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 yet breathtaking township is ideal for those seeking a place to spend their later 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 the throne.

Table of Contents

Sanzen-in’s History

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 Shinden Hall (宸殿).

Hearing the word Shinden, you might wonder if Sanzen-in is connected to the imperial family. If so, you are correct. Shinden only exists in temples where the head priests were members of the imperial family. So when you visit Sanzen-in, you will see the imperial chrysanthemum crest everywhere. In fact, the crest is also Sanzen-in’s temple crest.

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 Buddhist word for the ‘view of the universe’ (宇宙観).

How Long Does It Take to Explore Sanzen-in

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), located at the back of the Kyukuden Hall, and the Yūsei-en Garden (有清園) between Shinden Hall and Ōjō Gokuraku-in.

Taking a leisurely walk around Sanzen-in usually takes around an hour. However, if you are interested in the national treasures, cultural properties, and gorgeous gardens, give yourself at least 90 minutes.

Goten-mon (御殿門)

Because the head priests of Sanzen-in were from the imperial family, the main gate isn’t called Sanmon but Goten-mon (御殿門). 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.

The chrysanthemum crest on the lanterns is a clear sign that Sanzen-in is a Monzeki (門跡). The term refers to the temple where the head priests are of imperial lineage.

Kyakuden Hall (客殿) and Shūheki-en Garden (聚碧園)

Beyond the Goten-mon, admission is paid at the building to the left. Please take off your shoes before stepping onto the building’s wooden flooring (refer to the last photo in the IG post). Plastic bags are provided for your convenience.

The reception building is connected with the Kyakuden, meaning guest hall. It is a place where tea and confectionery are served to the guests.

In the Heian period (794 – 1185), this building was called Ryuzen-in (龍禅院). It was the official in charge of the administration and general affairs of the temples in Ōhara. The Kyakuden was renovated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi using the residual building materials from repairing the Kyoto Imperial Palace.

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

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

If you don’t want the tea and confectionery, that is okay. You can still adore the garden.

Just note that the scarlet felt is for those who have ordered the tea.

Shinden Hall (宸殿) and the Yūsei-en Garden (有清園)

The building on the other end of the long hallway is Shinden. Shinden is the main hall in Sanzen-in. It is where the Osenbōkō (宮中御懺法講) ritual is held. The ritual was initiated by Emperor Goshirakawa (後白河法皇).

While visitors are not allowed to visit the main hall, images of successive imperial priests are kept in the Shinden’s West Room (西の間). In the East Room, the emperor’s throne is placed. The room is best known for the rainbow painted on sliding doors, which is why the room is also called Rainbow Room (虹の間).

Osenbōkō is a type of service involving Shōmyō, which is the Buddhist hymn commonly practised in Ōhara.

As photography is prohibited inside Shinden, we only got a photo of its main entrance (refer to the 2nd photo in the IG post). It is where you put your shoes on and explore the rest of the temple.

What the visitors can do at Shinden is pray to the main image, the Healing Buddha (薬師瑠璃光如来). If that doesn’t interest you, how about taking a couple of photos of the Yūsei-en Garden from the veranda?

Ōjō Gokuraku-in (往生極楽院)

At the far end of the Yūsei-en 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 a huge Amitabha Buddha statue in the middle. Apparently, the statue is so big that special designs are required for the ceiling. The hand gesture that Amitabha Buddha shows is a welcoming hand gesture (来迎印). This is to show that he welcomes anyone to his world if the person follows his teaching.

The Kannon Bodhisattva on the right has his hands forming a lotus pedestal for the welcomed person to step on and into the Pure Land. The Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva on the left has his hands joined to greet the person. Both of them are in a slightly bowing pose to signify how merciful they are.

Besides the special structure, the ceiling is painted vividly with dancing celestial maidens and many Bodhisattvas in heaven. Because it has been more than 1,000 years since the completion of Ōjō Gokuraku-in, a replicate was created and stored in Sanzen-in’s treasure hall, Enjyū-zō (円融蔵).

The garden in front of the Ōjō Gokuraku-in has a couple of stone lanterns. Close to these lanterns, there are a couple of Warabe-Jizō statues (わらべ地蔵).

Their peaceful facial expressions gave us a calm feeling and feelings of content (*´ω`).

Their dark faces shouldn’t be hard to spot as they stand out among the light green moss-covered ground. But because they are not big in size and look like a round stone from a distance, you can easily miss them.

Konjiki Fudō-dō (金色不動堂)

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

A golden Acala (不動明王) is enshrined there 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.

In spring, the cherry blossoms around the worship hall are another highlight on this side of Sanzen-in.

Free perilla tea should be served in the resthouse next to the Fudō-dō. Pieces of small gold leaves are added to the tea. According to the staff, they aren’t just pretty but also have a detox effect!

If you like it, purchase a pack or two as a souvenir!

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 there. Next to the Kannon-dō, there are a couple of smaller temples. Small Kannon statues offered by pilgrims are enshrined there.

Ⓒ 大原観光保勝会

The garden next to the Kannon-dō is called Jigen no Niwa (慈眼の庭). The garden is designed to imitate Mt. Potalaka (補怛洛伽山), Kannon Bodhisattva’s holy land. A couple more Kannon Bodhisattva statues are placed in the garden.

Enjyū-zō (円融蔵)

From Jigen no Niwa, the promenade goes down to the Ritsu River (律川). There are six small Jizō Bodhisattva statues placed along the riverbank called Osana Roku Jizō (おさな六地蔵), meaning the six young Jizō Bodhisattva. Compared to the Warabe Jizō around Ōjō Gokuraku-in, they are a bit more grown up!

You will also encounter a large stone Buddha called Kamakura Sekibutsu (鎌倉石仏).

The promenade will lead you back to the garden past Ōjō Gokuraku-in. Stay on the road you are walking on to get to Enjyūzō. The formal storage is now Sanzen-in’s treasure hall and shrine office, where you can purchase charms and Goshuin.

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.

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.

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, there are a couple of more temples in Ōhara that are worth your time!

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

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