A Visit to Kyoto’s Myomanji (Part 1)

During my research trip to Japan last summer I visited Kyoto Seika University, an art college in the northern part of Kyoto (most of us would consider it “just north of Kyoto” but given Japanese city lines, it’s technically within the boundaries of Kyoto-shi). When I arrived in Japan, my son had just completed a 15-week study abroad program at Kyoto Seika, and wanted to show me both the school and some of his favorite nearby sites.


One of the places he wanted to visit was “this really cool little temple and monastery” about a fifteen-minute walk from the university campus. He said “it’s not really crowded, or famous, but it’s special to me”–and given my love for Japanese shrine and temple architecture, I gladly went along.


The temple measures about the size of a small city block, and has no English-language signage. The entrance identifies it as “Myotzan Myomanji” – a name that initially rang no bells for me. (Pun intended.)

On first impression, Myomanji is a lovely, quiet temple approached along a wide stone bridge that spans an enormous, decorative koi pond:


Directly inside the gates, I noticed a beautiful–and very large–bronze bell, which reminded me of the famous bell in a Japanese Noh play called Dōjōji.


The bell itself is almost ten feet high.

In the play, a monk named Anchin goes on a pilgrimage and meets an innkeeper’s daughter, Kiyohime, who falls in love with him. Although Anchin promises to marry the girl, he tricks her and returns to his monastery via a different route. Enraged, the girl transforms herself into a giant snake, and pursues Anchin to the temple, where he has hidden himself inside the temple’s giant bronze bell. Kiyohime wraps her body around the bell, and the scorching heat of her anger burns Anchin to death inside the bell – after which, Kiyohime flung herself into a nearby river and drowned…and her spirit possessed the bell. In the final act of the play, the monks exorcise Kiyohime’s spirit from the bell, restoring order to the temple.


Remember this…it’s going to be relevant in Thursday’s post . . .

Inside the temple grounds, a large, Indian-style stupa rose up near the center of the temple, directly in front of the worship hall.


The stupa seemed out of place in a Japanese temple, and also strangely familiar, though I didn’t place it immediately. In fact, it was weeks later that I remembered where I’d seen it: the stupa is a replica of the one a Bodh Gaya (in India) where Buddha originally attained enlightenment.


After paying respects before the altar, my son and I paid the small admission fee (300 yen – about $3) that allowed us to tour the monastery, including the abbott’s hall (filled with art) and the lovely monastery garden, called Yukinoniwa.

(This is where I’d normally put a photo of Yukinoniwa; however, it felt like a very sacred space, and I respected it far too much to take any photographs.)

While we sat and appreciated the garden (and waited out a light summer rain that started falling while we toured the monastery) one of the monks came running through the hall with a paper in his hand. This was rare, and unusual, because most of the Buddhist monks I saw in Japan moved peacefully about their business. When he saw us, the monk lit up with delight, bowed, and presented the paper to my son.

But to find out what mystery the paper held, and how it relates to the Myomanji bell, you’ll have to return for Thursday’s post!