Hidden Treasure of Kyoto Prefecture: Shojuin Temple

Shojuin is hidden in the mountains of Ujitawara, a tea growing region of southern Kyoto Prefecture. Belonging to the Koyasan Shingon sect of Buddhism, this tiny (but impressive) temple was founded about 800 years ago.

From a distance, Shojuin looks more like a local farmhouse than a temple. At the front gate, a 500 year-old crepe myrtle stands guard and welcomes visitors. Upon entering, there is a large, open space and a Jizo-do where visitors make a wish, then tie up colored strings that are said to be auspicious. These ‘kano’ strings are only given out on the 8th day of the month. The tied section on one side looks like the kanji for ‘mouth’ and on the other side, the kanji for ‘ten’. When put together, 叶, the meaning is ‘to come true’.

The main hall is over to the left and it houses the temple’s principal image, an eleven-faced Kannon statue that is only revealed to the public once every 50 years (previously in 1990). There is a string that is tied to the finger of the statue and visitors can touch the string and pray, in order to get close to Kannon and her powers that help people in distress.

The temple also possesses a statue of Fudo-myo carved by the famous priest, Kaikei, in the early 1200’s. A giant photograph of Fudo-myo’s head leans against the wall in the main hall.

At the entrance to the main hall are four fusuma decorated with a tiger wandering through a bamboo forest and four white ones painted with giant-sized calligraphy.

There is also a lovely display of hand painted hanging scrolls (on my visit, birds/animals) on display inside.

Visitors are welcome to wander throughout the temple. A stone path off the main hall leads to the back where there is a simple rock garden with a single tree in its center and a sloped mountainside covered with greenery.

A covered walkway runs along the building here. It has wood panel walls that are hand painted with grapes and adorable squirrels.

Suprisingly, Shojuin is split into two halves – one on each side of a narrow road. On the opposite side of the road is a new hall with a special ‘inome mado’, a boar eye window – as their eyes are said to resemble hearts. This shape is a traditional motif that is said to ward off evil and bring good luck. The window frames pink in spring, green in summer, orange in autumn, and white in winter.

On the ceiling are 160 beautiful panels decorated with flowers and Japanese scenery. They were painted by 90 different artists. Keep your eye out for the lovely Kyoto maiko (apprentice Geisha) and the four mythical beasts that guard Japan’s cardinal directions (Genbu – turtle with serpent’s tail of the north, Seiryu – blue dragon of the east, Suzaku – phoenix of the south, and Byakko – white tiger of the west). There are actually signs that encourage visitors to lie on their backs in order to get a good look at them!

*The main hall has its own ceiling paintings, faded and dark, that date back to the Edo Period.

Please note that the temple is very open to allowing photographs. But, it kindly asks that visitors be especially considerate of others by speaking in a quiet voice and giving everyone the chance to take their own photos.

Every year Shojuin hosts a fantastic ‘Furin Matsuri’, or wind chime festival. In 2021, from May 1 to September 18, 9am to 4:30pm, the temple is displaying 2000 wind chimes, in various colors and designs, within its grounds. Most are hanging from wooden trellises and visitors can walk below them while listening to their light tinkling sound – which is considered ‘cooling’ by the Japanese.

According to their website, the temple started the festival to help visitors feel cool using five senses. Use your eyes to ‘see’ the wind chimes, your ears to ‘listen’ to them, your nose to ‘smell’ the surrounding nature and tea plantations, your tongue to ‘taste’ delicious green tea produced in the region, and your body to ‘experience’ wind chime painting.

In the main hall is a display of unique wind chimes from around Japan. More wind chimes decorate other areas of the temple as well. I’ve been to a number of furin matsuri in the past, but this one was really special. The temple is rather difficult to get to, so crowds are minimal. And, the display itself is just gorgeous – perfection actually!

Although small, there is a lot to see at Shojuin and it is one of the most immaculately kept temples that I’ve ever visited.

With prior reservations, Shojuin offers a variety of activities – sutra copying, tracing of Buddhist pictures, bracelet beading, candle making, and even yoga classes. *During the festival – wind chime painting. It is important to note that the activities are conducted in Japanese.

One of the best ways to support a small temple like this is to purchase a charm, Goshuin stamp, or other souvenir. For example, these amulets invite good fortune. A knot that cannot be easily untied represents things that you wish to be long-lasting… good health, relationship, etc. Or, write your name on the red cloth of this cute little Jizo, and keep it with you, to take away suffering and bring yourself peace.

*Photos from the Shojuin official website

It is best to travel to Shojuin by car (they have 60 parking spaces). Although it will take some planning, it is also possible to travel there by mass transportation. There is infrequent bus service from Uji Station to a bus stop about 1 kilometer from the temple. http://shoujuin.boo.jp

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