Chion-in (知恩院) is a large, free temple in Kyoto’s Higashiyama area. It is one of the most popular Jodo Buddhist temples in Japan. In this post, I’ll share photos from Chion-in (including of its ongoing construction), history, info & tips for visiting, and thoughts on the current experience at Chion-in Temple.
The free grounds at Chion-in Temple are large and impressive. Chionin’s main entrance Sanmon gate stands right at the road–you can’t miss it if you’re walking the road between Maruyama Park and Shorenin Temple. Continuing inside, you’ll encounter a long and steep set of stairs, which might get your heart rate up a bit.
At the top of the stairs is a large open area with pathways to temple’s main buildings. The most prominent of these is the main Miedo Hall (more on that below). In this same area you’ll also see Amidado Hall, with other less-significant buildings and one of the temple’s paid gardens in this general vicinity. Most interesting, we think, is the path that leads up the hillside away from this main open area…
Important Note: Chion-in’s main hall, the Miedo Hall, is currently undergoing major renovation works that will last until at least 2019, with other refurbishments planned through 2020. During the renovation project, a quasi-warehouse has ben built around the main hall, closing to visitors and making for a large eyesore in the middle of the complex.
In 1175, Honen, the founder of the Jodo Shu, built a grass hermitage on the location that would later become Chion-in Temple. After being exiled to the island of Shikoku, Honen returned to Kyoto in 1211 and the following year he passed away on the site of Chion-in Temple, with his disciples built a mausoleum that houses the ashes of Honen.
Honen’s disciple Genchi began constructing various temple buildings and declares Honen to be the founder of the temple in 1234, but it was not until the latter part of the Muromachi Period that Chion-in Temple became formally established. Throughout the Tokugawa Period, Chion-in Temple’s grounds and buildings were expanded.
In the 1500s and 1600s, Chion-in Temple’s buildings were burned down by fires several times, but were rebuilt after each calamity. Following a particularly destructive fire in 1633, almost every major structure at Chion-in Temple had to be rebuilt. This included the Mieido Hall, Ohojo, and Kohojo, which were completed in 1641. Most buildings at Chion-in Temple date to around this time.
If you’re interested in reading more about the history of Chion-in Temple, you can find an easy-to-digest historical timeline on the temple’s official site (and it’s in English!).
Info & Tips
Chion-in Temple is a 10 minute walk from Higashiyama Station on the Tozai Line, or a 5 minute walk from Chionin-mae bus stop, which is accessible from Kyoto Station via bus 206. As with all points of interest in Kyoto, consult Google Maps for the most efficient train route based upon your location and departure time, as there are almost always 2-3 ways to access any temple in Kyoto.
We would hope this information is not necessary, as Chion-in Temple is incredibly convenient by foot from Maruyama Park and Shorenin Temple. If you’re doing a north-south walking tour of Higashiyama, you will almost certainly walk right past Chion-in.
In fact, when walking between Nanzen-ji Temple and Kiyomizudera Temple, the only way you won’t pass Chion-in Temple is if you get lost.
It should also be noted that walking is just as efficient of a route between these two temples as taking the bus–and walking is the significantly better experience.
Chion-in Temple is reasonably popular, both due to its location and its relatively high-profile in Kyoto planning resources. You’ll typically find a crowd gathered down around the Sanmon Gate before ascending the stairs to the main area of the temple.
Despite this, we haven’t encountered the kinds of suffocating crowds you can experience at the other popular Higashiyama temples. (Perhaps that long stairway discourages people from venturing deeper into the temple?)
This is especially true once you get up around Seishido Hall (consult a map–it can be difficult to locate due to temporary walkways during construction) and the area sprawling up the hillside in the far corner of the temple.
This area is peaceful, beautiful (especially during fall colors season), relatively uncrowded, and offers great views down into Kyoto.
In addition to the free areas, there are two paid gardens at Chion-in Temple: Hojo and Yuzen. Individual fees are 400 and 300 yen (respectively) or 500 yen for both.
The temple is open for entrance from 9 a.m. until 3:50 p.m., and the gates close at 4:30 p.m.
Note that there are special opening hours for sakura and autumn evening illuminations, which occur in November (and sometimes in April). I cannot locate the dates for these on Chion-in Temple’s official calendar of events, but I know they occur because I’ve attended them.
If dates aren’t published for these online closer to your visit, you’ll definitely see posters plastered all over the city–and you’ll (again) walk past Chion-in Temple while going from the evening illumination at Shoren-in Temple to the illuminations at Kodai-ji and Kiyomizudera Temples. (For what it’s worth, I think Chion-in is the weakest of these illuminations during its renovation.)
Our Experience & Review
Since we’ve been visiting Kyoto, the massive Miedo Hall has been under refurbishment. This isn’t just minor upkeep or light preventative maintenance: it’s a 9-year construction project. During this time, Miedo Hall isn’t just covered with scaffolding–there’s a warehouse that has basically been built around the hall.
The times we’ve visited, a cacophony of construction work could be heard coming from Miedo Hall pretty much anywhere in the vicinity of the construction warehouse. We’ve returned because the temple is free and there’s still plenty to see, but this project is definitely very intrusive to the overall experience at Chion-in Temple.
With that said, we’d still recommend visiting Chion-in Temple. Both because it’s free, and because the complex is so large and sprawling that there are spots where you can escape the reverberating noise of construction.
We really enjoy these areas of Chion-in Temple on the hillside. Even if you blow past everything else and only spend 30-45 minutes at Chion-in Temple, it’s worth the time and effort to hike up those steep steps leading up from the Sanmon Gate.
Overall, Chion-in Temple doesn’t rank super high up our list of temples in Kyoto…for the time being. There are definitely beautiful areas and quiet spots within the temple right now, but they are hard to find. If you’re primarily concerned with the visuals and taking photos of temples, Chion-in Temple will work just fine for you. If you’re more in it for the serene and contemplative experience, Chion-in Temple leaves a lot to be desired, and will until 2021. We’ll be back with an updated review at that time, because we have a feeling Chion-in Temple’s stock will soar once that warehouse is removed and the redone Miedo Hall is unveiled.
If you’re planning a visit to the Japan that includes Kyoto, please check out my other posts about Japan. I also highly recommend the Lonely Planet Kyoto Guide to determine everything you should see and do while there.
Have you visited Chion-in Temple? What did you think of it? If you’ve visited during the ongoing construction project, did you find it particularly intrusive, or did it not bother you? Would you recommend Chionin Temple to a first-timer visiting Japan even in spite of the construction? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting this temple interest you? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!