When you arrive at Kennin-ji and receive the beautiful brochure of the temple you know that there is something special here. And indeed there is: Kennin-ji is the oldest zen temple in Kyoto! It was founded in 1202 by priest Yousai (1141-1215). Yousai travelled twice to China; the second time to actually reach India. But the unstable geopolitical situation prevented him from reaching his Indian goal. Instead, he came in contact with the Zen sect of Buddhism. He also brought back with him the tradition of the tea ceremony, and introduced these two big pillars of what is now traditional Japanese culture. All hail Yousai! Given this little bit of history, one can easily imagine that there will be a few interesting things to see in Kennin-ji...
After entering the temple there is a first dark room on your right which contains one of the most famous paintings in Japan: the wind and thunder gods. All Japanese kids have studied this painting at school, but few actually know where it is. A masterpiece like this is of course a National Treasure. After leaving this room you will probably have the opportunity to try some tea from local vendor who is always setting shop in the temple. The tea is rather good, and a bit salty which is quite rare. Nice souvenir to bring back home...
Behind the tea booth is a large tatami area with a zen garden at its north end. The garden is called Cho-on-tei "潮音庭", which means the "sound of the tide garden". The three stones in the centre represent Buddha and two zen monks. The maple trees of this garden are beautiful in autumn.
Another small rock garden with a single tree in its centre can be found near the tatami's. This garden is called the "circle-triangle-square" garden, the idea behind which is that all things in the universe can be descried with these three forms. String theorists may disagree ;-)
Going back to the tea booth and turning right, you will arrive at the large rock garden in front of the main temple hall, the Hondo. This garden style is called "kare sansui", meaning "dry mountains and water" style. In the hondo are many painted sliding doors (fusuma) from a renowned artist called Hashimoto Kansetsu. One particular painting of a dragon in the clouds is from another artists (Kaiho Yusho).
From the south east corner of the garden you can reach the Hou-do building (change of slippers required). Kennin-ji has a funny system to reach the Hou-do: you have to use a code on a keypad, but the code is very, very simple and you can see the wear on the keys to be pressed (explanations are provided in English, don't worry). The hou-do has a large painting of two dragons on its ceiling. This painting is very recent (2002) and made for the 800th anniversary of the temple. It took two years to complete. Similar paintings can be found in many temples, such as Tenryu-ji (天龍時, which actually means "temple of the ceiling dragon"), Shokoku-ji (相国寺), etc... The one in Kenin-ji, however, is unique in that it can be photographed as it is very recent.
From the west side of the hondo leaves a small path (again, use the provided special slippers) that leads to the tea house of the temple called the Toyo-bo and built in 1587 by military leader Hideyoshi Toyotomi. The tea house was actually moved several times before landing in Kennin-ji, so it's not "the first tea house in Kyoto" in any way.
The open grounds of the temple have a few other halls and gates. The "imperial messenger gate", located at the southern extremity of the temple grounds, still bear arrow marks from the feudal wars that raged in Japan. Few of the smaller temples located around the main grounds can be visited, however.
(Note that the temple is under renovation until 2014 as part of its 800th anniversary. Some views shown in the pictures below may be partially or completely obstructed by scaffolding)
Recommended for: Access:
Nearby: Yasui Kompira-gū 安井金比羅宮 (190m), Saifuku-ji 西福寺 (290m), Miyagawa-cho 宮川町 (310m), Hana-Kitchō 花吉兆 (360m), Rokuhara Mitsui-dera 六波羅蜜寺 (360m), Humorous shrine 壹錢大明神 (410m), Tōkei-ji 東景寺 (450m), Kongō-ji 金剛寺 (480m), Shirakawa 白川町 (500m), Entoku-in 圓徳院 (510m),...
External links: Website, ウィキペディア, Wikipedia, Wikipédia, Kyoto Navi, Trip Advisor, Kyoto Design, 京都風光, Inside Kyoto, Marutake, そうだ京都
Keywords: Japan, 日本, Japon, Kyoto, 京都, 東山, Higashiyama, Kennin-ji, 建仁寺, temple, 寺院, 仏閣