Honen-in (法然院) is a free temple in Kyoto’s Higashiyama area, located along Philosopher’s Path just south of the Silver Pavilion. In this post, I’ll share photos of the temple, offer brief history, info & tips for visiting, and why the experience at Honen-in Temple is so special.
The approach to Honen-in Temple is quite lovely, and you’ll know you’ve arrived when you see the thatch-roofed Main Gate. Upon walking up these steps and descending down the other side, you’ll see the “Byakusadan – Terrace of White Sand.” These are twin white sand mounds with seasonal designs etched on top, surrounded by moss. These raised sand beds represent water, and are meant to purify the mind and body as you enter the main grounds of the Honen-in Temple.
The Auditorium just past the sand mounds is now used for art exhibits, concerts, and lectures, but it was originally built as a large bathroom…so that’s interesting. It was renovated in 1977 to serve its present function. Nowadays, you’ll have to find somewhere else to ‘go.’
Other features of Honen-in Temple include the Main Hall (only open the first week of April and November), the Repository of Buddhist Scriptures, Hojo guest room, and the lovely Honjo garden. While we have not seen these other buildings in ‘action’ it seems that any of them can serve as art galleries or lecture spaces should they be needed.
While I’ve been trying to decipher the history of each Kyoto temple and write a brief summation, I have to punt on this one. Honen-in Temple’s official site has an English translation of its history (read it for yourself here), but I can’t quite make sense of it.
From what I can ascertain, Honen-in Temple was founded in 1680 on the anniversary of Chionin Temple. It was built as a memorial dojo to the grand priest Honen by his disciple Takashi Shinobu. Beyond that…I don’t know.
Info & Tips
To access Honen-in Temple from Kyoto Station, the easiest option is to take bus #5. It’s a 35-minute bus ride followed by a 5-minute walk. To be honest, though, this is a terrible idea. Honen-in is not a “destination” temple, and if you treat it as such, you’ll be disappointed.
The practical way for getting to Honen-in Temple is immediately before or after visiting the Silver Pavilion, which is a destination temple. As you walk along Philosopher’s Path, you’ll see signs for Honen-in Temple (or you can dial it into Google Maps). It’s an easy and quick 5-minute diversion from the main path.
Despite being so close to Philosopher’s Path, we’ve never encountered a crowd at Honen-in Temple. Even during the heights of fall colors and sakura seasons, it’s rare to encounter more than a handful of people (if anyone) at Honen-in.
Honen-in Temple is free to enter, and is open 6 a.m. until 4 p.m. daily. There is an admission fee for the main hall (no clue how much, as we’ve never been), which is open only April 1-7 and November 1-7.
Our Experience & Review
The first time we visited Honen-in Temple, we didn’t even know it. It was our second trip to Kyoto, and we were walking along the Philosopher’s Path when we decided to go off the beaten path and wander a bit. I don’t even really remember why. It wasn’t until after we left Honen-in Temple that I realized I hadn’t written down its name.
While I couldn’t remember the name of the temple, the experience is imprinted in my mind. Honen-in Temple truly felt like an enchanted place. The morning light was flittering in through the thick canopy of trees, shadows and light doing a mysterious dance as the leaves rustled. There was an elderly man meticulously sweeping leaves with a level of dedication and precision that I reserve for…well, I don’t really do anything that precisely. A bookcase held well-worn titles in a multitude of languages, beckoning guests to slow down.
There was also a gigantic web with a mutant-sized spider on. Like, this sucker could’ve starred in his one MARVEL film. It’s a good thing that sucker was catching the morning light, otherwise I would’ve walked right into it. (I know that doesn’t fit with the rest of the flowery language describing Honen-in, but this is my recollection, not an exercise in creative writing.)
My main impression throughout all of this was that Honen-in Temple was real. It was an actual place of scholarship, art, and spirituality. When photographing the temple, I focused on these details, of shadow and light play, even of the creepy spider-web, because I wanted to capture that moment in time. It felt at once fleeting and timeless, and the compact temple packed a powerful punch.
In retrospect, I had absolutely no memory or photo evidence of the main hall, sand mounds, or any other more noteworthy structures of Honen-in Temple. I thought this was interesting, as what left the biggest impressions were the little moments of the visit, not the defining elements of the temple. This also made it difficult to identify the temple because, it turns out that searching for “Kyoto temple book shelf” or “Kyoto temple spider-web” (and so on) doesn’t exactly yield helpful results.
I wondered if Honen-in Temple would hold up on return visits. Whether that was a special moment unique to that one visit, or perhaps even our own feelings about Kyoto projected onto the canvas of this temple.
We’ve since been back a handful of times, and Honen-in Temple absolutely has retained that magical feeling. There is just something about the atmosphere, the contemplative scenery, and the intimate layout of the temple. For all I know, Honen-in’s disarming nature is entirely by design, but it sure feels serendipitous.
The fact that Honen-in Temple is almost always devoid of people doesn’t hurt, either. You’re usually alone with the place and your thoughts, and it’s almost as if you’ve stepped through the looking glass. Time slows down, every little detail stands out, you have a chance to absorb the place, and contemplate its meaning.
For us, this is why Honen-in Temple is a Kyoto must-do. No, it’s not a UNESCO World Heritage Site with some grand and defining feature begging to be photographed. It has something much more important than that: a setting and mood that conveys the essence of the Kyoto experience.
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 Honen-in Temple? What did you think of it? Did you find it to be a special experience that conveyed the spirit of Kyoto…or is that over-wrought sentimentality on my part? Would you recommend Honen-in Temple to a first-timer visiting Japan? 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!