Kennin-ji (建仁寺) is the oldest Zen temple Kyoto. Located in Gion, which is renowned as Japan’s most famous geisha district. In this post, I’ll share photos I took at Kennin-ji Temple, its history, info & tips for visiting, thoughts on our experience, and whether Kennin-ji is worth your time.
Despite Kennin-ji’s claim to fame as Kyoto’s oldest Zen temple, its status as one of the five great Zen temples of Kyoto, and its location in the heart of Gion, it still manages to fly somewhat under the radar. It’s not listed as a must-do in any major planning resources (to our knowledge) and tends to only draw modest crowds.
About the only “resource” that ranks Kennin-ji in Kyoto’s top 25 is TripAdvisor, and in this instance, we agree with the crowd-sourced site. The good news is that its high ranking on the most popular travel-planning site in the world seems to have little impact on its crowds. Kennin-ji still only draws moderate crowds, and is a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of Gion and Higashiyama.
Before our tour of Kennin-ji Temple, let’s begin with its legacy–the why of its significance. While tracking down and corroborating the history for some of Kyoto’s temples is difficult since online translations contain misinformation. With Kennin-ji, it’s quite simple…because they provide a handout at the temple with 4 full pages of text that are in perfect English!
Nevertheless, I’ll be brief and attempt to condense that to the essentials…
Founded in 1202 by the priest Eisai, Kennin-ji was patterned after Bai-zhang-shan, China’s first Zen monastery. Its buildings were designed in accordance with the Song dynasty architectural style. (The Founder’s Hall houses Eisai’s remains.)
In response to pressure from Buddhist sects at the time, Kennin-ji originally combined Tendai and Shingon Buddhist teachings with the practice of Zen meditation. Kennin-ji’s eleventh abbot reorganized it as a purely Rinzai Zen temple, which it remains today.
The buildings of Kennin-ji were completed in 1205, but in typical Kyoto fashion, were destroyed by numerous fires and were all repeatedly reconstructed. In 1552, a military commender set fire to a nearby street, leaving the temple in ruins. In the late sixteenth century, the Toyotomi family donated land for the temple to be rebuilt.
Today, the oldest building at Kennin-ji is a donated Hojo from Hiroshima that dates from 1487. Other prominent structures date from the 1500s to 1700s, and have been relocated and restored over the years. In 1934, a typhoon struck Kennin-ji, necessitating further restoration, as well as the relocation of numerous works of art that have since been relocated to Kyoto National Museum.
Info & Tips
Kennin-ji Temple is located in a popular walking area nestled between Gion and Higashiyama, so hopefully you won’t be taking transportation directly to this temple.
It’s about 10 minutes by foot from Maruyama Park. It’s also a 10 minute walk from Gion Shijo Station on the Keihan Line and Kawaramachi Station on the Hankyu Line.
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.
Note that there are several entrances to Kennin-ji Temple, so disregard Google Maps advice that might have you wander around the perimeter to enter–use common sense.
We’d recommend slotting Kennin-ji Temple into an itinerary that includes the Gion District or after a stop at Maruyama Park before continuing towards Kiyomizudera. It’s only a short diversion, and is worth the time.
Even though we really enjoy Kennin-ji, we wouldn’t recommend making a dedicated trip here from elsewhere in Kyoto. This has less to do with its quality and morey because that shouldn’t be necessary with a logical Kyoto itinerary.
As with many temples in Kyoto, Kennin-ji has a large public area that you can visit free of charge and an inner area comprising its main buildings that requires a 500 yen entrance fee.
The inner complex is where you’ll find gardens, beautiful artwork, and find buildings’ interiors accessible. It is, frankly, pointless to visit Kennin-ji Temple for the free areas only.
Kennin-ji Temple is open from 10:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. daily (closing at 4:30 p.m. November through February), with the last admission being 30 minutes before closing.
Our Experience & Review
We had passed by Kennin-ji Temple many times before actually visiting. It’s right by Gion Corner, situated between the Kamogawa River and Maruyama Park in a pleasant walking area. From the outside Kennin-ji appears unassuming, with generic Sanmon and Hatto announcing its presence without revealing its character. It’s easy to pass by figuring it’s one of Kyoto’s thousand-plus private temples.
It actually wasn’t until we happened into a tourism office on Kiyomizuzaka and saw it listed as one of the staff’s recommended temples. It took a few moments of my mind reeling before it hit me, “oh yeah, that temple.” We decided to pay Kennin-ji Temple a visit a couple of days later.
We are very glad that we did. Past its nondescript exterior, it holds a surprising amount of beauty and character. Like so many temples in Kyoto, the inside opens to an endless labyrinth of covered walkways, gardens, and scattering of buildings. We soon discovered this “unassuming” temple we had walked past without a second thought contains nearly two dozen buildings.
To be sure, quantity is no indicator of quality, and many of these are small and serve no readily discernible purpose, at least to the casual visitor. They are, in effect, the temple equivalent of padlocked garden sheds, pretty at brief glance, but nothing more.
With that said, the inner complex contains a wealth of treasures, from gardens to interior design. A large part of Kennin-ji Temple’s appeal for us was its dual nature as both a temple and a quasi art gallery.
The same could be said of many temples in Kyoto, as fusuma designs, meticulously-designed gardens, and other details engage creativity as much as spirituality.
However, Kennin-ji Temple takes this a step further than most temples, with art from the Edo period alongside more “modern” installations dating from 1940 until the present.
“The Wind and Thunder Gods” by Tawaraya Sotatsu (above) is viewed as the distinctive artwork of Kennin-ji, and it’s one you’ll see reproduced everywhere in Kyoto (it’s on one of our ICOCA cards!), so seeing it in person might be reason-enough to visit Kennin-ji Temple.
Personally, I preferred the 32-panel series by twentieth century painter Hashimoto Kansetsu titled “the Cycle of Birth and Death.” Either way, I’d say Kennin-ji is an elite temple in terms of its artistry.
One of the most interesting pieces of art is Twin Dragons, which dates “back” only to the aughts. This was installed to commemorate the 800th Anniversary of Kennin-ji Temple. Similar depictions of these twin dragons are found in other Zen temples in Japan, as the dragons are believed to be the protectors of Buddhist teachings, as well as the gods of water.
This particular installation was ink-drawn on traditional Japanese paper, taking the artist Koizumi Junsaku two years to complete while working in the gymnasium of an elementary school in Hokkaido, Japan. It’s really a beautiful piece, and we were taken aback to learn it was so new, as it seemed like the ceiling art is an inseparable part of the Hatto ceiling.
Overall, we really enjoyed Kennin-ji Temple. Its beautiful art, including many paintings and screens, is the highlight for us. While there are art galleries and museums in Gion that offer this as their focus, there’s something to be said for seeing fusuma and sliding door art in the context of a temple, where they supply both form and function. Twin Dragons is also stunning, and arguably worth the price of admission alone. Beyond that, there’s a serene beauty to the moss, white sand, and rock gardens, which serve as icing on the cake of Kennin-ji Temple. While it doesn’t make Kyoto’s top 10, we consider this a top 25 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 Kennin-ji Temple? What did you think of it? Did you have any favorite artwork that you enjoyed in the temple? Were you as enamored as us with Twin Dragons or the 32 panels by Hashimoto? Would you recommend Kennin-ji 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!