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Find Zen And Beauty At Kenninji, Kyoto's Oldest Zen Temple

Find Zen And Beauty At Kenninji, Kyoto's Oldest Zen Temple

Translated by Hilary Keyes

Written by Hiromasa Uematsu

Kyoto 2016.06.10 Bookmark

Have you heard of the Buddhist concept of Zen? At Kyoto's oldest Zen Buddhist temple, Kenninji, you can learn more about Zen, as well as see some of Japan's most beautiful works of art.

Have you heard of Zen before?

Zenshū (禅宗) is a school of Buddhism where it is believed that, beginning with the practice of zazen (座禅, *1), an understanding of the greater truth can be attained.

Zen is well known in Japan and throughout Asia. It was the admiration for Zen practices of people such as Apple's Steve Jobs that brought it to the world's attention.

*1 Zazen: an ascetic practice in which proper posture aides in focusing one's mental concentration.

The Oldest Zen Temple in Kyoto: Kenninji


It is said that Zen originated in China and was brought to Japan in the 13th century. Zen was brought to Japan by the Chinese ascetic priest Eisai. Incidentally, Eisai was also responsible for bringing the culture and practices concerning green tea to Japan.

The temple that we are introducing to you today, Kenninji (建仁寺) was founded by the priest Eisai. Kenniji, found in Kyoto, is the oldest Zen-dera (Zen temple, *2) in Japan, and was built in order to further the teaching and development of the Zen sect.

*2 Zen-dera: a Zen temple that focuses on preserving and teaching Zen principles.

The Features of Zen Seen in the Simple Architecture and Gardens


When visiting Kenninji, the atmosphere of the buildings and grounds has an immediate effect on all your senses.

All the buildings found on the grounds of Kenninji are lacking in any sort of ostentatious displays; nothing flashy or gaudy whatsoever. The effect is meant to be felt, an impressive simplicity meant to refresh visitors.


Visitors can, from inside the buildings, appreciate the refinement of many Japanese style gardens. This is Daiōen garden. On this day many visitors stopped by to sit and meditate at this garden, representative of the Karesansui (*3) style.

*3 Karesansui: a traditional dry landscape garden; formed from stones and sand in order to represent water and mountains.


This is Chōontei garden. It is surrounded by pathways, making it possible to enjoy the garden from various different angles.

* In order to view both Daiōen and Chōontei, you must pay an entrance fee.

Indian Ink Paintings on Sliding Doors

By visiting the reception counter and paying the entrance fee (500 yen for adults, 300 yen for junior and senior high school students), you can enter the temple. By doing so, you can freely visit all the buildings.

One of the first things that you should pay close attention to are the many fusuma ("paper sliding doors") that separate each room. There are numerous suibokuga (Indian-ink paintings) on each partition door.


Indian-ink paintings are made solely with ink and paper. Brought from China along with Zen Buddhism, these paintings underwent a unique development in Japan.

When skilfully applied, the light and dark tones of the ink beget abundantly expressive images of people and animals; so remarkable that they almost can't have been made solely from ink.


With illustrations ranging from the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, to birds and flowers, the fusuma-e (drawings made on partition doors) at Kenninji are recognized as important cultural properties in Japan.

Kenninji's outstanding works of art, rather than being kept behind glass in display cases are left out as is. By all means, when visiting Kenninji please take the time to appreciate their beauty with your own eyes.

They Could Move at Any Instant! The Famous "Wind God and Thunder God"


Of the vast array of beautiful works found at Kenninji, one piece in particular truly surprises and touches the visitors: the "Wind God and Thunder God" ("Fūjin Raijin") illustrated screen. This was made by the prolific Edo era artist Tawaraya Sōtatsu.

This work features the two interconnected natural gods facing one another; they seem to be just about to move. This work has been copied by multiple artists all around the world and is a certified Japanese national treasure.


On the left side, the white figure holding a Taiko drum sticks is Raijin, the God of Thunder. Painted with a keen rhythmical sense, the humorous expression on his face conveys an air of familiarity to the viewer.


On the right hand side, the green-skinned figure holding the open white bag is Fūjin, the God of Wind. The bag that he carries is where the wind comes from. The motion of his legs is so well illustrated that it seems as though he were about to dash across the screen still.

It goes without saying that you can't touch this piece. You can however, view it up close and without obstruction should you visit Kenninji.

The Lecture Hall is Overwhelmed by the "Paired Dragons"


The largest piece of art by far at Kenninji is the tenjōga (decorative ceiling painting), found in the main lecture hall of the temple. This work is found a short distance away from the Buddha statue set in the hall. Go through the lecture hall to the outdoor passage-way then head into the second building.


Look! Spanning across the entire ceiling is the illustration of the Sōryū (the Paired Dragons). This is a comparatively new piece, having been completed and installed in 2002, but thanks to the sheer vividness of the depiction, it has already become the centerpiece of Kenninji Temple.

Learn Zen Precepts in their Class


Finally, while at Kenninji, why not take part in a class where you can personally experience the teachings of Zen Buddhism.

If you would like to try something unique, you may be interested in the "Shakyō Taiken", where you can participate in the practice of transcribing Buddhist sutras. The fee for this experience is 1000 yen and it takes about 45 minutes to complete. No reservations are required for this experience so those wishing to try their hand at copying sutras should ask at the reception when they visit.

Though the times are limited, there is also a class on zazen technique (Zazen kōza), available. This class takes place at 8:00 in the morning on the second Sunday of each month, has no entrance fee and does not require a reservation. The zazen experience ends at roughly 10:00 in the morning. If you have the time in your schedule, then visiting Kenninji for its art and gardens and taking part in any of these experiences is something that should not be missed.


Kenninji Temple

Address: Kyoto, Kyoto, Higashiyama, Komatsuchō 584
Hours: March 1-Oct. 31  10:00-16:30 (gates close at 17:00)
Nov. 1-Feb. 28  10:00-16:00 (gates close at 16:30)
Closed: Dec. 28 - 31
Wif-fi: -
Credit Cards: -
Other Languages: Pamphlets available in Japanese, English, Chinese, Korean, German & French
Nearest Station: Keihan line Gion Shijō Station (祇園四条駅), Hankyū line Kawaramachi Station (河原町駅)
Access: 7 minute walk from Gion Shijō Station, 10 minute walk from Kawaramachi Station
Price Range: 500 yen for Adults, 300 yen for Junior and Senior high school students
Religion: Buddhism
Phone Number: 075-561-6363
Homepage: Kenninji Temple

Kyoto Travel Guide

The information presented in this article is based on the time it was written. Note that there may be changes in the merchandise, services, and prices that have occurred after this article was published. Please contact the facility or facilities in this article directly before visiting.

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