Shisen-dō (詩仙堂)
Shisen-dō (詩仙堂)

Shisen-do (詩仙堂, also known as Jozan-ji 丈山寺) is a quiet hermitage at the foot of the hills, in the north-east of Kyoto city. It was built by retired samurai Jozan Ishikawa (1583-1672) in 1641, which makes the place more than 350 years old (and well conserved for this age!) Jozan devoted the later part of his life to studies, mostly Chinese classics and garden architecture. Jozan selected the name "Shisen-do" after the 36 classic Chinese poets portraits he had hanging in his study (but exactly what the link is, I don't know). These portraits are still visible today and, due to their old age, you are kindly requested not to take pictures of them (because, you know, no one knows how to disable the flash of a compact camera...)

Jozan-sama studied until his death at 90 years old. Quite exactly how the hermitage became a temple I can't tell from the little documentation that I have. But in the early 1700s the temple was owned and cared for by a series of Buddhist priests. Later in the mid 1700s, a zen priest or nun was chosen to be the keeper of the hermitage, and this tradition continues to this day.

Many hermitages or personal estates become temples after their owner's death. Most notable examples are Kinkaku-ji, the "golden temple" and Ginkaku-ji. As many secluded owners die without heir, donating their property to a temple or sect is a way for them to perpetuate their heritage.

Shisen-do is a lovely place with two main somewhat distinct features: the villa and the gardens. Due to a short but steep slope between them, they are almost separated. Visiting the two must sometimes be done one after the other depending on the season: use provided slippers and go down in the garden directly from the villa, or visit the villa first, then explore the garden separately using a small side entrance.

The villa's most prominent feature is undoubtedly its main hall, with a beautiful view on a small and simple, yet inspiring rock garden. The garden and hall are surrounded by rhododendrons, which are of the satsuki variety. The best time to see their myriad of pink flowers is in early June (your luck may vary). Further away, the view from the halls is nicely covered by numerous maple trees, for which the best season is of course autumn (usually late November).

On the extreme right of the main hall terrace stands a water basin made from a strange pitted stone. The basin also has the particularity of... actually never have water in it, or at least I never saw any. Also, although the basin has two bamboo pieces to support the classic ladle, the latter is always absent (some photographers bring their own ladle to make a "better" picture).

On the left side of the main hall stand several satsuki bushes, among which stands a cute little stone pagoda. Another good photo opportunity! At the foot of these satsuki bushes you will find a very small stream with a small stone bridge (difficult to see as it is covered with vegetation). On the left of the main hall is the study, followed by another room with a nice but less impressive view.

The garden contains a few interesting sights. You will have noticed during your meditation in the main hall that a sharp and short sound regularly breaks the silence. It comes from a shishi-odoshi. This device made of bamboo is normally used as a scarecrow. It is in Shisen-do that is was first used as a element of a zen garden. It's easy to find, just follow the sound... Another interesting feature is a bush whose branches look like barb wire. Surprising for foreigners and Japanese alike, as it is far from common.

Regular visitors will also note that, as in many zen gardens, flowers are present all year round. One hundred flower types are said to grow here. You may have to look for them though ;-)

The pamphlet mentions a list of 10 "official" features for this garden (Ototsuka Jukkyo), but I'm sure there's more ;)

  • The entrance gate (Shouyuudou), which is nice and old looking (and probably very old indeed). Watch your head...
  • The inner gate (Roobaikan). Watch your head again...
  • The main hall (Ogetsu-ka) with its sand garden
  • The study with the Chinese portraits (Shisen-no-ma)
  • The moon-viewing room (Shougetsurou), a (very) small room on top of the villa. Delicate, fragile and old. There's a moon-shaped window on its right wall.
  • A well, which is hard to see (Koukousen)
  • And the "children's room" (Yakuen-ken, or Jidou-no-ma) Yes, the guy was single his whole life. Just don't ask ;)
  • The 100 kinds of flowers (Hyakkanou)
  • The narrow waterfall (Senmoubaku), which I think I've never actually seen (!)
  • The pond with the carps (Ryouyouhaku) Note the little hut to protect the carp from excessive sunlight in the summer.
  • The shishi-odoshi (apparently also called souzu, although I've never heard that name)
  • The water basin
  • The small pagoda
  • ... oops, more than 10 already ;-) Never mind.

Shisen-do is easily accessed from the Ichiyou-ji station (一乗寺): walk east and try to keep that heading when the road bends a bit (or try to always climb, it works too). The gate is just before a shrine, on the right of the road. Interesting things is this area include the Tanukidanisan-fudoin (狸谷山不動院‎), with its numerous broken or discarded tanuki (raccoons) porcelains. You've probably seen them everywhere in Japan, now you know where they come to die. You'll have to continue up on the same road, which becomes quite steep before turning into stairs. The shrine there has a terrace with a large wooden structure under it, just like the much more famous Kiyomizu-dera. I've not seen this kind of structure anywhere else (but then again, I should travel more).

Very close and north of Shisen-do lies Enko-ji (look for 圓光寺 or 円光寺; it seems no one agrees on how to write it), and similarly close but south is Konpuku-ji. Further away north (15-20 minutes walk) is another great sight: Manshuin-Monseki, with an imperial villa in between, if you have reserved in advance. But I think five temples should be enough for one day :-)

Recommended for: Access:

Nearby: Nobotoke-an 野仏庵 (120m), Enkō-ji 圓光寺 (170m), Tea ceremony 茶会 (170m), Konpuku-ji 金福寺 (200m), Tanukidani Fudō-in 狸谷不動院‎ (580m), Saginomori-jinja 鷺森神社 (680m), Manshuin Monzeki 曼殊院門跡 (840m), Kansai Seminar House 関西セミナーハウス (1.1km), Zenka-in 禅華院 (1.1km)

Keywords: Japan, 日本, Japon, Kansai, 関西, Kinki, 近畿, Kyoto, 京都, 北左京, Northern Sakyo, temple, お寺, 寺院, 卍, 仏閣, shisendo, shisendou, jozanji, jouzan-ji, jozan-ji, jouzanji, 詩仙堂, 丈山寺

Visited on 56 occasions, id: 43, 177 photos (230 extra photos can be found in the archive).

Photos of Shisen-dō:

Shishi-odoshi, a type of scarecrow (Shisendo 詩仙堂)
Meditation hall in autumn (Shisendo 詩仙堂)
Shisendo's water basin and terrace (詩仙堂)
Zen garden from meditation hall (Shisendo 詩仙堂)
Zen garden with miniature pagoda from meditation hall (Shisendo 詩仙堂)
Washbasin and miniature stone padoga (Shisendo 詩仙堂)
Laughing gardener (Shisendo 詩仙堂)
Meditation hall in summer, Shisen-do temple (2/7)
Water basin and zen garden, Shisen-do temple
Lush vegetation and blooming rhododendrons surrounding miniature stone pagoda, Shisen-do temple gardens
Miniature stone pagoda amon blooming rhododendrons, Shisen-do temple gardens
Stairs between blooming rhododendron bushes, Shisen-do temple
Miniature stone pagoda in autumn, Shisen-do temple
Early autumn colours from Shisen-do temple's hall