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Ohara: Kyoto's Hidden Gem

Updated on October 18, 2017
Anne Harrison profile image

Living with her husband, two children, and various pets, Anne's jobs include wife, farmer, mother/witch doctor. She aims to be 80 and happy.

(c) A.Harrison
(c) A.Harrison

Chi-tenjo: The Blood Ceiling of Kyoto

I knelt on the wooden floor and gazed at the ceiling above me. It was a Chi-tenjo, or 'blood-stained,' ceiling. On the wood above me, I could see the faint outline of a hand. In 1600, defeated by overwhelming odds, a group of samurai in Fushimi Castle committed harakiri. Some fifty years later, these bloodstained floor-panels were moved to the Shorin-in Temple in Ohara. Here they were placed on the ceiling for both the nuns and all who visited to remember and pray for the repose of the dead.

I was in Ohara, a small town near Kyoto where the past is embedded in the everyday. Nestled at the feet of Mt Hiei-zan and surrounded by forest, the ancient town lies within Kyoto city's limits, yet sees only a fraction of her tourists. Ohara is even mentioned (by its old name, Ono), in The Tale of the Genji, classic work of Japanese literature. Ukifune, a daughter of the Eighth Prince, retires to a nunnery in Ono after being miraculously rescued by a river spirit when she tries to drown herself. (This is preceded, naturally, by an unsolvable love triangle.)

Rooms in Sanzenin Temple, Ohara (c) A.Harrsion
Rooms in Sanzenin Temple, Ohara (c) A.Harrsion

A Side Trip From Kyoto

Reaching Ohara involved crossing a small river in the heart of Kyoto. The nearest bus stop stood on the far side, and the choice was between a footbridge or stepping stones. The stepping stones won, for some were shaped like turtles. White herons stood motionless in the stream as butterflies danced among the flowers.

The bus left the river and wound through the outer suburbs of Kyoto, past multistory flats, car repair shops and other buildings and shops which can find no room inside the old capital. Gradually the road began to climb, passing through little towns unmarked on the map and into a rambling countryside so different from the strict control of Kyoto, where every bush and tree is pruned so precisely.

After some thirty minutes the bus reached Ohara. What struck me most was the quiet. Few people were around, and my fellow travellers on the bus vanished quickly into the countryside. The air was a few degrees cooler than Kyoto, with the oppressive humidity gone. Rice paddies and vegetable gardens stretched down the mountain side and into the forest.

Most come to Ohara for her temples. Some are in the town, while others are linked by a four hour forest walk. The place is particularly popular in November, when the leaves don their autumn finery. Small shops line the street to the Sanzenin Temple, Ohara's most famous temple. Many of these shops specialize in snacks such as aisu kyuri, which are cucumbers pickled in seaweed flavoured ice-water and served on a stick.

The path to Sanzenin Temple, Ohara (c) A.Harrison
The path to Sanzenin Temple, Ohara (c) A.Harrison

The Temples of Ohara

Sanzenin Temple was built during the Early Heian Period by the revered monk Saicho, who introduced Tendai Buddhism to Japan in 804. The temple is a series of wooden buildings and sub-temples, set among justly-famous gardens. The result is simple and elegant, perfectly proportioned, with carefully placed windows and archways framing the views of the gardens and trees in classic Japanese style. Sanzenin is also a rare monzeki temple, where the head priests were once members of the Imperial Family.

After entering through the main gate, a series of buildings leads to the Kyayuden, (or guest hall), famous for its displays of calligraphy and paintings on sliding doors (or fusuma). The halls opens onto a traditional garden with a small pond.

In the Shinden (or main hall) are statues of three Buddhist deities: the Amida Buddha stands flanked by Kannon and Fudo Myoo. From the Shinden, the Ojo Gokuraku-in Hall can be glimpsed through maple and cedar trees. Around it stretches the famous moss garden, complete with small stone faces peeking out from the moss.

The Ojo Gokuraku-in Hall has a funazoko (or boat-bottom) ceiling, designed to make the visitor feel they are in an upturned boat. To one side of the hall stands a golden Amida-Nyorai Sanson-zo—an image of the Buddha which symbolizes paradise. A meandering path from the Ojo Gokuraku-in Hall begs the visitor to walk deeper into the temple grounds. In a building in a hidden corner stand row upon row of miniature Kannon statues, donated by visitors to the temple.

Small statues peek out amongst the moss, Sanzenin Temple, Ohara (c) A.Harrison
Small statues peek out amongst the moss, Sanzenin Temple, Ohara (c) A.Harrison

Other Hidden Gems of Ohara

It is easy to pass the day here wandering through the temples or delighting in the grounds. Ohara, however, has another half dozen temples worth visiting, as well as ancient gardens and quiet walks through the mountain countryside.

The convent Jikko-in also posses a beautiful moss garden complete with walking trails, plus the price of admission includes some green tea served as you sit on a tatami mat, enjoying the view. Many of the statues in the convent date back to the 10th century. The empress Kenreimon-in Tokuko retired here, spending the last years of her life performing memorial rites for her son Emperor Antoku, who was defeated in battle at the age of two.

Calligraphy display (c) A. Harrison
Calligraphy display (c) A. Harrison

Shorin-in Temple

Shorin-in Temple was founded in 1013 by Jakugen, (a son of an imperial prince Minamoto no Masanobu, who was the progenitor of the Uda Genji, a powerful clan of the Heian period). The temple was designed as a training hall for Tendai Buddhist chant. The main hall, belfry, bell and stone monuments have been designated Important Cultural Properties by Kyoto City. The small Karesansui garden is a restored masterpiece.

A sub-temple of Shorin-in is the Hosen-in, which is where I knelt gazing at the outline of a bloody hand-print. In the garden outside stands a 600 year old pine tree said to resemble Mt Fuji.

Ohara is also known for her 'Oharame'. These are female peddlers who in the 12th century walked the streets of Kyoto with their wares of brushwood, firewood and flowers balanced on their heads. The practice survives today. A towel protects their ornate hairstyle, and their kimono is traditionally indigo in colour. The traditional costume is still worn during the two week Oharame Matsuri festival in May.

Donnated Kannon statues, Ohara (c) A. Harrison
Donnated Kannon statues, Ohara (c) A. Harrison

Returning to Kyoto

Winding back towards the bus stop to return to Kyoto, we stopped to eat in a tiny noodle restaurant. A dragonfly buzzed lazily in the corner. For the moment we were the only customers, fussed over by the elderly proprietress as she prepared our bowls of steaming noodles. Another food to try here is miso. Over 100 different types are produced in Ohara, including a white miso and the gourmet of misos, Saikyo. Miso nabe is a traditional hot pot served in many of the restaurants here.

The magic of Ohara comes as evening falls, when the day-visitors leave and the silence of the town deepens. The town has a few ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) with natural hot springs, perfect after a day of sight-seeing. The lights of Kyoto are hidden by the forest, and Ohara lies locked away in a different time, where even a bloody hand-print can become a symbol of peace.

A mossy glade, Ohara (c) A. Harrison
A mossy glade, Ohara (c) A. Harrison

© 2015 Anne Harrison

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    • Anne Harrison profile image
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      Anne Harrison 2 years ago from Australia

      I'm glad you enjoyed my hub, billybuc. I get a lot of pleasure from my photos. Thanks for taking the time to stop by.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Really quite lovely. Thank you for taking me on the tour with you. Beautiful, peaceful pictures.

    • Anne Harrison profile image
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      Anne Harrison 2 years ago from Australia

      Thank you Blackspaniel1. THe Japanese manage to incorporate beauty into all aspects of their lives.

    • Blackspaniel1 profile image

      Blackspaniel1 2 years ago

      Japan inspires such beautiful pictures. Beautiful images.

    • Anne Harrison profile image
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      Anne Harrison 2 years ago from Australia

      Thank you poetryman6969, I'm glad you enjoyed my hub. As you say, landscapes and gardens reveal much about a country and its culture.

    • poetryman6969 profile image

      poetryman6969 2 years ago

      And we begin with blood...A very interesting and enlightening hub. I enjoy seeing the gardens and landscapes that are peculiar to each nation and culture.

    • Anne Harrison profile image
      Author

      Anne Harrison 2 years ago from Australia

      Hi tracykar199, I hope you make it to Ohara some day. Thanks for taking the time to read my hub

    • tracykarl99 profile image

      Tracy 2 years ago from San Francisco

      A beautiful place and a compelling hub with lovely pictures. Thanks for Sharing. I hope to visit Ohara some day. ☺

    • Anne Harrison profile image
      Author

      Anne Harrison 2 years ago from Australia

      I'm glad you enjoyed it, AliciaC - Ohara is a fascinating place, which we literally just stumbled across. I'm so glad we did.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is a very interesting hub, Anne. Thank you for the lovely description and photos. I enjoyed the virtual tour!