Discovering Kyoto’s Kennin-ji Temple: Twin Dragons & Divine Art

Located in the Higashiyama ward of Kyoto, Kennin-ji Temple is the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto, known for spreading the teachings of Zen Buddhism. Founded by the monk Eisai, who underwent training in China, this temple has been cherished by numerous tourists for over 800 years since its establishment. Strolling through the simple yet refined grounds typical of Zen temples, visitors often feel a sense of purification in their hearts. The temple grounds boast plenty of spots for photography, such as the Wind and Thunder God paintings and the twin dragon painting on the ceiling of the main hall. Additionally, there are gardens like the Daio-en and the Shion-en, allowing visitors to appreciate the beauty of nature. In this blog post, we’ll provide a detailed introduction to the highlights of Kennin-ji Temple and its surrounding tourist and culinary spots.

History of Kennin-ji Temple

Kennin-ji Temple, founded by the monk Eisai, was the first Zen temple in Japan to introduce the Rinzai sect. In 1202 (the second year of the Kennin era), with the support of Minamoto no Yoritomo’s second shogun, Minamoto no Yoriie, it was established in Kyoto as a base for the Rinzai sect. At that time, the Tendai and Shingon sects were dominant, so it was a period of coexistence among the Tendai, Shingon, and Zen sects. In 1259, when the Song Dynasty monk Lanxi Daolong became the 11th head priest, it became a pure Zen temple. The original buildings were destroyed by the Ōnin War and numerous fires. Although it fell into disrepair for a while, it was revived by Ankokuji Ekei and later received patronage from the Tokugawa shogunate, leading to the establishment of systems and scholarship. In the Meiji era, due to the government’s religious policies promoting sect autonomy, Kennin-ji Temple became the head temple of the Rinzai sect Kennin-ji school.

Access Information to Kennin-ji Temple

Kennin-ji Temple is located in Kyoto’s Higashiyama district, and it’s easily accessible by various means of transportation such as trains, buses, and taxis. If you plan to visit other attractions as well, it’s recommended to use a bus with a day pass or the subway system for convenient travel around the city.

For bus transportation:

Take the city bus route 206 or 100 from JR Kyoto Station.

  • 5 minutes walk from Higashiyama Yasui bus stop.
  • 7 minutes walk from Minamiza-mae bus stop.
  • 10 minutes walk from Kiyomizu-michi bus stop.
  • 10 minutes walk from Gion bus stop.

For train transportation:

  • 7 minutes walk from Gion Shijo Station on the Keihan Main Line.
  • 10 minutes walk from Kawaramachi Station on the Hankyu Railway.

Access to Kyoto Station from various locations:

  • From Itami Airport, take the limousine bus for 45 minutes.
  • From Kansai International Airport, take the JR Airport Express “Haruka” for about 75 minutes.
  • From Kintetsu Nara Station, take the Kintetsu Nara Line Express bound for Kyoto for 45 minutes.
  • From JR Osaka Station, take the JR Kyoto Line Rapid Service bound for Maibara for 30 minutes.
  • From JR Tokyo Station, take the Tokaido Shinkansen for 2 hours and 30 minutes.

Sightseeing Information for Kennin-ji Temple

Kennin-ji Temple has both paid and free areas for visitors to explore. The areas excluding the Hondo (main hall) and Honbo (monks’ quarters) are generally free for anyone to visit within the designated hours. The Hondo, adorned with the twin dragon painting, and the Honbo, where national treasures are displayed, require admission fees. Since visitors need to remove their shoes at the Hondo and Honbo, it’s recommended to wear easy-to-remove footwear. While the national treasure “Wind and Thunder Gods” painting is a replica, not the original, visitors are allowed to take photographs.

Kennin-ji Temple

  • Address: Komatsucho, Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 600-8397, Japan
  • Map: Google Maps
  • Phone: +81 75-561-6363
  • Closed: Open daily
  • Hours:
    • March 1st to October 31st: 10:00 AM to 4:30 PM (Gate closes at 5:00 PM)
    • November 1st to February 28th: 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM (Gate closes at 4:30 PM)
  • Admission:
  • Hondo (Main Hall) and Honbo (Monks’ Quarters):
    • Adults: 500 yen
    • High school students: 300 yen
    • Elementary school students: 200 yen (Children under elementary school age: Free)
  • Official Website: Kennin-ji Temple

From Twin Dragons to the Wind and Thunder Gods! Exploring the Highlights of Kennin-ji Temple

Kennin-ji Temple boasts numerous valuable cultural assets, including the nationally designated treasure “Wind and Thunder Gods” painting. With the addition of new attractions like the twin dragons painted in the main hall in 2002, the temple has garnered attention from tourists as a must-visit destination. From the free-to-explore grounds to the paid areas, we’ll guide you through the best ways to enjoy all that Kennin-ji Temple has to offer.

Free Exploration at “Grounds Tour”

The grand Sanmon gate that welcomes visitors to Kennin-ji Temple was relocated from Anrakuji Temple in Hamana District, Shizuoka Prefecture, in the 12th year of the Taisho era. Consisting of three gates—Kuromon (Empty Gate), Mumasu (Gate without Form), and Musaku (Gate without Work)—symbolizing liberation, the gate is named “Mokkaku Tower” meaning “tower overlooking the imperial palace.” The upper room of the gate reportedly houses statues of Shakyamuni Buddha, disciples Kashyapa and Ananda, and sixteen arhats. Surrounded by trees along the approach, visitors can enjoy changing seasonal views. During my visit, I admired the vibrant greenery of summer, which exuded vitality. In winter, the sight of snow covering the Sanmon gate and surrounding trees adds a charming atmosphere to the scene.

Senbachi Pond

Within the grounds of Kennin-ji Temple, you’ll find two ponds: the Hōjōike Pond and the Senbachi Pond. The Senbachi Pond, with its rectangular shape, is surrounded by historic stone walls and trees, evoking a sense of history. Alongside the pond, you’ll find attractions like a monument honoring Eisai, who was renowned for his expertise in tea, as well as a tea garden from the Heisei era.

Myōjinden

One often overlooked spot worth mentioning is the “Myōjinden” located just beyond the torii gate within the temple grounds. Enshrined here is Gakudai Myōjin, a deity believed to enhance memory and cognition. Next to the temple, you’ll find a display of ema (wooden wishing plaques), many inscribed with wishes from exam-takers seeking success. As it serves as a guardian deity for those born in the Year of the Ox or Tiger, if you fall under this category, be sure to pay a visit and offer your prayers. You can find the Myōjinden right next to the Senbachi Pond.

Main Attractions of Kennin-ji Temple: “Honbo” and “Hojō”

Honbo

The Hojo and Honbo areas, which require admission fees, are the main attractions of Kennin-ji Temple along with the Hondo (main hall). Here, you’ll find numerous highlights, including the nationally designated treasure “Wind and Thunder Gods” folding screen and the serene Chion-in Garden, which can be appreciated from various angles. Adjacent to the Honbo, the Hojo is a precious architectural structure designated as an Important Cultural Property by the Japanese government. Originally relocated from Ankokuji Temple in Aki Province in 1599, the Hojo features an impressive copper-roofed Zen-style architecture. In front of the building lies the Daiō-en, a dry landscape garden also known as a karesansui garden.

Wind and Thunder Gods

Just inside the building from the Honbo is the national treasure “Wind and Thunder Gods” painting. Since the original is housed in the Kyoto National Museum, a meticulously reproduced digital replica is on display. Admire the masterpiece by Tawaraya Sōtatsu, faithfully reproduced down to the gloss and intricate details, which remains true to the original. The composition of the painting, with its ample space, conveys a sense of dynamic movement between the two deities. As the “Wind and Thunder Gods” painting is a replica, photography is permitted.

In the Hojo, you can admire the works of the painter Kaibara Yūzō, who was active from the Azuchi-Momoyama period to the early Edo period. One of his remarkable works is the “Cloud Dragon” painting, which depicts a dynamic dragon and flowing clouds using ink on sliding doors, capturing viewers with its powerful presence. The depiction of the dragon, seemingly about to burst out from the door, and the ethereal atmosphere created by the clouds, make it an outstanding piece of art. Additionally, inside the Honbo and Hojo, you’ll find other works by Kaibara Yūzō, such as “Landscape” and “Seven Sages in Bamboo Thicket.” One of the charms of Kennin-ji Temple is the opportunity to view these paintings up close, without the barrier of glass.

Daiō-en

The Hojo, designated as an Important Cultural Property, is accompanied by the “Daiō-en” garden, serving as its front yard. This garden, crafted by Ogawa Jihei VII, features a rare dry landscape style known as karesansui. Karesansui gardens, created with rocks, sand, and water, exude a refined beauty by eliminating unnecessary elements. Sitting on the veranda of the Hojo and gazing at the picturesque Japanese garden is sure to be a meaningful experience. Compared to gardens at other Zen temples, the Daiō-en stands out for its grandeur, as its name suggests.

Chouon-tei

Another garden located in the Hojo is the “Chouon-tei” garden. Surrounded by corridors in a square shape, this garden allows you to appreciate it from various angles, creating an open and airy atmosphere.

Circle-Triangle-Square Garden

The “Circle-Triangle-Square Garden” is inspired by a hanging scroll created by the Zen monk Sengai Gibon during the Edo period. True to its name, the garden is designed using combinations of circles, triangles, and squares. Representing the Zen philosophy’s four elements (earth, water, fire, wind), the garden evokes a sense of innovation akin to contemporary art. From the back, the shape forms a square and a circle, while the front features a raised portion resembling an isosceles triangle.

At Kennin-ji Temple, a Zen temple continuing the teachings of Zen, you can experience zazen meditation and lectures upon reservation. Inside the Honbo, there’s a space for sutra copying experiences, available without prior reservation. At the temple’s gift shop within the Honbo, you can sign up for sutra copying at ¥1,000 per adult. The experience takes about an hour, so make sure to allow ample time to participate.

Impressive Ceiling Painting: “Ho-do, Twin Dragons”

Ho-do

The Ho-do (Dharma Hall) at Kennin-ji Temple is a significant structure serving both as a Buddha hall and a lecture hall. Inside the hall, you’ll find the temple’s principal image, a statue of Shakyamuni Buddha. Among the notable features of Kennin-ji, the Ho-do stands out for its large dragon painting on the ceiling, attracting many visitors. Since the Ho-do is a paid area, it’s advisable to visit it after exploring the main hall and the abbot’s quarters. Also known as the “Nenge-do,” the Ho-do is a historic building constructed in 1765.

One of the highlights of visiting Kennin-ji Temple is the impressive painting of twin dragons on the ceiling of the Ho-do (Dharma Hall). This striking artwork, known as the “Twin Dragon Painting,” was created by Junosaku Koizumi, who also worked on the “Cloud Dragon Painting” in the Ho-do of Kennin-ji’s sister temple, Kencho-ji, in Kamakura. Dragons are revered as “Dragon Gods” and are considered guardians of Buddhism among the Eight Legions. It’s a common tradition in many Zen temple main halls to have dragon paintings on the ceiling. By depicting dragons, which are also associated with water, it’s believed that they offer protection against fire, thereby safeguarding the building. The twin dragon painting at Kennin-ji was completed in 2002 to commemorate its 800th anniversary after two years of meticulous work. It spans across a vast ceiling equivalent to 108 tatami mats and is rendered in breathtaking ink wash painting.

Must-Visit Attractions around Kennin-ji Temple

Around Kennin-ji Temple, there are many temples and shrines to explore, including the famous Kodai-ji Temple, which belongs to the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism and is associated with the historical figures Nene and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. During the lush greenery of spring, visitors can enjoy the serene beauty of Kodai-ji Temple, renowned for its verdant maple trees. Additionally, within walking distance, you’ll find charming spots such as Yasui Konpira-gu Shrine, also known as the “Breakup Shrine,” offering a variety of experiences to enrich your visit to Kyoto.

Scenic Beauty at Kodai-ji Temple, Linked to Nene and Hideyoshi

Located a 10-minute walk from Gion-Shijo Station on the Keihan Railway, Kodai-ji Temple belongs to the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. It is said to have been built by Nene, the wife of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, to commemorate him. Surrounded by the natural beauty of Higashiyama, Kodai-ji Temple offers breathtaking views of cherry blossoms in spring and colorful foliage in autumn. Within its premises, you’ll find remarkable structures like the “Otama-ya” mausoleum adorned with elaborate Momoyama-era decorations known as Kodai-ji lacquerwork, designated as Important Cultural Properties. Nearby the “Kaizan-do,” another Important Cultural Property, lie two ponds and a garden, creating a serene atmosphere.

During the autumn foliage season, many people visit to witness the entire temple grounds adorned in vibrant red hues. A lesser-known time to visit, offering a more secluded experience, is around June. During this period, the temple’s paths are lined with bright green maple leaves, creating a mystical and energizing ambiance unique to this time of year.

Kodai-ji Temple

  • Address: 526 Shimokawaracho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture
  • Map: Google Maps
  • Access:
    • 10 minutes on foot from Gion-shijo Station on the Keihan Electric Railway
    • Take bus No. 206 from Kyoto Station on the JR Line, get off at Higashiyama Yasui, and walk for 7 minutes
  • Phone number: 075-561-9966
  • Closed: Open every day
  • Hours: 9:00 to 17:30 (last entry at 17:00, during the light-up period until 22:00)
  • Admission: Adults 600 yen, middle and high school students 250 yen (Kodai-ji Temple and Entoku-in Temple joint ticket 900 yen)
  • Official website: Kodai-ji Temple

Power Spot for Good Relationships and Breaking Bad Connections: “Yasui Konpira-gu Shrine”

Board bus number 206 and walk for 7 minutes from “Higashiyama Yasui” stop to reach Yasui Konpira-gu Shrine. This shrine is known for its dual blessings: breaking negative ties and strengthening positive connections. It is believed to sever all kinds of negative relationships, from personal to addictive habits like alcohol, tobacco, and gambling. Despite its relatively small grounds compared to other shrines and temples in Kyoto, Yasui Konpira-gu Shrine attracts many visitors daily seeking its powerful blessings.

The large stone adorned with amulets is called the “Enmusubi-Ishi,” or the Stone for Relationship Ties. It stands at 1.5 meters tall and 3 meters wide, taking the shape of an ema (wooden wishing plaque), with divine power flowing through its circular hole. When visiting, one purchases a “katashiro,” or a proxy amulet, to represent themselves. After writing their wishes on the amulet, visitors pass through the stone’s hole from front to back to sever negative ties, and from back to front to strengthen positive ones. Finally, affix the written amulet to the stone to complete the ritual.

Yasui Konpira-gu Shrine

  • Address: 70 Shimobeicho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto-shi
  • Map: Google Maps
  • Access:
    • 10-minute walk from Gion-Shijo Station on the Keihan Main Line
    • 1-minute walk from the Higashiyama-Yasui bus stop served by the Kyoto City Bus Route 206
  • Phone: 075-561-5127
  • Closed: Open daily
  • Hours: All-day visitation allowed (amulets available)
  • Admission: Free
  • Official Website: Yasui Konpira-gu Shrine

Established in 951! Explore the Historic Shingon Temple “Rokuharamitsu-ji”

Located a 7-minute walk from Keihan Electric Railway’s “Kiyomizu Gojo Station” or a 7-minute walk from “Kiyomizu-michi” bus stop on the Kyoto Station-bound bus 206 route, Rokuharamitsu-ji Temple was founded in 951 by the monk Kuya. The name of the temple, Rokuharamitsu-ji, derives from the six practices leading to the realm of Buddha and the six paramitas symbolizing the world of enlightenment. At the heart of the temple grounds stands the vibrant main hall, designated as an Important Cultural Property. Adjacent to the main hall is a treasure hall displaying valuable treasures, including the revered “Standing Statue of Monk Kuya,” which survived wars and remains intact. As you explore, you’ll encounter small frog sculptures praying for the safety of visitors, among other fascinating features surrounding the main hall.

Rokuharamitsu-ji Temple

  • Address: Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture, 600-8175, Japan
  • Map: Google Maps
  • Access:
    • 7-minute walk from Keihan Electric Railway “Kiyomizu Gojo Station”
    • 7-minute walk from “Kiyomizu-michi” bus stop on Kyoto Station-bound bus 206 route
  • Phone: +81 75-561-6980
  • Closed: Open every day
  • Hours: 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM (Last entry to the Treasure Hall at 4:30 PM)
  • Admission:
    • Treasure Hall: Adults 600 yen, Middle/High/University Students 500 yen, Elementary School Students 400 yen
  • Official Website: Rokuharamitsu-ji Temple

Recommended Dining Spots around Kennin-ji Temple

When visiting Kennin-ji Temple, I recommend checking out some great dining spots nearby.

Enjoy French Cuisine in a Traditional Kyoto Townhouse Over 100 Years Old at Ikariya Shokudo

Located along the Kamo River, just a 5-minute walk from Gion-Shijo Station on the Keihan Electric Railway, is a bistro housed in a traditional Kyoto townhouse. Here, you can enjoy a selection of French and Italian dishes paired with wines curated by a sommelier. During the summer, you can dine on the iconic riverside platforms known as ‘kawayuka,’ which are available for a limited time. At this kawayuka bistro, with a total of 28 seats, you can savor French cuisine while enjoying the open-air ambiance with a glass of wine in hand.

The “Whole Chicken Confit” Half (1,280 yen including tax) is a signature dish at this restaurant, made using an entire chicken. Cooked slowly in low-temperature oil, the whole chicken is incredibly juicy, with its succulent juices overflowing in your mouth. Indulge in the restaurant’s special chicken prepared using French culinary techniques.

Ikariya Shokudo

  • Address: 138-2 Saito-cho, Kiyamachi-Danuribashi-sagaru, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture
  • Map: Google Maps
  • Access: 5-minute walk from Gion-shijo Station on the Keihan Electric Railway
  • Phone: 075-276-2067
  • Closed: Mondays & 1st Tuesday of the month
  • Opening Hours: 11:30 AM – 2:30 PM (Last Order: 1:30 PM) / 5:00 PM – 11:00 PM (Last Order: 10:00 PM)
  • Budget: [Dinner] 3,000-3,999 yen [Lunch] 2,000-2,999 yen

Seasonal Ingredients Deep-Fried in Premium Oil at Kyoto Gion: Tempura Endo

Located on Yasaka Street, just an 8-minute walk from Gion Shijo Station on the Keihan Electric Railway, Tempura Endo is a traditional tempura restaurant housed in a sukiya-style building. Upon entering through the noren curtain, guests are greeted with a stone-paved path leading to private tatami rooms and a counter seating area where they can watch skilled artisans at work up close. Tempura Endo serves tempura made from fresh ingredients sourced from various regions of Japan, including Kyoto vegetables, seafood delivered directly from Setouchi and Wakasa, and river fish swimming in clear streams.

The “Aoi” lunch course, priced at 6,600 yen (tax included), is a special menu focusing on quality from the frying oil to the ingredients. It’s available only during lunchtime. Indulge in a delightful selection of 13 assorted tempura items, including the restaurant’s signature live kuruma prawns, followed by a delicious tempura rice bowl to wrap up your meal.

Gion Tempura Yasaka Endo

  • Address: 566 Komatsucho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan
  • Map: Google Maps
  • Access: 8-minute walk from Gion Shijo Station on the Keihan Electric Railway
  • Phone: 075-551-1488
  • Closed: Open daily
  • Hours: 11:00 AM – 4:00 PM / 4:00 PM – 9:00 PM (Last order at 8:00 PM)
  • Budget: [Dinner] ¥10,000 – ¥14,999 / [Lunch] ¥6,000 – ¥7,999

To go Available! Try the Famous Mackerel Sushi at “Izuu” Traditional Sushi Restaurant

Located just a 5-minute walk from Gion-Shijo Station on the Keihan Electric Railway, “Izuu” is a well-established sushi restaurant founded in 1781 (the first year of the Tenpo era). Their signature dish, the “Mackerel Sushi,” which has been prepared using the same traditional method since the establishment’s inception, has even been featured in the Michelin Guide. Whether you choose to dine in or take away, you can savor the flavors of this renowned restaurant even after returning to your accommodation.

The “Mackerel Sugatazushi” priced at 5,148 yen (tax included) is a delicacy featuring mackerel from the Sea of Japan, expertly marinated with high-quality kelp from Hokkaido. This dish combines the rich flavor of mackerel with the acidity of vinegar and the savory aroma of kelp, creating a harmonious taste sensation in every bite. Please note that advance reservations are required for takeout orders.

Izuu Sushi

  • Address: 367 Kiyomotocho, Yasakashinchi, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto
  • Map: Google Maps
  • Access: 5-minute walk from Keihan Electric Railway “Gion Shijo” Station
  • Phone Number: 075-561-0751
  • Closed on: Tuesdays
  • Business Hours:
    • 【Sales】 11:00 AM – 10:00 PM (*Sundays and holidays until 9:00 PM)
    • 【Dining】 11:00 AM – 10:00 PM (Last order at 9:30 PM) (*Sundays and holidays until 9:00 PM, Last order at 8:30 PM)
  • Budget: ¥2,000 – ¥2,999

Kennin-ji Temple is a renowned temple with numerous attractions spread across its vast grounds, including the national treasure “Wind and Thunder Gods” painting and the twin dragon painting in the Hatto hall. Within the Hojo and Honbo, you’ll find several gardens, each offering a unique landscape, such as the dry landscape garden. It’s worth exploring the variety of sceneries they offer. When visiting Kyoto, be sure to include a stop at Kennin-ji Temple along with other sightseeing and dining spots in the area.

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