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The enchanting Honen-in temple, Kyoto

Updated: Aug 25, 2020

Kyoto, Japan's Eternal City, has an almost limitless supply of religious sites for the enthusiastic adventurer to discover.

It's not for nothing that it has earned the nickname 'The city of ten thousand shrines' - a tourist to Kyoto can hardly turn a corner without tripping over another intriguing shrine or arresting temple.

But that is not to say that they are all of-a-kind, cookie-cutter carbon copies of each other.

Temples in Kyoto run the gamut: from the enormous to the tiny, instagram-famous to unheard-of, flashy to humble, swarmed by the tourist hordes or tucked away out of sight.

And all have their various charms, in one way or another.

Beautiful stone garden pathway at Honen-in Temple in Kyoto.

So for each visitor to Kyoto there is a decision to be made: which kinds of temples appeal? And then to set about seeking them out. Because sometimes it is the joy of discovering a gem - something not found in those lonely-planet-look-alike travel guides, all pointing to the same overdone attractions - that can be the real highlight of a day of discovery.

On this our final day in Kyoto, we had started with a morning hike in the mountains just outside the city, walking the Kibune-to-Kurama nature trail. Back in Kyoto just after lunch, we'd visited the immaculate Ginkaku-ji temple, before setting off for a wander along the charming Philosopher's Path, its stream overhung with cherry blossom trees in full springtime bloom.

Located not far from the Philosopher's Path in east Kyoto's Higashiyama district, up a little hill is one of the lesser-known sightseeing spots: the Honen-in temple, and we decided to make a quick detour to visit it.

Honen-in temple

The Honen-in temple in Kyoto is everything that the Silver Pavilion is not - a small, lovely and unassuming temple off the main tourist map, and an opportunity to reset in the serene surroundings of its subtly landscaped gardens.

The stunning entrance gate to Honen-in Temple in Kyoto, covered in moss.

Built in 1680 in homage to Honen, the founder of the Jodo-shu sect of Buddhism,

the Honen-in temple is perhaps most recognisable for its entrance gate - a photogenic thatch-covered entryway that is covered in moss.

The gateway also provides the first inkling of what is to be found on the inside. Set on the edge of the forest which covers the neighbouring hills, Honen-in is nestled into the trees and is a secluded space that is the perfect place for moss to thrive. All around the meticulously maintained gardens, the grounds are covered in gorgeously glossy-green moss carpets.

A rock pathway surrounded by moss, in the garden at Honen-in temple.

There is a peaceful atmosphere about the temple grounds, and after the madness that pervades much of Japan's large cities during sakura high season, Honen-in feels like a Kyoto refuge. It is a sanctuary from the crowds and a moment to take stock, to appreciate the beauty that is all around in this ancient, venerable country.

To either side as we entered the grounds of the Honen-in temple are two terraces of white sand - called byakusadan - decorated with sand art designs maintained by the monks that vary over time, with the seasons and according to their personal inspiration. Passing through the sand mounds is said to be an act of purification for visitors to Honen-in.

And in the centre of the temple garden is a large koi pond spanned by a stone bridge, a focus point for the traditional Japanese garden architecture.

Honen-in temple also has an arty side: it organises art exhibitions by contemporary artists as well as displaying traditional Buddhist artworks, and hosts periodic talks by guest lecturers.

The main hall at Honen-in opens only twice a year, around the months of April and November, and so anyone interested in viewing the black Amida Buddha statue housed here will need to plan accordingly. While entrance to the Honen-in gardens is usually free, visitors during the twice-yearly hall openings will have to pay a small fee - made more than worth it by the springtime blooms or the autumn changing of the leaves which occur at these times.

Honen-in is not a large temple - we spent perhaps a half-hour, wandering slowly and appreciatively around the grounds, the only visitors there - as we took our photos and let the tranquility of the setting infuse us.

Koi pond at the centre of the garden at Honen-in temple in Kyoto.

Thoroughly beguiled, we eventually set off again back to the Philosopher's Path, where we would again meet up with our fellow visitors and rejoin the energy of Kyoto in spring.

But happy to have found a brief retreat from the tourist rush and a moment to reflect, at the enchanting Honen-in temple.

Honen-in temple visitors information:

Hours: 9am - 4pm

Address: 30番地 Shishigatani Goshonodancho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, 606-8422, Japan

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