A Visit to Kyoto’s Eikan-dō Zenrin-ji

Eikan-dō Zenrin-ji (sometimes known merely as “Eikan-do”) is Japan’s head temple for the Jōdo-shū, or “Pure Land” Buddhist sect. With its focus on faith, and specifically on Amida Buddha, Pure Land Buddhism differs from the popular Zen schools often followed by members of the samurai class (especially during Japan’s medieval age); however, many samurai families followed Pure Land teachings.

Originally founded in 863 as “Zenrin-ji” (in Japanese, “ji” means “temple”), the temple continued to expand through the centuries, adding new buildings and reconstructing older ones as the need arose.

The temple is famous, in part, for its statue of Amida Buddha, which looks over its shoulder rather than straight ahead like most other Amida statues do.

According to legend (or history–the two are often intertwined, especially in Japan), the statue of Amida came to life and spoke to the monk who carried it from Nara to Kyoto on his back. While speaking, Amida looked back over his shoulder to offer advice–and has remained in that position ever since.

Last summer, my son and I paid a visit to Eikan-dō Zenrin-ji at the end of our trek down Kyoto’s famous Philosopher’s Path; the temple lies near the walk’s southern terminus, and makes a lovely, peaceful ending to an afternoon of visiting the various shrines and temples along the way.

At the entry gate, visitors purchase tickets and obtain maps of the temple grounds.

16B08 Eikan do gate

While the entrance to a Shinto shrine is normally marked by one or more torii, Buddhist temples often have guardian statutes at the gates. In the case of Eikan-dō, they’re guardian lions:

16B08 Eikan-do lion

We visited the primary shrine complex:

16B08 Eikando Main Hall

…and walked the grounds, enjoying the lovely, carefully-tended gardens:

16B08 Eikan-do garden

and ponds filled with colorful koi:

16B08 Eikan do carp

I didn’t take many photographs at Eikan-dō; the interior spaces are sacred (meaning, no photographs), and even many of the places where photos were allowed were occupied by monks or worshippers during our visit, and I didn’t want to show disrespect by raising a camera–even if I could frame the shot without including any people.

The overcast, quiet afternoon enhanced the beauty and sacred feeling of the temple grounds. I only wish we’d been able to go in autumn, when the colorful foliage transforms Eikan-dō into a sea of scarlet, gold, and orange. (Fortunately, I’ll be back for research–next time, in foliage season!)

If you find yourself in Kyoto, plan a day to walk the Philosopher’s Path and be sure to build in time to stop at the various shrines and temples along the way. You don’t have to be a Buddhist or a practitioner of the Shinto faith to experience and appreciate the beauty of these sacred spaces. The history, architecture, and landscapes will speak to you, no matter who you are.