Nanzen-ji Temple (南禅寺)

Nanzen-ji Temple, located in Nanzen-ji-fukuchi-cho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto City, is the headquarters of the Nanzen-ji branch of the Rinzai Sect of Zen Buddhism. The honorific mountain prefix is Zuiryusan and it goes under the formal title of Taiheikokoku-Nanzen-Zenji. The temple was founded by kaiki (founding patron) Emperor Kameyama and kaisan (first chief priest) Mukan Fumon (Daimyo-kokushi), and its principal image is Shakyamuni (Buddha). It is not itself one of the Kyoto Gozan (Five Great Zen Temples of Kyoto) but presides over them all and holds the highest rank of all Japan's Zen temples. It was also the first temple in Japan to be founded by the Imperial family.


Before Nanzen-ji Temple was founded, the site was the location of Emperor Gosaga's detached palace Zenrin-ji-dono Palace, which was built in 1264. The palace was named 'Zenrin-ji-dono' after Zenrin-ji Temple (Kyoto City) (Eikan-do), the headquarters of the Seizan-Zenrin-ji branch of the Pure Land Sect that still stands to the north of Nanzen-ji Temple.
This detached palace was divided into an upper palace and lower palace and the Jibutsu-do (private Buddhist worship area) of the upper palace was named 'Nanzen-in.'
The surviving sub-temple of Nanzen-ji Temple, Nanzen-in, was constructed later.

In 1289 at age 40, Emperor Kameyama abdicated, shaved his head and became a monk.
Two years later in 1291, he converted Zenrin-ji-dono Palace into a temple and invited the 80 year old Mukan Fumon to serve as chief priest of the temple which was named 'Ryoansan-Zenrin-Zen-ji Temple.'
According to legend, ghosts would appear at Zenrin-ji-dono night after night and trouble the Cloistered Emperor Kameyama and his staff, but Mukan Fumon brought his disciples and simply sat and meditated (zazen) until the ghosts left, which so impressed the Cloistered Emperor that he invited Mukan to serve as chief priest.

Mukan Fumon was born in Shinano Province. After studying under Enni, first chief priest of Tofuku-ji Temple, he left to study in Northern Song period China at the age of 40 and returned to Japan over 10 years later in 1262. Until the age of 70, he never had his own temple and remained devoted to asceticism but assumed the post of chief priest at Tofuku-ji Temple in 1281 after the death of his teacher Enni. He was invited to serve as head priest at Nanzen-ji Temple ten years later in 1291 but passed away soon after.

After the death of the founding priest Mukan, the majority of the temple's construction was conducted under the second chief priest Kian Soen (Nanin Kokushi, 1261 - 1313) and completed around 1299. It is said that the original name 'Ryoansan-Zenrin-Zen-ji' was changed to 'Taiheikokoku-Nanzen-Zen-ji' during the Shoan era (1299 - 1302). In 1325, Muso Soseki resided at the temple.

In 1334, Emperor Godaigo placed Nanzen-ji Temple as number one of the Kyoto Gozan but in 1385 Yoshimitsu ASHIKAGA placed his own Shokoku-ji Temple at number one so Nanzen-ji Temple was treated as a special case and ranked higher than all the Gozan temples.

During the Muromachi period the temple became embroiled in political problems with the traditional temples Enryaku-ji Temple and Onjo-ji Temple and the Kanre Yoriyuki HOSOKAWA stepped in to mediate.

The monastery was devastated by fire in 1393 and again in 1447 but was soon rebuilt on both occasions. However, the temple was completely destroyed by fire in the street fighting during the first year of the Onin War (1467), and the reconstruction did not go well.

The revival of Nanzen-ji Temple was continued during the Edo period by Ishin Suden who entered the temple in 1605. As a close associate of Ieyasu TOKUGAWA, Suden was also a politician known as 'Kokui-no-Saisho' who was involved in diplomacy and the administration of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. He was also given the personnel management post of Soroku by the Shogunate. This role was responsible for all of the Rinzai Sect temples in Japan.

Nanzen-ji Temple precinct was nationally designated a historic site in 2005.


Chokushi-mon Gate (gate for imperial envoys)
Said to have been relocated from Hinomikado, the old imperial palace in 1641.

Sanmon Gate
In the second act of the kabuki drama "Sanmon Gosan-no-Kiri," Goemon ISHIKAWA's famous words 'What an amazing view' are in reference to the Sanmon Gate of Nanzen-ji Temple. However, this only occurs in the story as the actual Sam-mon Gate was constructed in 1628, more than 30 years after the death of Goemon ISHIKAWA. It is two-storey gate with five bays and three entrances (of the five front bays, the middle three serve as entrances). It was dedicated by Takatora TODO as a memorial to the soldiers who died during the Siege of Osaka. The upper level is known as 'Gohoro' and houses a statue of Shaka Nyorai, statues of arhats, memorial tablets of member's of the benefactor TODO family and memorial tablets of those who died in the Siege of Osaka and others. The image of celestial maidens and Chinese phoenixes on the ceiling was painted by Tanshin KANO. It is considered one of the three great gates of Kyoto along with the Sam-mon Gate of Chion-in Temple and Mieido-mon Gate of Higashi Hongan-ji Temple.

Hatto (Lecture Hall)
Destroyed by fire in 1895 when the charcoal brazier of kotatsu (fireplace with a coverlet) was not properly extinguished but rebuilt in 1909.

Hojo (Abbots' Quarters)
National Treasure
Composed of the larger Ohojo and smaller Kohojo. The Ohojo was formerly a Tensho era imperial palace building that was granted to the temple when the Keicho era imperial palace complex underwent reconstruction. There are many sources that claim that it was the old Seiryo-den palace building that was relocated but it was in fact the building that stood opposite the Nyoin-gosho palace. The attached Kohojo is believed to have been constructed during the Kanei era (1624-1643). A total of 120 sliding screen and paper wall paintings, all dedicated Important Cultural Properties, done by artists of the Kano school adorn the rooms of the Ohojo which includes the willow room, musk room, lunch room, flower and bird room (west room), crane room and Narutaki room. These were inherited from the old imperial palace but when the building was moved, the configuration of the sliding screens was drastically changed and many that were once part of a continuous series became placed in different rooms. It is said that the partition paintings in the Kohojo are the work of Tanyu KANO, but the style has led to speculation that they are in fact the work of numerous artists. The dry landscape garden, commonly known as 'Tora-no-Ko Watashi-no-Niwa (The crossing of tigercubs),' at the front of the hojo is said to have been created by Enshu KOBORI and has been designated a place of scenic beauty.

Main Sub-temples

Konchi-in Temple
This is one of the sub-temples of Nanzen-ji Temple which is situated to the front right of the Chokushi-mon Gate. Established during the Oei era (1394 - 1428) by Daigo Osho in the Takagamine area of the Rakuhoku district (Kita Ward, Kyoto City) and relocated to its current location by Ishin Suden in around 1605. The Hojo was relocated from the remains of Momoyama Castle in 1611. The garden named 'Tsurukame-no-Niwa' (Garden of Cranes and Turtles) is a designated place of scenic beauty and said to have been created by Enshu KOBORI.

Nanzen-in Temple

This sub-temple was constructed on the site of the upper palace of retired Emperor Kameyama's detached palace and is considered to be the origin of Nanzen-ji Temple.

Tenju-an Temple
Founded as a burial place for founding priest Mukan Fumon and rebuilt in 1602 by Yusai HOSOKAWA.

Chosho-in Temple
Jishi-in Temple

National Treasures

National Treasures of Nanzen-ji Temple
Zenrin-ji Temple prayer written by Emperor Kameyama

National Treasures of Konchi-in Temple
Keiin shochiku zu (image of a building in a valley)
An ink painting done in 1413.
Said to be the earliest shigajiku (hanging scroll with a literary inscription written above an ink painting)

Shukei Tokei Sansui zu (image of autumn and winter landscapes)
A Chinese Southern Song period landscape using ink and light color on paper. From the collection of Yoshimitsu ASHIKAGA.

Important Cultural Properties

Sam-mon Gate
Chokushi-mon Gate
Color on silk image of Shaka and the sixteen good deities
Color on silk portrait of Daimyo-kokushi
Color on silk portrait of Daimyo-kokushi inscribed by Priest Hirata
2 portraits of Nanin Kokushi (1 color on silk and 1 color on paper)
Color on silk image of Nirvana
Ink on silk image of Shoso Monju inscribed by bhikkhu Shocho of Nanzen
Ink on paper image of Dharma painted by Shokei
Ink on silk image of a fishing boat against a river and mountains painted by Sansho SHO
Light color on silk image of a dialogue between Yakusan and Riko
Ohojo partition paintings: The 120 Ohojo partition paintings have been designated Important Cultural Properties under the following four designations.

(a) 14 Twenty-four paragons of filial piety images; 17 harps, chess and crowds of sage-recluses images (all color on paper with gold leaf background)
(b) 8 waterfall images; 8 court lady images; 6 cherry blossom and stream images; 4 plum tree, bamboo and bird images (all color on paper with gold leaf background)
(c) 8 waterfall, weeping willow and egret images; 5 peony flower and civet images; 10 pine tree, hawk and egret images; 4 pine tree and hydrangea images; 4 loquat and green pheasant images; 6 chrysanthemum and bush clover images (all color on paper)
(d) 10 crane images; 4 peach blossom and bird images; 4 white plum and bird images; 4 ducks and geese near water images; 2 cypress and mandarin duck images; 2 paulownia flower and bird images (all color on paper)
40 color on paper sliding door and paper wall paintings of tigers (Kohojo partition painting) attributed to Tanyu KANO
Wooden standing statue of Aryavalokitesvara
Kamakurabori incense case with a peony pattern
5,822 Nanzen-ji Temple complete Buddhist scriptures
6 Seiryo-den Hairyo Yuishosho (documents about how Seiryo-den was received from the emperor)
Nanzen-ji Temple instructions of Buddhist sanctum

Boiled Tofu

It is believed that boiled tofu originated from Kanjin dish (dish for donation) on the approach to Nanzen-ji Temple.

The almost hemispherical 'Nanzan-ji Tofu' is a specialty of Tsuruoka City, Yamagata Prefecture. It is said to have made its way from Kyoto on the cargo ships that sailed the Sea of Japan during the Edo period. Only sold from May to mid-August.


Keage Station (Kyoto City Subway Tozai Line)

[Original Japanese]