Nanzenji (南禅寺 Nanzen-ji), formally known by its mountain name Zuiryūsan Nanzen-ji (瑞龍山南禅寺), is a Buddhist temple of the Rinzai school located in northern Higashiyama, Kyōto. It is one of the most eminent Rinzai temples and the headquarters of the Nanzen school.


The site was originally the location of Zenrin-ji (禅林寺), a temple built on the grounds of Emperor Go-Saga's (後嵯峨天皇, 1220-1272) palace. In 1291, Emperor Kameyama (亀山天皇, 1249-1305) established Nanzen-ji on the site of Go-Saga's former residence.

Sanmon (山門), the main gate of Nanzen-ji

Nanzen-ji was constructed by Kian Soen (規庵祖円, 1269–1313), the second abbot of the temple. Soen was a disciple of Mugaku Sogen (無学祖元, 1226-1286) who had founded Engaku-ji in Kamakura. Sogen was a Zen monk from China and an advisor to regent Hōjō Tokimune (北条時宗, 1251-1284). Under the patronage of Emperor Kameyama (亀山天皇, 1249-1305) Nanzen-ji became one of the most influential Rinzai temples in the Gozan system.

Gozan (五 山, "Five Mountains") was a ranking system in Japanese Zen Buddhism that emerged in the late Kamakura period. It was revised in the Muromachi period under the Ashikaga who placed Nanzen-ji at the top of all other temples. The Gozan comprised the large temples of the then-dominant Zen schools in Kamakura and Kyōto, thereby, for the first time, earning them recognition from the secular authorities. The Gozan temples were dominated by the Rinzai school. The only other school included was the Kōchi-ha (宏智派) of Sōtō Zen.

The precincts of Nanzen-ji are a nationally designated Historic Site and the Hōjō gardens a Place of Scenic Beauty.

Nanzen-ji is famous for its Japanese rock garden (枯山水 karesansui) located in the temple's hōjō (方丈, abbot's quarters) and designed by the artist Kobori Enshū (小堀 遠州, 1579-1647). The impressive wooden structure of the main gate (Sanmon) was reconstructed in 1628 after it had been destroyed in 1369. Visitors can climb up to an elevated platform that affords them an excellent view over Kyōto.

According to legend, the infamous bandit Ishikawa Goemon (石川五右衛門, 1558-1594), a Japanese Robin Hood of sorts, exclaimed the words "zekkei kana" (絶景かな, "What a superb view") when he first stepped on Nanzen-ji's Sanmon. Goemon later became a popular character in several kabuki plays, following his spectacular execution in front of Sanmon: when he and his little son were sentenced to be boiled alive in a large iron cauldron he was trying to save his son's life by holding him above his head. According to one account, his son survived and was subsequently pardoned.

Suirokaku (水路閣):

Above: Suirokaku (水路閣) is a brick aqueduct located in the southern perimeter of Nanzen-ji that was built in 1890. It is 93 metres long and 4 metres wide and was part of a canal system that transported water and goods between Kyōto and Lake Biwa. It was designated as a historical site in Kyōto in 1983.

Places to see:

  • Sanmon Gate (山門): the ceiling of the main gate has murals of the Tosa and Kanō schools depicting angels and birds.
  • Honden (本殿): the main hall with its famous dragon painting
  • Hōjō Hall (方丈): the abbots' quarter with its famous Leaping Tiger Garden, a classical Japanese dry garden.
  • Kōtoku-an: a sub-temple at the base of the surrounding mountains.
  • Nanzen-in (南禅院): another sub-temple close to the aqueduct with a fine garden and a pond.
  • Tenju-an (天授庵): located south of the Sanmon, this sub-temple was constructed in 1337 and also features a Japanese garden with a heart-shaped pond.
  • Konchi-in (金地院) is southwest of Nanzen-ji's main precinct; its Crane and Tortoise garden was designed by Kobori Enshū.
  • Nanzen-ji Oku-no-in (南禅寺の奥の院): a small shrine where pilgrims traditionally stand under the waterfall; it is located close to Kōtoku-an.

Address: 〒606-8435 Kyōto, Sakyo-ku, Nanzenji Fukuchicho, 86; phone: +81-75-7710365.
Admission: daily 08:45-16:30 (17:00 March-November), 500 JPY (Sanmon), Hōjō (300 JPY), Nanzenin (300 JPY), Konchi-in (400 JPY).



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