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A Walk through Sanzen-in Temple


Kyoto is a city full of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. The capital of Japan for over a thousand years, Kyoto is marked by a preponderance of the differing political and religious trends that passed through in that millennia—evident in aesthetic aspects of temples. Ohara, a small village a little ways north of Kyoto, holds evidence of this long history within the walls of its Tendai-school temples—one of the many schools of Buddhism.

Buddhism, often misrepresented outside of Asia, is not a monolithic religion. Within Japan, within Kansai—the region of Kyoto and Osaka—there is a diversity of thought and expression. Schools of Buddhism rose and fell alongside different political, religious, cultural movements. Buddhism, like all religions, is a living thing that changes and is changed by the people who practice and use it.


Tendai Buddhism is a form of Buddhism which by design is meant to evolve new practices and provide a universal form of Buddhism. It allows for a reconciliation between Buddhist doctrine and certain parts of Japanese culture.


Sanzen-in Temple which lies to the right of the road leading into Ohara from Kyoto, represented the intersection of religion and nobility. It was a monzeki temple where the priests could only be of Imperial and aristocratic lineage. The temple with its high walls and taller trees is, perhaps, not as striking to new eyes but positioned between hills carpeted with trees and bordered by streams, the atmosphere holds something different than more famous temples in Kyoto.




Ohara, its main temples, and the number of smaller temples are a popular destination for Japanese photographers in the late days of autumn when the trees change color. On the path to Sanzen-in, another color emerges. A lesser known type of cherry blossom tree that blooms in autumn. The pale pink flowers visible scattered across the path can be found in greater numbers at the neighboring Jikko-in Temple.


From the base of the steps leading to the entrance, the tiled roof of the entrance gate is immediately visible. Throughout the entirety of the temple, roof tiles frame the view. The dark roof tiles end with illustrated disks called gatou. The designs on the gatou differ not only from city to city but from building to building within just Sanzen-in Temple. The designs themselves can represent political, religious, or philosophical alignments. Or they could simply have been the trend when the roofs were constructed.


On some of the buildings of the temple gatou-etched with the imperial chrysanthemum-are visible. Despite its association with the Imperial family, the imperial chrysanthemum pattern, 'kikkamon', was widely and freely used until the late 1800s. While the Edo period came to an end amidst the Meiji Restoration, Japanese society underwent massive changes and the design, kikkamon, was restricted to solely imperial use.



Another famous design, the tomoe, is a swirl. Most commonly crafted as a three-headed swirl as that was thought to be the most stable, it is possible to find the same design with only 1 or 2 heads. It first appeared as a pattern on gatou during the Heian period (794-1184)—the same period that Tendai Buddhism rose to its greatest height: the same period that Kyoto became the capital of Imperial Japan.


The tomoe is one of the oldest recognized patterns in Japan, existing far before its rise as an architectural flare. Its presence dates back more than four thousand years and as such makes it difficult to locate its originally meaning. But its appearance on gatou is due to the Chinese cultural influence during the Heian period, so many attribute the Chinese meaning to its presence on gatou—the element of water.


Past the main hall of Sanzen-in, past Shuheki-en garden and close to the Ryo river, the small statues of Warabe Jizo are visible. Jizo is a bodhisattva that offers help to those in need. Warabe Jizo though are child versions of Jizo, and those who ask for protection of children come to them instead.




At the furthest point of the temple, is the brightly colored Hall of Kannon-do. Outside there are rows upon rows of small statues of a monk, the same monk, holding a lotus flower. The monk, Kannon, is a female bodhissatva known for her mercy. Referred to as Guanyin in India and China, she is often portrayed as androgynous. Those seeking mercy come here.



Here ends the furthest walls of Sanzen-in, but past these walls is the rest of Ohara left to be seen.