This post offers my review of Nanzen-ji Temple in Kyoto, Japan, along with tips and photos from our visits to this popular spot. I was tempted to dub Nanzenji “underrated” or a “hidden gem” in the title, but neither are entirely apt since it is one pretty well-renowned.
Still, I don’t hear it mentioned in the same breath as some of Kyoto’s elite temples and shrines, so I think there’s some truth to it being underrated. In this “review” (spoiler: what I think of Nanzenji Temple is answered in the title), I’ll address why I think Nanzen-ji belongs on your Kyoto must-do list. Think of this as the reverse of our Notre Dame de Paris is Overrated post. If a shrine is rated #6 but it’s really #5, it’s still underrated. It’s all relative.
The sprawling complex of Nanzenji Temple is located at the foothills of Kyoto’s Higashiyama mountains. If you’ve been paying attention to our series on Kyoto, you might notice we’ve been writing about that location a lot. This is because there’s a line of fascinating spots along the Higashiyama mountains, and it’s pretty convenient to knock them all out in a single day. However, unlike Eikandō Temple, Nanzen-Ji Temple has much more going for it than convenience…
Chief among Nanzenji’s many selling points is “diversity.” Here are just a few of the things you’ll find scattered through Nanzen-Ji Temples many buildings and subtemples: a Sanmon gate, main hall, shrines, rock gardens, tea rooms, pond gardens, fusuma paintings, and an aqueduct.
The last item is what originally piqued my curiosity about Nanzenji; the idea of the type of aqueduct you might find in Roman (or elsewhere in Europe) nestled among Kyoto’s temples was really intriguing.
During the fall and spring, you’ll also find some incredibly stunning foliage and cherry blossoms (respectively) at Nanzen-ji Temple. Even outside of those seasons, the temple grounds are gorgeous, covered in a thick canopy of foliage.
This alone creates a nice, secluded atmosphere for wandering Nanzenji’s grounds.
This is just a guess, but these grounds have to be among the largest of any temple in Kyoto. Or, at least among the largest public areas that are open to guests.
Another part of the appeal is that all of Nanzenji’s central temple grounds are open to the public free of charge, with separate entrance fees applying for certain temple buildings and subtemples.
These subtemples make Nanzenji seem something like a large city that slowly annexed land, engulfing outlying areas over time. I’m not actually sure if that’s how Nanzen-ji became such a large complex; given the large, branching nature of the site, that would make sense.
Many of the buildings and subtemples at Nanzen-ji Temple are from different time periods, were repurposed at various points, and rebuilt over time.
Aside from the diversity offered by Nanzen-ji Temple’s large size, the way it absorbs crowds is another tremendous upside. We’ve visited a few times, and while the Sanmon Gate and main building can get crowded, even on the busiest of days, the areas deeper in the temple are not.
The wealth of buildings at the “back half” of Nanzenji is tremendous, and the tranquil and meditative vibe offered really enhances the experience.
This is the Sanmon gate, which was built in the 13th century and then later rebuilt in 1628 by the ruling Tokugawa clan as tribute to the soldiers who died in the siege of Osaka Castle in 1615.
The Sanmon gate has a 500 yen entrance fee, and we’ve never done it because of this. You can walk all the way around the Sanmon gate on the outside, and aside from the exterior (which you can see for free), it’s hard to imagine it offering much substance. Instead, I think you’re likely paying for the view from the gate’s balcony. That view is no doubt pretty, but there’s no way it can compete with Kiyomizudera Temple, which is a must-do stop you’ll make later the same day…
Above is Nanzen-ji Temple’s aqueduct. Photos don’t do it justice, but it’s really, really cool–at least, I think so. Sure, it’s not lavish or bedazzled, but it’s impressive in its own way. I’ve never seen anything like this at the other temples in Japan, and it’s amazing to consider the feat of engineering this would’ve been at the time.
You can follow the aqueduct for a little ways towards this stream, which then leads up a little hillside with a waterfall and treasure trove of other details. (I don’t have any good photos of these, but I promise, they’re there.)
The subtemples at Nanzen-ji Temple include Konchi-in, Nanzen-in, and Tenju-an. Most of these subtemples (and other buildings within Nanzen-ji, such as the Sanmon Gate and tea rooms) charge admission, which is usually around 500 yen per spot.
This is probably worth stressing, as I suspect Nanzen-ji being “free” is going to be part of the appeal, especially those with larger groups for whom entrance fees quickly add up. The “free” cost of visiting Nanzen-ji Temple can end up increasing pretty quickly and significantly depending upon what else you want to visit on the grounds.
You can have a perfectly enjoyable experience without spending anything, and you could easily spend over an hour at Nanzen-ji wandering its grounds marveling at the beautiful buildings and structures without entering any of the paid areas.
This is not necessarily what we’d recommend, though.
In fact, our practical experience at Nanzen-ji Temple has always resulted in us spending about as much here (or more) as we would at any other shrine or temple in Kyoto.
We’ve always ended up going into a couple of the ‘upcharge’ areas, and we have no regrets about paying a bit more for the experience. Our perspective is that they elevate an impressive free experience to the next level.
When viewed in isolation, I’m not sure the ticketed areas we’ve visited have presented a good value relative to other comparably-priced temples in Kyoto–but when you include the free areas, they do.
From that perspective, perhaps those on a tight budget should devote their attention only to the free areas, but I cannot imagine anyone doing a couple of ticketed experiences being disappointed by their overall experience and the value-for-money offered at Nanzenji.
Overall, I absolutely love Nanzen-ji Temple. It’s one of the reasons the Higashiyama area is my favorite “region” of Kyoto, and it’s one of the places I could return to again and again. It seems like all of my favorite spots in Kyoto have their own unique draw, a singular reason for visiting. Nanzen-ji Temple has that with (for me, at least) the aqueduct. What it also has, that many other temples don’t, is a bit of everything. In some ways, it feels like a “greatest hits” reel, making it a prime destination for those visiting Kyoto without a surplus of time (which is pretty much everyone) to explore all of the city’s top spots. Without question, this is a must-do for anyone traveling to Kyoto.
If you’re planning a visit to Kyoto, Japan, please check out my other posts about Kyoto for ideas of things to do (or not do) while there. Kyoto has a lot of things to see and do, so I also highly recommend the Lonely Planet Kyoto Guide to help better develop an efficient plan while there.
Have you visited Nanzen-ji Temple? What did you think of it? Were you as impressed by the aqueduct as I was…or have you seen water pipes before? Did you see any of the ticketed areas? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Questions about including this spot in your Kyoto itinerary? Share any other questions or thoughts you have in the comments!