The home of zen Buddhism in Japan, Kyoto’s Myoshinji Temple, is a city behind white walls. It is located not far from Hanazono Station on the JR Saiin Line, and is a living temple. In recent years, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of tourists—but the space within the walls is so vast that it still feels like an extension of the surrounding neighborhood. Students cycle through en route to local high schools and Ritsumeikan University, salarymen cut through on their way to work, older people stroll the grounds, and priests go on their rounds.
Unlike the better known temples and shrines, which cost upwards of 500 yen to get in and close for business at 5 pm, Myoshinji has a relaxed and open feel to it. That is in part because it is open 24 hours a day, year-round, there is no fee to pass through, and also precisely because the temple has not made tourism its sole raison d'etre.
Myoshinji was founded in 1337 and houses some of Japan’s most famous byobu, or painted screens. It also has many gardens behind the walls of sub-temple. These are open for brief periods at various times of year, usually coinciding with whatever is in bloom.
According to neighbors, the priests at Myoshinji are said to be kowai (scary). Parents admonish their badly behaved children that they will be left in Myoshinji in the middle of the night, or else! The priests’ scowling faces and dark robes are a bit intimidating, particularly when they come around the neighborhood bellowing for alms.
When we were there the other day at 6 pm, the priests were ringing the main bell. They ring it in a series, at roughly 20-second intervals. You can hear people talking as they walk past the bell, oblivious. The bell itself is housed in a large wooden tower, so the priests and the ringing can be heard but not seen.
Myoshinji in December
Check out a sound from JapanVisitor's podcast: the cry of the neighborhood gyoza seller.
Friday, May 19, 2006