Nishi Hongan-ji Temple
I have been walking through the complex of Nishi Hongan-ji temple for years and never got bored of its magnificent structure and impressive interiors. It is one of the few temples in Kyoto that you can enter for free. I find it always very peaceful just to sit for a while in one of its halls or just wander through the long wooden verandas. The temple is very close to Kyoto Station and easy to access even on foot.
The History and Religion
The Nishi Hongan-ji temple was established at the end of the 16th century and became the head temple of Jodo Shinshu Buddhist sect, one of the biggest Buddhist sects in Japan. The sect was founded by monk Shinran at the beginning of the 13th century as one of the schools of Pure Land Buddhism. That is why you can always find a statue of Amitabha Buddha in its templesHe is the principal Buddha worshipped in this sect. The word Hongan means “Amida Buddha´s original vow” that lies in his promise to salvage all beings from suffering.
There was originally only one Hongan-ji temple supported by warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi(豊臣秀吉), who gave the temple vast piece of land for its precincts. A lot of inner decorations were moved here from the rooms of Toyotomi Hideyoshi´s castle too. But because of this connection with Hideyoshi and power the temple gained, it became a threat to the newly formed system. After Hideyoshi´s death the new military and actually the factual leader of Japan, Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu(徳川家康), decided to divide it into two temples. That is why we have today also Higashi Hongan-ji temple to east of Nishi Hongan-ji temple. But Nishi Hongan-ji Temple is still being considered as the original Hongan-ji temple.
The Great Halls of Nishihongan-ji Temple
The Goei-do Hall (Founder´s Hall), dedicated to Shinran, was finished in 1636 and is the largest hall of all in the temple precincts. Although bigger than the Amida-do Hall, the second biggest one, which stands on its right side, the difference is not big enough to easily distinguish between them at a swift glance. The Goei-do Hall is 62m wide, 48m in depth and 29m high. The hall supported by more than 200 pillars offers capacity for more than 1000 believers. In the center of the hall you can find the wooden statue of Shinran and on its both sides there are portrayals of the important head priests from the Hongan-ji Temple´s history. The walls of the inner part are beautifully decorated with lotus flowers and here and there, you can also find paintings of pine trees, bamboo trees and birds. The two gold Japanese characters above read Ken-Shin (見真) and they represent the posthumous Buddhist name of Shinran. The main events are being held in this hall.
On the other hand, the Amida-do Hall (The Hall of Amida Buddha) is 45m wide, 42m in depth and 25m high. This hall is supported by more than 100 pillars and can offer the space for “only” 800 people. In the center of the hall, a wooden statue of Amida Nyorai (the Tathagata Amitabha) is displayed. The silhouettes on its both sides depict the seven founding fathers, the followers of Amitabha Buddha from India, China and Japan and also Shotoku Taishi, the semi-legendary prince from the Japanese history. He was a serious Buddhist believer, who established a centralized government based on the Buddha's teachings. The ornamental decorations and paintings are again masterly made, here focused on peacocks and the peach trees. The artistic decorations of the halls are mainly the masterpieces of Kano school (狩野派), one of the most famous painting schools in Japan.
Probably the easiest way to tell which of the halls is which is to remember that when you are facing them, the Goei-do Hall is one on the left and the Amida-do Hall is on the right side.
Other Halls and Structures
You can find many other national treasures in this temple. Unfortunatelly not all of them are accessible without making a reservation. The one of them could be the Hiunkaku Pavilion (飛雲閣, the Pavilon of Flying Clouds) that was originally meant to be accessed only by boat. Its three-storied structure can even compete with pavilions of Kinkaku-ji or Ginkaku-ji Temples. The first floor is in shoin-zukuri style. It has the floor covered with tatami and its original purpose was a place for studying or drawing especially sutras. There are three rooms; a room with a famous painting of eight scenes, The Eight Views of Xiaoxiang; a tea room and a study room with veranda. The roof of the first floor is in karahafu-irimoya style. The second floor has the room with paintings of 36 poets painted on the wooden doors and walls. It has lightly railed veranda and roof in Karahafu-Yosemune style. The room on the third floor has painting of Mount Fuji. Its roof is in Hogyo style. Almost all of the paintings in the pavilion are again of Kano school.
Another treasure is without any doubt the Shoin (書院, drawing or study room) that was used to be a kind of audience hall. The Shoin in Nishi Hongan-ji temple is one of the largest structures of this style in Japan. Behind the sliding doors you can find two large and beautifully decorated tatami rooms - Taimen-jo (対面所, Audience Room) and Shiro-shoin (白書院, White Study Room). There are also many different chambers, kare-sansui rock garden (Kokei no Niwa) and the Noh stage that is considered to be the oldest one in Japan.
Last but not least, ornamental Kara-mon gate (Chinese gate) is standing right in front of Shoin. It is abundantly colored gate with many ornamental decorations including Chinese lions (kara-jishi) and expressing the scenes from Chinese history.
Wooden Plugs of Veranda and Corridors (縁側と廊下の埋め木)
There is always plenty to explore so returning back and checking again is always good idea. The wooden plugs in many different shapes are probably something quite easily to miss I think. You can find them especially around the Amida-do Hall. They are in the shapes of animals, plants and other things to cover the holes and cracks of the wooden floors. Sometimes it is solely up to your own imagination, what all these shapes can remind you of. I believe that searching for them could make your visit even more interesting. And do not also hesitate to enter the halls during the frequent Buddhist services. At the place like this you can really witness many unusual things.
The Costume Museum (風俗博物館)
Visiting The Costume Museum could also be of interest on your way back. It is a relatively small museum only about two-minute walk from the Nishihongan-ji temple. There is always a very nice exhibition depicting the life of nobility during the Heian Period. The world of the Tale of Genji from the 1000 years ago literally comes alive in front of your very eyes. You can take as many pictures as you want but you will never have enough. At least I did not and it was quite a big challenge to leave this perfect world filled up with harmonic beauty of an ancient Imperial Court.