Skip to main content

Ohara: Kyoto's Hidden Gem

I find Japan fascinating; a thoroughly modern country interwoven with a living history dating back thousands of years.

Kyoto's hidden gem

Kyoto's hidden gem

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, 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, and 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

Rooms in Sanzenin Temple, Ohara

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 travelers 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 mountainside 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 flavored ice-water and served on a stick.

The path to Sanzenin Temple, Ohara

The path to Sanzenin Temple, Ohara

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 open 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, symbolizing 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

Small statues peek out amongst the moss, Sanzenin Temple, Ohara

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 possesses 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

Calligraphy display

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. A 600-year-old pine tree said to resemble Mt Fuji stands in the garden outside.

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 color. The traditional costume is still worn during the two-week Oharame Matsuri festival in May.

Donnated Kannon statues, Ohara

Donnated Kannon statues, Ohara

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 white miso, and the most 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. 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 sightseeing. 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

A mossy glade, Ohara

© 2015 Anne Harrison