While visiting Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera on July 6 (2021), I made a side trip to visit Seikanji–a mountain temple with beautiful views that most visitors don’t even realize is there.
The trail to Seikan-ji begins behind the stairs leading up to Kiyomizu-dera’s Koyasu Pagoda. If you follow the path from the Kiyomizu-dera worship hall (or Otowa Falls), go past the stairs leading up to the pagoda, and you’ll find a fence with a narrow gate. A sign near the fence reads “Seikan-ji, 1 km”–and if the gate is open, Seikan-ji is too.
The trail to the little mountain temple follows the paved road part of the way, and then becomes an earth and gravel trail. It’s pretty much flat the entire way until the final slope leading up to the temple, which you can see in the picture below.
I’d never visited Seikan-ji before, and wasn’t sure what to expect–but it was my birthday, and I had a couple of hours to kill before my train departed for Tokyo, so an adventure seemed like precisely the perfect way to pass the time.
As you can see from the photos, there was no one else around. I did see two other women on the trail, but I essentially had the temple to myself.
A sign beside the entrance requested a donation of 100 yen (a little less than $1 USD) per person for admission to the grounds, and asked visitors to drop the coins in the box. Fortunately, I had change, so I made the donation, bowed, and headed in.
Seikan-ji is a Shingon Temple, founded in 802, and it has a tragic, but romantic, history. The temple is the final resting place of Emperor Takakura (1161-1181), who died (allegedly of a broken heart) at the age of 21, after the woman he loved (a beautiful girl named Kogo-no-Tsubone) was forced to renounce the world and become a priestess at Seikan-ji.
Apparently, word of the emperor’s infatuation with Kogo-no-Tsubone reached the emperor’s father-in-law, Taira-no-Kiyomori–who wasn’t pleased that his daughter’s husband had wandering eyes–emperor or no. (Taira-no-Kiyomori* also deposed Emperor Takakura in 1180, and installed his infant grandson as the new Emperor Antoku, which might have had something to do with the “sickly” emperor’s death the following year. Or maybe the young former emperor truly did die of a broken heart, as the legend says.)
Emperor Takakura’s tomb is located on the temple grounds, as is the tomb of faithful Kogo-no-Tsubone, who remained a nun at Seikan-ji and continued to pray for Takakura’s soul until the day she died. The tombs are higher up the mountain behind the worship hall. That area isn’t open to the public, but the fact that an emperor is buried here helps to explain why this little mountain temple is so lovingly maintained.
The rock in the photo above is the kanameishi, or sacred keystone. The deity that inhabits the stone will supposedly grant a heartfelt wish for anyone who asks. I didn’t have a request that day–I felt fortunate enough to have lived fifty years and to have discovered this beautiful little temple on my birthday.
And there you have it – a lovely little mountain temple most visitors don’t even realize is there!
*In case you’re mad about Taira-no-Kiyomori, who clearly looks like the villain in this tale of unrequited love, you might be interested in learning that he ultimately overreached too far–shortly after “arranging” for his young grandson to be installed as Emperor Antoku, Kiyomori’s allies (and Emperor Takakura’s brother) incited the rival Minamoto clan to attack–and thus began the famous Genpei War.
Five years later, the Minamoto won the war and the victorious general, Minamoto-no-Yoritomo, established the first military government of Japan at Kamakura, ushering in the Age of Samurai.