“It is better to travel well than to arrive.” ~ Buddha
If you’re looking for an exceptionally relaxing and uniquely Japanese treat, it doesn’t get much more Zen than this delightfully tranquil shukubo (“temple lodging”) at Shunkō-in Temple, located within the Myōshin-ji temple complex in northwest Kyoto. The temple’s relatively new dormitory offers exaggeratedly (and purposely) simplistic rooms, but which also offer modern comforts, including free Wi-Fi and a shared, well-equipped kitchen and spacious dining area. The real draw here, however, is the calm and quiet of the grounds and surrounding areas, combined with the chance to take part in Buddhist temple-based Zen meditation along with a nearly private temple tour, both of the latter under the guidance of Shunkō-in’s English-speaking vice abbot, the Rev. Kawakami.
Shunkō-in not only offers visitors an opportunity to learn about Zen Buddhism, but also a chance to see treasured religious articles up close and personal, representative of important epochs in Japanese history. We also used our stay here to reset ourselves into the northwest of the city from the Gion area, and from here we were easily able to enjoy nearby UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the Golden Pavilion, Ryoanji Temple, and Ninnaji Temple!
We stayed at Shunkō-in Temple during the low winter season in late January and early February of 2014. While the larger Myōshin-ji temple complex is only about 8 minutes from the local Hanazono train station (easily reached from Kyoto station), it is at least that much more time to get to Shunkō-in from Myōshin-ji’s southern entrance, and that’s only if you know where you are going! We elected to arrive via taxi as it was raining the morning of our arrival, although it appears taxis cannot enter the Myōshin-ji compound, so we still did manage to end up damp wandering our way along. I’m not admitting we didn’t know where we were going, but remember: not everyone who wanders is lost!
Shunkō-in (春光院, “Temple of the Ray of Spring Light”) is a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto belonging to the “Temple of Excellent Mind,” the largest among the various Japanese Buddhist traditions. The temple was established in 1590 and houses important historical objects that reflect the multifaceted religious and artistic atmosphere in Japan from the sixteenth century onward.
The Bell of Nanban-ji
The Bell of Nanban-ji is a Jesuit bell made in Portugal in 1577 and used in Nanban-ji, the first Christian Church in Kyoto established in 1576. For the next eleven years, Nanban-ji was the center of Catholic missionary activities in Japan, and also served as an important gathering place for traders from Portugal and Spain.
The church was purposely destroyed by fire in 1587 after Christian persecution was sanctioned in Japan, and was never rebuilt. The Bell made its way to Shunkō-in around 1800, but during World War II, the grandfather of the present vice-abbot buried the bell in the temple gardens to prevent it from being melted down in support of the Japanese imperial war effort. The bell helps illuminate the deep history of Christianity in Japan during the 16th century and about the political and economic relationships between Japan and Europe. The bell is designated as a “National Important Cultural Property.”
The Jesuit seal containing a Christogram “IHS” can be found on the surface of the bell. “IHS” is derived from the first three letters of the Greek name of Jesus, ΙΗΣ (Jesus is ΙΗΣΟΎΣ in Greek), and is also connected with the Latin phrase, “Iesus Hominum Salvator,” or “Jesus, Savior of Man.” Under this three nails on the Seal of the Society of Jesus can be found, symbolizing the Crucifixion of Christ.
The Myōshin-ji complex is made up of multiple towering temples scattered throughout its vicinities, and is the biggest temple complex in Kyoto. Thus, the entire area allows one to enjoy peace and silence even being surrounded by the city’s dense urban sprawl. Walking the grounds, you will see students, locals, and Buddhist monks roving about or passing through. What you won’t see, however (and thankfully so) are foreign tourists! The Shunkō-in Temple itself is picture perfect. Passing through its handsome wooden gates, one quickly feels anointed with the tranquility and peace the surroundings seem to almost impose.
Kirishitan Lantern (Hidden Christian Lantern)
Shunkō-in houses an Asian stone lantern called a kirishitan dōrō (“Christian lantern”), whose leg is in the vague shape of a cross, and carved into its surface one finds what could be interrupted as an effigy of the Virgin Mary. While the distinctive history of this particular lantern has been lost to antiquity, this lantern remains a very important object which speaks much about early Christianity in Japan
Christianity was introduced to Japan by St. Francis Xavier on August 15, 1549, and initially was accepted by many feudal lords and farmers in western Japan. However, Christianity came to be viewed as a serious threat to Japan, leading to its outright ban in 1614.
The Edo period (1603-1867) within Japan was the dark ages for Japanese Christians. Christianity was banned, and Christians and their icons and property were systematically eliminated and destroyed. However, as is always the case in at any time for all religions, some Christians decided to keep their faith and actively starting to hide their religious identity. Those hidden Christians made their crosses and graves to resemble the Buddhist statues, pagodas, and stone lanterns, like that found at Shunkō-in. In 1858, the ban against Christianity was finally lifted by the newly-born Meiji government of more modern times.
Although check-in times at Shunkō-in are stressed, you can arrange to drop luggage off early. On our arrival to do just that, we were told our room was already ready and available. There are some basic forms to fill out, and you’ll need to provide your passport for a short time, and the room must be pre-paid. The English-speaking staff there provides a wide variety of information, and has the gouge on local places to eat, tourist sites and other area-related information.
Painted Sliding Door Panels (fusuma-e) by Eigaku Kanō
Several sliding door panels at Shunkō-in were painted by Eigaku Kanō, and have Confucian teachings as their theme. Confucianism and its stress on honor, loyalty and honesty were very important to samurai (warriors) during Japan’s Edo period. The wonderful thing about viewing these panels here at the temple during a private tour is that not only are they original (most other painted sliding door panels are reproductions in other major temple attractions), but they can be viewed up close and personal, from a seated position on the tatami mats, with only natural light, all exactly the way the panels were designed and painted for viewing! Similarly, the gardens are viewed the same way – as originally intended from seated positions in the center of the main rooms adjoining the green spaces.
Shunkō-in Temple’s guest house is named Tetsuryu-Kutsu, or, “Cave of Enlightened Dragon.” Fortunately, although we failed to encounter any Far Eastern dragons of ancient lore, we did however feel a bit more enlightened after our stay and meditation experience. There is only one type of room offered at the Temple (although there are 8 total), and that type is SIMPLE! The rooms are located on two floors, all on the same side of a long corridor, with windows that overlook an old Buddhist cemetery…which some people may find a bit creepy. I, however, took advantage of the surreal scenery of this garden of wood and stone in the darkness and rain for some very nice photos.
The air-conditioned/heated en suite room is a 14.6-square-meter bedroom, completely covered with traditional tatami, with sleeping futons on the floor already made (the room could easily sleep three adults). The shower was clean and well-appointed, with the toilet, like most places in Japan, being in a completely separate room.
Another novelty unique to Shunkō-in is the room pillows. Small and dense, they were filled with what we found out to be small sections of hearty plastic straws or tubes. In effect, these small pillows molded almost perfectly to our necks and heads, and were oddly very comfortable. Although I’m sure the sparse room fittings and floor-centric basic bedding was in part to add to the unique humbling experience of Zen Buddhism, Jody and I both agree that sleep here was some of the deepest, restful sleep either of us have experienced in a long, long time! Hard to image that such bliss came from sleeping on the floor in the middle of winter.
Food is not served at the temple, but there are several cafes and eateries nearby that are easily found based on a map provided with your stay. A not to miss treat is the Wonder Café, just a 10 minute walk or so from Shunkō-in. Here you will be wonderfully entertained with the dense and eclectic surroundings, generous portions of pasta dishes, and a simply one-of-a-kind bathroom that’s not to be missed (along with the rest of the entire 2nd floor!). A fun late-trip for a truly unique Chinese-food snack-attack is via the loaner bicycles found at the temple, and the associated downhill race towards the train station and “OHSHO,” serving fabulous food 24/7 and always packed with satisfied customers.
Do yourself a favor and stay local and authentic. Between our Machiya stay earlier in the week (see that blog here) and this reinvigorating – if not enlightening experience, we were able to get a much more grounded experience of what Kyoto has to offer at its best: charm, nostalgia, history, all bonded by the more comfortable elements of modernity.
Shunkō-in Temple is Trip-Advisor ranked #11 of 227 Specialty lodgings in Kyoto. Specifics about staying at Shunkō-in can be found here http://www.shunkoin.com/ and below:
• Room Rates: 1 person @ 6,000 yen/night; 2 people @ 5,500 yen/person/night; 3 people @ 4,500 yen/person/night. Prices include sales tax (which may have recently gone up – check for current prices!!)
• Check-in 15:30 – 18:30 FIRM, and Check-out 11:00
• No curfew: after check-in guests have 24/7 access to the temple and lodge
• Zen meditation class and tour for staying guests: 500 yen/person
• Free bicycle rental
Address: 42 Myoshinji-Cho, Hanazono, Ukyo-Ku, Kyoto 616-8035 JAPAN
Phone: +81.75.462.5488 (international), (075)462-5488 (domestic)