Vegetarian's Japan Guide

Sanzen-in – One of the Most Stunning Hidden Gems in Kyoto

Since ancient times, Ōhara has been a tranquil affair where nobles, Shugendō practitioners, and monks retired. The quiet but breathtaking township is just ideal for those seeking a place to spend their late lives quietly. Among the many Buddhist temples in Ōhara, Sanzen-in (三千院), situated on high ground, is of the highest rank. Since the late Heian period (794 -1185), it had been the residence of the retired chief priests of Enryaku-ji, who were originally from the Imperial Family but couldn’t succeed to the throne.

Sanzen-in was originally a place of religious seclusion built in the 8th century when Saichō (最澄) was constructing Enryaku-ji in Mt. Hiei. The main image, the Healing Buddha (薬師瑠璃光如来), curved by Saichō, is hidden in Sinden Hall (宸殿). ,

Unlike most temples in Japan, Sanzen-in was relocated frequently around Mt. Hiei due to fire hazards and civil wars. It wasn’t until the beginning of the Meiji period (1868 – 1912) that it was permanently (hopefully) moved to its current location.

In 1871, the temple was named Sanzen, the Buddhism word for the view of the universe (宇宙観).

At the end of the approach, you will see Sanzen-in’s main gate Goten-mon (御殿門), at the temple’s west. You might find Sanzen-in’s masonry walls reminiscent of a Japanese castle’s. It is one of the features that demonstrate its high rank.

Strolling around Sanzen-in

Taking a leisurely walk around Sanzen-in usually takes around 30 – 40 minutes. If you are interested in the national treasures and cultural properties, give yourself at least an hour.

The first building you will encounter is the Kyakuden Hall (客殿), just beyond the Goten-mon Gate.

The vast precinct mainly consists of meticulously maintained gardens covered with fresh green moss. The two most beautiful parts of the temple are the Shūheki-en Garden (聚碧園) at the back of the Kyukuden Hall and the Yūsei-en Garden (有清園) between Shinden Hall and Ōjō Gokuraku-in.


Following the corridor in Kyakuden Hall, you can admire the Shūheki-en on the veranda while enjoying a cup of matcha tea and a traditional sweet.

The garden was designed by a famous tea master Kanamori Sōwa (金森宗和), to entertain the guest guests of tea ceremonies held at Kyakuden Hall.

Ōjō Gokuraku-in (往生極楽院)

Following the promenade and passing through the Yūsei-en Garden, you will soon arrive at the Shinden Hall. This is where you can pray to the Healing Buddha before you proceed further through Yūsei-en.

At the far back of the garden is another worship hall named Ōjō Gokuraku-in. The National Treasure, the Amitabha Triad Statue (阿弥陀三尊像), is enshrined here.

This worship hall was erected by Eshinsōzu Genshin (恵心僧都 源信) and his sister to pray for their parents’ afterlives in 986. Genshin is the monk who founded the Japanese Pure Land sect. He completed the book called Ōjōyōshū (往生要集) during his time in Enryaku-ji’s Yokawa area. It is the bible for anyone in Japan who wishes to be welcomed into Amida Buddha’s world.

Looking into Ōjō Gokuraku-in, you can see the large Buddha statue in the middle.

Apparently, the statue is so big that special designs are required for the ceiling. Because it has been more than 1,000 years since the completion of Ōjō Gokuraku-in, it is hard to see the painting of the Pure Land on the ceiling.

Initially, dancing celestial maidens and many Bodhisattvas were drawn vividly on the ceiling. If you wish to examine the painting closely, you can find a copy of it in the treasure hall, Enjyūzō (円融蔵).

Konjiki Fudō-dō (金色不動堂)

Climbing up the stairs from Ōjō Gokuraku-in, there is a Fudō-dō that was only established in 1989.

A golden Acala (不動明王) is enshrined here and is shown to the public during the Fudō Festival held in April. From mid-June to mid-July, around 3,000 hydrangeas will blossom on either side of the 500-meter path beyond the Konjiki Fudō-dō.

When you get there, free perilla tea might be served in the resthouse next to the Fudō-dō. If that isn’t the case, you can still taste this local specialty in the cafes or restaurants in Ōhara (perilla flavored ice cream in summer, for example).

Ⓒ 大原観光保勝会

Kannon-dō (観音堂)

The Konjiki Fudō-dō isn’t located at the highest point of Sanzen-in. Above it, there is a Kannon-dō. A three-meter-tall golden Kannon Bodhisattva is enshrined here. On the shelf in the worship hall, many small Kannon statues are enshrined at his side, placed there by pilgrims. Besides it, the garden is designed to imitate Mt. Potalaka (補怛洛伽山), Kannon Bodhisattva’s holy land.

Ⓒ 大原観光保勝会

Hiking back down the hill, the last stop can be the treasure hall, Enjyūzō. Apart from being a small museum, it is also where you can purchase some souvenirs and charms.

Child Jizō Statues (わらべ地蔵)

As you stroll around Sanzen-in, you will find monk-shaped statues popping out of the ground here and there. They aren’t just some random monks. They are all statues of Jizō Bodhisattva.

Their peaceful facial expressions are gorgeous and seem to be able to calm us down (*´ω`).

Tip: If you are a Goshuin collector, Sansen-in has more than one Goshuin. Remember to check with the staff about the locations to collect them. One of them can only be earned after you complete the calligraphy experience, which can be really hard if you can’t write Japanese Kanji.

Sanzen-in’s Opening Hours, Admission Fee, and Access Information

  • Sanzen-in is open from 9 am to 5 pm daily.
    • In November, it opens early, at 8:30 am.
    • From December to February, it closes early, at 4:30 pm.
  • The admission fee is
    • 700 yen for adults
    • 400 yen for high school students
    • 150 yen for elementary school students
  • From Ōhara stop (大原), it is around a 10-minute walk.

As a side note, although the temple is only 600 meters from the bus stop to Sanzen-in, it will most likely take you more than 10 minutes to get to the temple. Why? Because hardly anyone can resist the temptation of the shops and stalls lining the approach…(´▽`*)

Discover Other Fascinating Attractions in Ōhara

Click the photo to find out more information about Ōhara!

In addition to Sanzen-in, a couple more temples in Ōhara are worth your time.

In our Ōhara article, we have also included a couple of dining options for lunch or dinner and general information about the spiritual village. You will also find a recommended itinerary that you can follow for a day in Ōhara!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *