Autumn Enlightenment at Kyoto’s Chion-in temple

Japan has a well-deserved reputation for the colorful splendor of its autumn leaves.  The only challenge to enjoying them is figuring out where to go to do so.  The mountainsides in many areas become a riot of color that can be enjoyed by hikes on well-groomed trails.  There are also the many magnificent gardens.  And finally, many temple grounds become all the more beautiful as the leaves turn.  Chion-in temple, near Kyoto’s Gion district, provides a particularly striking way to enjoy the leaves, as it opens at night with lights to show off its most spectacular features.

The “Chion-in Autumn Light Up 2019”, during which the temple is open from 5:30 pm to 9:30 pm, runs through December 1, 2019.  Admission is JPY800 for adults and JPY400 for children.

Chion-in as a temple dates to the 13th century and is now regarded as the headquarters for the Jodo sect of Buddhism.  It also had a strong association with the Tokugawa family during the Edo Period (1603-1868).  A number of its historic wooden buildings have been designated as National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties.  The large hillside complex is picturesque at any time, but it is a real treat to visit it for the autumn light up.

Even as visitors approach the Sanmon gate, the road is lit only by soft ground-level lighting, with the illuminated gate looming large in front of you.  Construction of the massive Sanmon was completed in 1621. Standing 24 meters tall (about the height of a 9 story building), it is the largest wooden gate in Japan. The gate is unpainted, except for white paint on cut ends of boards, to keep out insects.  These white accents particularly stand out in the illumination.

Inside the Sanmon is a steep staircase leading to the main temple buildings.  This is known as the Otoko-zaka (man’s slope). It is adorned with some decorative lighting for the occasion, and visitors are asked to ascend via the nearby Onna-zaka (woman’s slope), a slightly easier climb.

Before ascending, pop into the Yuzen-en garden on the right.  The garden was constructed to honor Miyazaki Yuzen, founder of Yuzen style cloth dyeing. Its little pond beautifully reflects the changing leaves. Stroll down the hill to appreciate how shadows fall on the ridges raked into the small rock garden.

Then check out the illumination of the two tea houses above the Yuzen-en pond. The atmosphere is peaceful and contemplative.

Once atop the Onna-zaka steps, visitors enter the central courtyard of the temple, expansive in the gloom. Be sure to look out for the red and white stupa, dwarfed by Chion-in’s other massive buildings. The largest of these is Mieido, imposing even when closed up for the night. Built in 1639, it houses a sacred image of Buddhist Honen (1133-1212), founder of Jodo sect Buddhism.

Across the courtyard from Mieido is Hobutsuden, where sutras are chanted throughout the period that the temple is open for the “light up”.  The steady chanting, which can be heard in the courtyard, adds to the atmosphere.

Beyond the courtyard is another small pond crossed by a stone bridge leading to a small shrine.  Next to the pond is a Kyozo, sutra repository.  Like the Sanmon, it was built in 1621.

On the right is a path leading to the temple’s bell,  cast in 1638 and weighing 70 tons.  Ringing the bell at midnight on New Year’s Eve–108 times for each of humanity’s 108 sins–requires a team of 17 monks.  (Note: the bell is not part of this year’s Autumn Light Up–the photo is from a past event.)

Tucked behind Mieido is another of the temple’s famous gardens, Hojo-en.  The 17th century garden is illuminated this year for the first time in 9 years, making this a not-to-be-missed opportunity.  Especially pause to enjoy the reflections of the changing leaves on the mirror-like surfaces of the garden’s ponds.

While there’s plenty more to be explored at Chion-in in the daylight, this illumination is a particularly memorable way to enjoy this historic temple.

© 2019 and Vicki L. Beyer
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