A Visit to Kyoto’s Nishi Honganji

Kyoto’s Nishi Honganji is one of Japan’s most important Buddhist temples.

The Jōdo Shinshū, or “True essence of pure land,” school of Buddhism was founded by a monk named Shinran Shonin (1173–1263), whose teachings focused on a return to a more pure form of Buddhist understanding and enlightenment through verse.

Originally known simply as “Honganji,” the temple now called Nishi (“Western”) Honganji was constructed in 1602 on land granted to the sect by Tokugawa Ieyasu. A second temple, known as Higashi (“Eastern”) Honganji sits several blocks away (not surprisingly, to the east).

Nishi Honganji remains an active Buddhist temple (with services open to the public early every morning). During my research trip to Japan last summer, I woke up early in time to attend a temple service.

The service began with the ringing of a bronze bell that has sounded the call to worship at Nishi Honganji for hundreds of years.

Nishi Honganji Bell

Shortly after the ringing began, several dozen monks and acolytes walked in procession along the covered hallways that front the Goeido (“Founder’s Hall”) and Amidado (“Hall of the Amida Buddha”) and entered the Amidado, where the services take place. Out of respect for the services and the monks, I have no photographs of the service itself, or of the procession, but these are the walkways where the procession occurred:

Nishi Honganji Veranda 2

Nishi Honganji veranda

You can also see a live view of the Nishi Honganji courtyard, with the Amidado on the right and the Goeido on the left, on the temple’s website, here.

The Goeido features elaborate carved finials in the shape of lions, and has been designated a Japanese National Treasure (along with the Amidado and the Karamon).

 Nishi Honganji finial (2)

The primary entrances to Nishi Honganji, called the Goeido and Amidado gates, lie on the eastern side of the compound:

Nishi Honganji entrance

These entrances are used by most worshippers and by the monks. However, when members of the Imperial family visit Nishi Honganji, they use through a special entrance on the southern side of the temple complex, known as the karamon.

Nishi Honganji Karamon (closeup)

Nishi Honganji’s karamon dates to 1573 and features special undulating gables known as karahafu, an architectural style which originated in Japan. The gabled roof is covered with bark, and the gates themselves feature highly decorative paneled screens with images of kirin and other fantastical creatures:

 Nishi Honganji Karamon detail

The gates remain closed except for periodic visits by the Imperial family.

A giant ginko tree grows in Nishi Honganji’s courtyard. The tree is over 400 years old, and has been designated a Natural Monument by the city of Kyoto. According to legend, the tree once sprayed water from its branches to save the temple’s buildings from a fire. Whether or not you believe it serves as an ersatz fire-extinguisher, the ginko is a massive, lovely tree.

Nishi Honganji Ginko

Many Western visitors to Kyoto miss out on Nishi Honganji because it doesn’t receive the same attention in Western guidebooks as more popular sites like the Philosopher’s Path and Kinkakuji. However, if you want to experience a Buddhist worship service, or visit the most important sites of Buddhist worship in Japan, Nishi Honganji should not be missed.

Have you visited Nishi Honganji, or any other Buddhist Temple in Japan? Would you like to?