Two Zen temples

The autumn leaves hunt — momijigari, 紅葉狩り– must be the perfect excuse for the overworked Japanese to escape the daily routine and make a trip to Kyōto to celebrate the favorite past-time of the nation. They are accompanied in their fever by quite a lot of foreign tourists attracted by all these pretty fall season photos in guidebooks and web sites… Accordingly, the must-see landmarks and historical sites surrounded gardens claimed to be most beautiful in the autumn leaves colors, tend to be pretty well visited. But not all of them!…

Tired of crowds at the end of the inevitably busy sightseeing day, we decided to give up another must-see crowded attraction and to finalize our tourist workday in a place we suspected to remain quiet. We took a bus to  Daitoku-ji (大徳寺), a Zen Buddhist temple in northwest Kyōto, actually a kind of temple complex, an area with numerous sub-temples hidden in excessive gardens. We visited two of them, Ryōgen-in (龍源院) and Ōbai-in (黄梅院).

Kyōto :: Arakashima :: Autumn moods in the gardens of Okochi Sanso

Most temples in Kyōto close approximately half an hour before the sunset — some 16:30 hours in autumn — which left us a mere one hour of time as we arrived at Daitoku-ji. Confronted with this fact we visited both temples quite in a hurry which is surely not the most fortunate approach to an atmospheric Zen temple… And yes, it is possible to “see everything” in fifteen minutes only to discover that one yearns to stay there much longer, to walk in a much, much slower pace — or just to sit down somewhere on one of these terraces with a garden view. And yes, the karesansui, 枯山水, the Zen dry landscape gardens of both temples are the finest examples of their art.

Busy making pictures and trying to follow the Japanese English small printed texts of hand-outs one gets together with the entrance tickets, it is easy to oversee this or that or otherwise, waste precious time for unessential details. Anyway, we came here for the Zen gardens so that there’s anything interesting in the interiors of the tatami-mats clad temple halls came somehow by surprise.

An example: Only well after the visit I have discovered in the brochure that these two guns displayed in the vitrine in the study room of Ryōgen-in — strange in a Buddhist temple — were one of the oldest surviving (1583?) Tanegashima matchlock guns (arquebuses) which changed the samurai warfare in 16th century and the presented goban board is said to be the very one applied for a go game match between Hideyoshi Toyotomi and Ieyasu Tokugawa themselves, both, one after another, Japan shōguns in their time. (The game continued in the reality…) And we simply sat on the tatami mats of the study room (or reception hall, shōin) and enjoyed the outside view to the strangely narrow Kodatei dry Zen garden (OK, represents a river…) without taking making much notice of the displays in the vitrines.

Ryōgen-in :: Bodhidharma calligraphy from the tokonoma

Maybe only wondering where from we know the typically Zen picture (Daruma?) hanging in a tokonoma niche there… A typical distraction from the much more importan things… After a thorough research it seems to be a “good day wishes” or even a “good appetite” calligraphy with a Bodhidharma portrait, the Indian monk who went to China to found the Zen Buddhism there and a person being the inspiration behind Daruma dolls. The sources claim it is an original(!) in the style of the Kanō school, probably inspired by a image painted by Kanō Tan’yū, but for me it looks too new…

It seems there is no compromise — one has to take enough one’s time and read a lot before the visit — or become inevitably superficial. The feeling which remains is that one has to come again, which is not so easily made. The twenty-something sub-temples of Daitoku-ji seem to be rather very secretive places, hidden behind high walls and with a lot of closed rooms and inaccessible areas if opened to the public. And, concerning Ōbai-in, it is open to the public only a few weeks in a year from early October to the beginning of December and the photography is limited. The Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism prefers privacy in their dealings which is the very essence of the very intimate Zen Buddhism practice requiring undisturbed isolation from the outer world…

Before we manage a visit repetition, let me recapitulate what we got know about these temples, from various sources, and, above all from our own experience. The history of Japan left its clear traces in these temples and it is worthwhile to make a small recherche.

The main buildings are the oldest on the Daitoku-ji temple area which is an exception in a land of the tradition of re-building temples after all these fires and earthquakes. Omitting the religious weight of these sites, what makes them exceptionally beautiful and worth visiting, are the gardens surrounding the buildings. They belong to the finest examples of the art of the Zen gardens, with their own stylistic lineages, techniques, concepts and overall impression on visitors.


Ryōgen-in, Isshidan dry Zen garden

Ryōgen-in, Isshidan dry Zen garden

Goshuin of Ryōgen-in

Ryōgen-in  (龍源院) was build under directions of priest named Tokei Soboku in 1502, whereby it is disputed if this was the original temple erection from a scratch or a re-construction of a previously existing one. The oldest structures in the Ryōgen-in temple are described as originating from the Muromachi period in Japan, which was a very long one, dated from distinctive historical events from 14th to 16th century which makes all time descriptions extremely imprecise.

Anyway, 1502 is still Muromachi period and the typically Zen-style main hall (hōjō) is claimed to be the oldest (1517) of its kind and became the status of national treasure, the same concerning the entrance gate. The sponsors of the developing temple were mainly members of the Hatakeyama and later Ōtomo clans, all notable personalities in the history of Japan. Some specific names of the original patrons seem to be known, Yoshimoto Hatekayama of Noto Province and Yoshinaga Ōtomo of Bungo Province as well as Ōuchi Yoshioki. The mentioned above Tanegashima guns in display in the study hall are connected with the Ōtomo clan who were the governors of provinces on Kyūshū island having by a chance the first contact with the Portuguese — and with their guns. There are also hints that Hideyoshi Toyotomi himself belonged to the benefactors of the temple. The first priest of the new foundation, Tokei, in some sources is identified as Soboku, a poet. Presently, Ryōgen-in is the main site of the so-called southern lineage of the Rinzai Zen Buddhism school, with Daitoku-ji being the headquarters of the movement.

Quoting the brochure one gets at the entrance, Ryōgen-in is “famous for its five gardens”, but we have counted only four:

Kodatei 滹沱庭 – a very narrow dry garden arranged in the form of a river in the front of the shōin study room and just before the outer wall of the temple. The first two Chinese characters in the name mean Houdou river, which is however named Koda in Japanese, meaning that the garden is named after a river valley in China where from the Rinzai Zen school lineage originates. Due to the usual philosophical interpretation of the meaning of the garden, it is also called A-un no Sekitei: breath-in — breath-out, inhale-exhale, a dry garden representing the duality of things, ying-yang, male-female, positive-negative, etc. And indeed, there are two large stones, by tradition brought from the Jurakudai castle built by Hideyoshi Toyotomi after it was razed. One somehow convex (un), one looking rather concave (a) with waves of sand or gravel surrounding them. But wait — there is a third object with a small bush growing on it and producing waves as well!… It looks like a typical Zen riddle, maybe a suggestion that there’s always a third solution?… ,^)

Ryōgen-in, Kodatei Zen garden

Ryōgen-in, Kodatei Zen garden, the a-stone, breathing in

Isshidan 一枝坦 – the large main landscape garden before the main hall and connected to the temple founder, Tokei. Named accordingly to his Buddhist name he received from his master after solving his own personal Zen riddle: Ryozen-isshi-no-ken, something like “House of the single branch on the vulture peak” or similar. The name of the garden is being translated as “supported by a single branch”, a perfect name for a Zen garden, which are there to “visually express a world of enlightement which cannot be expressed verbally”. In 1980 a tree growing since 700 years(?) in the dry garden area withered and the present priest of the temple decided to arrange the garden anew. Surrounded by the ocean of wavy sands, there are large rocks depicting Horaisan (or Mt. Penglai) where (Taoist) wise and immortal sages dwell in eternal happiness, a small double-rock Tsurushima (Crane Island) and a larger moss-covered island, Kameshima (Turtle Island) with a stone resembling not only a turtle, but also a stump of a cut tree trunk.

Tōtekiko 東滴壺 – said to be the smallest Zen garden of Japan, squeezed between two buildings, namely the kitchen kuri and abbot’s quarters in hōjō. We suspected again some kind of a visual representation of duality. But no, the interpretation is that the two stones surrounded by waves of sand represent falling drops of water, one by one forming a river finally flowing into the ocean… of eternity of course.

Ryūgintei 龍吟庭 – the oldest landscape garden of the temple, a moss garden in the northern part of the temple area. It is said to be designed by Sōami, a painter living this historical period. The largest of three rock groups stretching out of the ocean of green moss should represent Shumisen, the Japanese name of the Mount Sumeru vel Meru forming the central core of all thinkable universes.

Maybe as the fifth garden the green space before the separate small building to the west of the main hall can be treated, on the plan of the temple strangely called Keisokuzan (鶏足山), what, “chicken feet mountain(?)”… Anyway, this small hall is called Kaisodō (開祖堂) and it is dedicated to the temple founder.

Ryōgen-in :: dragon painting in the Zen practice room

Ryōgen-in :: dragon painting in the Zen practice room

What one does not expect from a Zen Buddhist temple are opulent interiors of the temple halls. And indeed, the premises are pretty bare and empty tatami-mats clad rooms with a few artistic accents, however with a class of its own. I have mentioned above the study hall (sometimes translated “reception hall”, shōin) decorated with the Tanegashima guns and lacquered in the makie technique goban in a glass vitrine and Boddhidharma painting in a tokonoma niche.

In the middle of the wooden main hōjō hall a larger Zen practice room is situated (sicchū) which is decorated with an impressive 17th or 18th century dragon painting on the fusuma sliding room walls. Opposite to the dragon, a pattern of waves decorates the walls. (The painting of the dragon and of some hermits in another room are claimed to be painted by Kano Toshun.) There are also two other remarkable rooms, “courtesy” and “patron” (rei-no-ma and danna-no-ma) where some ceremonies are held, with pine trees and rocks paintings on the fusuma slide walls — but otherwise almost empty. In the past the main purpose of these last two rooms was also trivial — nobler guests waited for there for audience by the abbot or enjoyed tea ceremonies or just held informal meetings.

And, finally, I am not sure which of the two Buddha statues in the hōjō hall is the one described Shaka Nyorai claimed to be sculpted in 13th century, but this is probably the one in the main sicchū room.

About thirty photographs from our sunset visit in Ryōgen-in can be found in a separately kept gallery.


Ōbai-in, all what makes a par excellence Zen temple

Ōbai-in, all what makes a par excellence Zen temple

Goshuin of Ōbai-in temple

Goshuin of Ōbai-in temple

Ōbai-in (黄梅院) was erected 1562, when lord Oda Nobunaga upon his truly historical arrival in Kyōto made Hashiba Hideyoshi — later known as Hideyoshi Toyotomi — the military governor of the town (shoshidai) and ordered him to build a hermitage dedicated to the memory of his late father, Oda Nobuhide. The head monk of the Daitoku-ji temple was appointed as the simultaneous head monk of Ōbai-an as the temple was called that time. After the murder of Oda Nobunaga by the rebels in the dramatic Honnō-ji incident in 1582, Toyotomi Hideyoshi spontaneously chose Ōbai-an as the funeral place of his late master building also his impromptu grave there. Later on he found the place too humble for an mausoleum and build a special temple on the Daitoku-ji compounds containing Oda Nobunaga grave — Soken-in.

The temple became a new patron in addition to Hideyoshi Toyotomi himself, lord Kobayakawa Takakage, and after renovations 1586-89 and after finding a new head monk it was re-named to its final name. Both patrons divided their donations. The main hondō hall with its interior and the Karamon gate was founded by Toyotomi, while the kitchen (kuri), the belfry and the front gate by Kobayakawa. All these buildings survive in its almost original structure until today and became the status of Japanese national treasures. (Note: in Japan, due to the usage of fire in the kitchen and earthquakes, it is difficult to find a larger kitchen build using wood and surviving from the 16th century until nowadays.)

From the very beginning Ōbai-in exists as a “semi-autonomous sub-temple” of the headquaters of the Daitoku-ji Rinzai Zen Buddhism school. It seems the temple buildings have undergone numerous renovations in the last two decades, whereby the major reconstruction took place in 1977 when the main hondō vel hōjō hall was dismantled and restored again. There are also a few evidently newer buildings, especially a new tea hall fronting the main moss garden.

Presently, the temple is open to the public only a few weeks in a year so it is a seldom occasion and a privilege to visit which is highly recommended in numerous Kyōto guidebooks. We had only an opportunity of a mere half an hour for the visit and did not manage to make anything but a superficial quick sightseeing. However it was worth it — the beauty of the meticulously maintained landscape gardens was so overwhelming that we did not care much to visit the interiors of the temple halls. The structure of the three oldest buldings — joined with galleries on poles and surrounded by sophisticated gardens, with a large number of small precious details — all that has a strong and tense specifically Zen temple atmosphere. 

Three principal gardens can be found on the temple area, interconnected between each other with a river of gravel, but all showing a clear design and aesthetic concept by themselves. However, there are also some smaller and newer ones and I would count the moss-covered tree grove in the entrance courtyard and the surroundings of the passage from there to the main temple as a notice-worthy gardens of its own — see photos from the Japanese web-site Gardens in Kyoto.

Anyway, following more or less the prescribed visit itinerary along breezy temple galleries and passages one arrives first in the classical moss garden, followed by the moss-rock-gravel landscape to the north of the temple and the pure sand one to the south of the main hall. Let us describe them in the following.

Daitoku-ji Ōbai-in, Sabutsu-tei garden

Daitoku-ji Ōbai-in, Sabutsu-tei garden

  • Jikichū-tei, 直中庭, an archetype of a mysterious moss garden, was created by Sen no Rikyu, the famous tea ceremony master, when he was 66 years old according to the wishes of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. It is situated in front of the old shoin (study hall) named Jikyūken and limited on the other side by a new modern tea-room build in 1999. The shape of the pond in the middle of the garden  resembles a gourd at the wish of the patron lord, whose battle flags carried a shape resembling a bottle-like sennari-gourd on the top. Almost incredibly, years later Sen no Rikyo was forced to commit harakiri by Toyotomi Hideyoshi after a heated dispute over the views on the tea ceremony! The strangely shaped lantern by the wall between Jikichū-tei garden and the dry surface of Hatō-tei was brought here by daimyō Katō Kiyomasa from Korea after an unfortunate war there. Nearby a beautiful tsukubai washing basin stand by the main hall outer terrace — real water over the stream of sand. The moss all over this spacious garden is well-maintained, lush and beautiful… Rocks and lanterns spread all over the area have some secret meanings connected to Acalantha, the protector of Buddhism. The noticeable largest rock is called Fudo-Sansonzeki. It is recommended to visit a Japanese-language site for the atmospheric photographs of this seemingly spontaneously arranged piece of gardening art.
  • Sabutsu-tei, 作仏庭(さぶつてい)which translates to “Buddhist garden”. A wavy landscape sand-moos-stone garden on the shady side of the main hondō hall overlooking the neighbor temple of Ryōgen-in. Standing on the terrace of the main hall one has the feeling of being on a ship floating on the lake of sand nearby a rocky shore covered with exquisite moss. The vertical rock arrangement symbolizes a waterfall “delivering” the sand flow to the interconnected gardens. Galleries on the west side of the garden lead to a beautiful tea house called Sakumu-ken. Sabutsu-tei was probably changed ca. 1977 during the renovation of the main hall. Pictures from this garden can be found on same site as above.
  • Hatō-tei, 破頭庭, an extremely simple dry landscape garden in the form of a rectangular pond of Shirakawa sands in front of the southern terrace of the main hondō hall. In the background along a separating wall a moss surface with Katsura stones stretching out was created. The two large stones represent Kannon (deity of mercy) and Seishi (deity of wisdom), however in other interpretation (there are plenty of these in Zen Buddhism) the stones represent Boddhisatvas (Bosatsu) — Manjusri and Fugen. Again, visit another page of the same site as above for high quality pictures of this garden.
  • Kanza-tei, 閑坐庭(かんざてい)which means “calm garden”, can be found between the main hondō hall and kuri (kitchen). It is a kind of connection, the effect looks like sands flowing between gardens and below galleries connecting buildings with stones and small lanterns placed here and there. Extremely atmospheric small details. The same site as above delivers also detailed pictures from this garden.

Along the way one discovers a lot of small details with the feeling that everything is thoughtfully and precisely arranged as well as perfectly maintained. The aesthetic effect is reached with minimal effort. See the following short image gallery.

There is also a prolongation of the Sabutsu-tei garden in the form of a river meandering around the study hall Jikyūken shoin and in the front of a small pavilion in the northwest corner of the temple area, and with moss growing all around resembling river landscapes of the far North. A bridge-like gallery leads from the shoin to a smaller teahouse named Sakumu-ken, “the dream of last night”, which is attributed to the tea ceremony master Joo Takeno, teacher of the mentioned above Sen no Rikyu. Unfortunately, was out-of-reach during our visit. The shoi study itself is connected with breezy galleries — with floors polished to a black shine — to the main hondō hall (pictures). There should be about forty fusuma sliding separation panels between various rooms in the main hall, all with precious paintings on them, but we have noticed only one painting of the Fuji-san in one of the rooms.

Consequently, the main hall (hondō vel hōjō) in turn is connected by means of next two galleries placed over the mentioned above Kanza-tei garden with kuri kitchen which was already closed as we arrived there — although we managed to get from someone the goshuin, the collectable temple red stamp with additional calligraphy as a souvenir.

Then the last look at the old belfry (shouro) in the moos-covered entrance courtyard overgrown with trees followed with the final exit via 16th century Omote-on front entrance gate.

For detailed high quality photographs of this temple please refer to the excellent traditionally designed web site of Gardens in Kyoto (a true inspiration for future plans):  Ōbai-in and Ōbai-in in winter. The links there lead to dedicated pages with pictures from the gardens, as mentioned separately in the garden descriptions. In addition to the short gallery of four pictures above, our own imperfect images gallery from our on-the-run visit is also available.