Bev, Zen, and I very much enjoy the eerie, magical ambience of Fushimi.
Heian Jingu Shrine
Heian Shrine was built relatively recently in 1895 on the occasion of the 1,100th anniversary of the Heian Capital foundation (by Japanese standards this is a relatively new shrine). It is dedicated to the first and last emperors that reigned from Kyoto, Emperor Kammu and Emperor Komei. The shrine buildings are a partial replica of the Imperial Palace of the Heian Period, but only about two thirds of the original buildings are to scale. Several events are occasionally held on the shrine’s spacious inner court. We believe the gardens located behind the shrine’s main buildings are among the most beautiful in Kyoto. Kyoto residents hold traditional weddings here, take family photographs to commemorate the birth of their children, and carefully hang omiguchi containing their wishes.
Ginkakuji Temple (Silver Pavilion)
Located in Kyoto’s eastern mountainous area (Higashiyama), Ginkakuji (Zen) Temple was built in 1482 by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa as his retirement villa. Interestingly, Ginkakuji was modeled after Kinkakuji/Golden Temple, which was his grandfather’s retirement villa. Based on Yoshimasa’s deep-seated dedication to the arts, Ginkakuji became a center of contemporary culture, known as Higashiyama culture. The arts which flourished during this time included the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, poetry, and garden design/ architecture.
Despite its name, the Silver Pavilion was never covered in silver. The name was believed to have become an easy nickname to contrast it with the Golden Pavilion/Kinkakuji. In addition, locals felt that the moonlight reflecting on the building’s dark exterior gave it a silver appearance. Ginkakuji features the Silver Pavilion, six other temple buildings, a lush, moss garden, and a unique, dry sand garden. We feel a slow, introspective walk along the ground’s circular route from which the reflective pond, manicured tress, and moss, can be viewed, is among our favorite experiences in Kyoto. Another big plus is that Ginkakuji is located at the end of the Philosopher’s Walk, as part of the historical Higashiyama Trail.
Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion)
A Zen temple, Kinkakuji is one of the most beautiful temples in all of Kyoto. Dating back to 1397 as a new residence for the retired shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the pavilion was burned down in 1950 by a fanatic monk. The present temple structure dates from the reconstruction of 1955, which was rebuilt true
to the original—the exception is that both upper stories are covered in gold leaf, in accordance with Ashikaga’s original intentions. However, in 1987 the temple was re-covered in gold leaf five times thicker than the original coating! With the thick, very shiny gold leaf, Kinkakuji seems almost surreal.
Saihoji Gardens (Appointment Required)
Our first-time visit to Saihoji (moss) temple was one of the most anticipated activities of our Japan travels. Saihoji was officially listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994. Founded in the Nara Period (710-794 AD), it was later refurbished and expanded in approximately 1339 by Muso Soseki, a noteworthy Zen priest, poet, and gardener of the period. There is nothing casual or fortuitous about a visit to Saihoji Temple and its garden. You may visit by prior appointment only (written request to the administering monks.) The mass tourism that pervades Kyoto cannot be found here; the Saihoji priests hope to retain a solemn, meditative atmosphere in the temple and garden.
Once your requested date is accepted, you are permitted to enter the garden by first attending a special ceremony in the temple. One client described this ceremony as “wonderfully challenging and taxing!” The temple ceremony involves attempting to write an inexpert copy of a sacred text, using ink and a soft brush. After completion, plus a significant donation to the temple, enter the gardens!
This is a beautiful, lush, moss-covered series of gardens set in a landscape of islands and inlets, linked by small bridges made from moss-covered logs – an other-worldly experience and we feel the most beautiful garden in Japan. There are an estimated 120 varieties of moss covering the undulating landscape that surrounds the ponds and trees of Saihoji. The garden’s air itself has been described as green with intensity.
Tenryuji Temple, the first-ranked of the Five Great Zen Temples of Kyoto, was established in 1339 by Shogun Ashikaga Takauji on the site of the Kameyama Detached Palace, for the purpose of consoling the spirit of Emperor Go-Daigo. The great Zen master Muso Soseki served as the temple’s founding priest. Behind the Hojo (Main Hall) is the Sogenchi Garden, which has been designated a Special Historic Site and a Special Historic Scenic Area. This garden, designed in the stroll-around style, retains the same form as when it was designed by Muso Soseki in the fourteenth century. In fact, we feel this is one of the most beautiful stroll gardens in the entire Kyoto area. Enhanced by the surrounding landscapes of Mt. Arashiyama and Kameyama, it is a fine blend of aristocratic tradition and Zen culture, displaying the beauty of the four seasons. Based on its popularity, best to visit early in the morning.
The Kamo Shrines, Shimogamo Shrine and Kamigamo Shrine, are both recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. They are two of the most important and oldest shrines in Kyoto. In fact, the kamo Shrines even predate the city’s establishment as national capital in 794. Throughout the thousand years that Kyoto served as Japan’s capital city, the Imperial Court patronized the shrines as establishments dedicated to the city’s protection and prosperity.
Shimogamo Shrine is located at the junction of the Takano and Kamo rivers. It is surrounded by the Tadasu no Mori, a forest which was preserved during the modernization of the city and contains trees that are up to 600 years old.
Kamigamo Shrine stands about three and a half kilometers upriver from Shimogamo Shrine. It is well known for two sandcones on its grounds that serve as purification function for the shrine, and have been made ritually since ancient times.
The Kamo Shrines jointly hold one of Kyoto’s three biggest festivals, the Aoi Matsuri. Every May 15th at 10:30am, a large procession dressed in the style of the Heian court leaves from the Imperial Palace, continues to Shimogamo, and ends the day at Kamigamo. Both shrines also host other smaller festivals throughout the year.
Nanzenji is a Zen temple at the foot of Kyoto’s eastern hills. As head temple of the Rinzai sect’s Nanzenji school of Zen Buddhism, it is one of Japan’s most important Zen temples. Nanzenji was first built as an imperial villa in 1628. Several sub-temples and a water aqueduct, which is part of Lake Biwa Canal dating from 1890, can be found in the vicinity of Nanzenji’s main buildings. Among the sub-temples open to the public are Nanzenin, directly behind the water aqueduct, whose small but pretty garden is particularly spectacular with autumn leaves (usually best in the second half of November), and the scarcely visited Konchiin, standing southwest of the Sanmon gate.
About 30 minutes’ walk north of Shisen-do you’ll reach the stately gate of Manshuin, a popular retreat of former emperors and a great escape from the crowds. Manshuin is a temple of the Tendai sect of Japanese Buddhism that was established in the 8th century by the revered monk Saicho, the sect’s founder. It is located in the Shugakuin area, just one kilometer from the Shugakuin Imperial Villa northeast of Kyoto’s city center. The temple is a so-called monzeki temple, indicating that it used to be headed by priests of imperial or aristocratic lineage in the past.
The temple contains several rooms that are considered outstanding examples of Shoin architecture, a style of architecture and interior design that developed during the Muromachi Period (1333-1573). The rooms are characterized by tatami mat covered floors, removable sliding doors (fusuma) painted by Kano Eitoku, a famed artist of the Momoyama period, and elements such as a study desk, staggered shelves and an alcove (tokonoma). The style very much defines what even today is understood as a traditional Japanese style room. The karesansui garden by Kobori enshu features a sea of gravel intended to symbolize the flow of waterfalls and stone islands representing cranes and turtles.
Byodoin Temple is a striking example of Jodo architecture. Together with its garden, the temple represents the Pure Land Paradise and was influential on the style of temples built later. Byodoin was initially built in 998 as a countryside retreat villa for the powerful politician Fujiwara no Michinaga. Michinaga’s son turned Byodoin into a temple and ordered the construction of its most spectacular feature, the Phoenix Hall—the nickname it earned for its two wings. Byodoin’s buildings were repeatedly lost to fires and other calamities over the centuries. However, Phoenix Hall was never destroyed, making it one of the few original wooden structures to survive from the Heian Period.
Built in the late 14th-16th centuries by a mystery designer, Ryoanji’s zen garden was created for the specific purpose of meditation. The wooden terrace built at the garden’s edge provides a peaceful perch for meditators as they contemplate the serene garden and relax. 15 rocks have been placed in the space and there is much speculation over the meaning of the garden’s design. Some believe the rocks represent a tiger and her cubs while others believe they represent islands or mountains that are home to Zen monasteries. It is up to the viewer to decide their own interpretation. At Ryoanji Temple, there is a water basin in the garden for ritual handwashing. The calligraphy inscribed on the basin can be translated as, “I am content with what I lack.”
Sento Gosho was built in 1630 as a retirement place for the emperor. Since its construction, it has been burned down and rebuilt many times until 1854 when it wasn’t rebuilt. Currently, there are two tea houses on the grounds that remain, however the main draw to this site are the gardens which were designed by artist Kobori Masakazu when the palace was originally constructed. The garden’s main feature is its garden ponds containing picturesque islets that are connected by a series of bridges of varying design. The gardens can be visited now by appointment only.
These are both well worth the one and a half hour drive from Kyoto. Todaiji was constructed in 752 as the head temple of all Japan provincial Buddhist temples. Not only does Todaiji contain Japan’s largest Buddhist statue, it is also the world’s largest wooden building.
Nara Park, adjacent to Todaiji, is a large beautiful park noted for hundreds of freely roaming deer. The deer are considered messengers of the Shinto gods and a national treasure for Nara. Nara is the capital city of Nara Prefecture in the Kansai region of Japan. Nara was the capital of Japan from 710 to 784, lending its name to the Nara period. The original city, Heijo-kyo, was modeled after the capital of Tang Dynasty China, Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), hence the Chinese influence in the temples.
The temples of Nara remained powerful even beyond the move of the political capital to Heian-kyo (Kyoto) in 794, thus giving Nara a synonym of Nanto (lit. meaning “South Capital”) as opposed to Heian-kyo, situated in the North. Nara is considered the second most important ancient city in all of Japan after Kyoto. Nara has five sites listed on the UNESCO World heritage list, including the oldest wooden structure in the world (Horyuji Temple).
One of Japan’s many UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Himeji-jo is considered the finest surviving example of 17th Century Japanese Castle architecture, comprised of 83 buildings. Living up to its name “White Heron Castle”, Himeji completed (March 2015) a six-year 2.4 billion yen restoration project, with 7820 sq. meters of external white plaster refreshed. A masterpiece of wood construction, Himeji combines its effective functional role with a great aesthetic appeal, both in the use of white-painted plaster (used for fireproofing) and in the subtlety of the relationships between the building masses and the multiple roof layers. The castle’s internal wooden structure reveals hellish defenses, including “stone drops” for flinging stones down upon an enemy.
Originally built as a fort/castle in 1333, Himeji underwent various expansions and changes from 1581-1618. We particularly love Himeji’s green, lush gardens and its scenic beauty. From the walls’ base, the shape of a fan curve can be seen. Though directions are precisely marked, many people lose their way walking in the tower (!) James Bond fans may recall Himeji as the ninja training ground in the 1967 film, “You Only Live Twice.”