The Hello Japan! mini-challenge for December was a direct consequence of our first Japanese Book Group read: The Old Capital (review pending). The ‘old capital’ of Japan is Kyoto — the Japanese title, Koto, referring to that name.

The task for this month is to choose a temple or shrine in Kyoto and share what you learned about it.

A virtual visit, so to say. I started looking for the temple that could have been described in Ellis Avery’s marvelous book The Teahouse Fire; my favourite read of 2008.

When I was nine, in the city now called Kyoto, I changed my fate. I walked into the shrine through the red arch and struck the bell. I bowed twice. I clapped twice. I whispered to the foreign goddess and bowed again. And then I heard the shouts and the fire. What I asked for? Any life but this one.

I found out there are three main temples or shrines with red arches as entrance: Kiyomizu-dera, Fushimi Inari Shrine and Heian Shrine. Since I wasn’t able to pinpoint the exact spot and tanabata herself had already picked the latter, I was left to choose between Kiyomizu and Fushimi Inari. But what happened? While roaming the web I fell in love with pictures of two other temples! Kōdai-ji 高台寺 京都 and Jizō-in 地藏院.

Photo courtesy of Filmmaker in Japan

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of Realmonkey

Kōdai-ji temple was founded in 1605 by Kita-no-Mandokoro (a title for the wife of a ruler) in memory of her late husband. That’s something else than an ‘In Loving Memory‘ bench along the road, isn’t it? I’m especially curious about the teahouses on the property, designed by the famous master of chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony), Sen Rikyu.

In summer and autumn the temple gardens are illuminated at nighttime by multicoloured spotlights. It must be a wonderful sight! The temple grounds actually interest me more than the buildings of worship… Oops — being a museum employee I shouldn’t have said that out loud! ;)

But looking at the pictures for some time the colours start to resemble Christmas lighting. Of course the bamboo forest by daylight does not loose its magic. But I don’t want to be visiting a fairground attraction when looking for a place of contemplation. And there you have the reason why I haven’t chosen any of the 13 Kyoto temples or 3 shrines that are on the Unesco World Heritage List. So, off to the small and not so popular Jizō-in with its beautiful moss garden!

JIZŌ-INJizo moss garden by Frantisek Staud

Jizō-in is a Zen temple that was founded in the 1367 by the monk and garden designer Musō Kokushi, posthumously renamed to Musō Soseki (no relation to the author of I Am a Cat). It is commonly known as the Bamboo Temple but can also be called the poor man’s Saihō-ji because it is only a few minutes’ walk away from the better-known Saihō-ji temple with its heart-shaped garden that was (really) designed by the before mentioned Musō Kokushi, and that can only be visited after official reservations by mail… The garden at Jizō-in was actually designed by Sokyo Zenji (1291-1374) and attributed to Musō as a founder; probably because of his importance. In it you’ll find the 16 disciples of Buddha ((a)rakan 阿羅漢 羅漢).

The temple of Jizō-in was destroyed by fire during the Ōnin civil war (1467-1477) and restored more than a hundred years later, in the middle of the Edo period (1603 -1868), when Japan was closed to Westerners and Christianity. Saihō-ji and Jizō-in are in the same atmospheric bamboo groves and because of that they remind me of the convent where Chieko’s father retreats in The Old Capital.

I really hope to visit some of the Hello Japan! temples in Kyoto in real life some time soon! Including “Mishima’s” Golden Pavilion at Kinkaku-ji 金閣寺 :)

The Buddha concluding this post can not be found in any of the temple gardens; this statuette appeared before me someday on a Wandelgrrls hike here in Holland.