The Zen Out Peace Out Walk
This walk is for travelers weary of the non-stop crowds at Kyoto’s tourist magnets, for those yearning tranquility within the city limits. Follow the orange and red lines below for some peace and quiet. Follow the grey line instead of the red if you really want to see the glitzy Golden Pavilion at sunset. Sticking to the orange and red lines will get you to a 510-year-old zen temple, a 1,017-year-old mochi shop, and a 96-year-old sento where you can Zen Out, and Peace Out.
Length: 2.9km/1.8mi (recommended route), 3.6km/2.3mi (Golden Pavilion route)
Terrain: Mostly flat (recommended route); mostly flat with gentle incline (Golden Pavilion route)
Time needed: 3.5 hours (recommended route), 4 hours (Golden Pavilion route)
Start by: 2pm for the recommended route and 1pm for the Golden Pavilion Route (last entry to the Golden Pavilion is 4:30pm)
Total damage: ¥1,730 (excluding transport)
The map below also indicates recommended restaurants (yellow roundels).
If you want to read up about zen gardens before embarking on this walk, take a look at the books under the “Zen Gardens” section of the Alternative Fushimi Inari Walking Tour Reading List.
Getting to the start point
Take a bus to Daitokujimae Bus Stop (served by buses 1, 12, 204, 205, 206, Kita 8, M1, Express 101 and Express 102; see schedule in Japanese).
Then start at the nearest entrance to Daitokuji Temple 大徳寺 where the star in the orange circle is. Walk all the way in until you see a large vermillion gate. Sen-no-Rikyu, the father of the modern tea ceremony, is said to have installed a statue of a Buddha that resembled himself on the second floor. His patron the powerful warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi learnt about this only after walking through the gate. Incensed, Toyotomi ordered Sen-no-Rikyu to commit suicide in 1591.
First stop: Zuiho-in Temple
Make a left in front of the gate and then another left for Zuiho-in Temple 瑞峯院 (admission ¥400, open 9am-5pm). This is the first stop on the Zen Out Peace Out Walk. There may be no one sitting at the reception desk when you arrive. Remove your shoes, then ring the bell to attract the attention of the staff on duty.
Zuiho-in Temple itself has been around since 1535. The buildings that you see are the originals. You have stopped here because the garden, built by leading zen garden scholar and designer Shigemori Mirei in 1961, is entitled Dokuza-tei 独坐庭, or “The Garden of Solitary Sitting”. The rocks in front of you represent the Horai Mountains, the mythical mountains where the immortals are said to reside, while the gravel represents the turbulent seas surrounding those mountains. There’s no better way to start than by stopping to sit here for a bit of quiet contemplation.
Then go around the Abbott’s Hall to get to Kanmin-tei 閑眠庭, the Garden of Peaceful Rest. The rocks here hide a formation of the cross, a reference Shigemori made for the founder, Otomo Sorin. Otomo was a powerful feudal lord converted to Catholicism 43 years after building Zuiho-in. Otomo was also a merchant and he might have converted for commercial, rather than religious reasons. I like to think that Shigemori put in the cross as a tribute to the hidden Christians who died in Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s hands in the 16th century.
Second stop: Daisen-in Temple
Daisen-in Temple 大仙院 (admission ¥400, open 9am-4:30pm) does not allow photography, and is all the better for it. There are no photographs of its gardens here for that reason. Completed over 500 years ago in 1513, This is one of the oldest temples within the Daitokuji complex. The genkan (entranceway) and tokonoma (alcove) are the oldest examples of entranceway and alcove architecture in Japan, and the squeaky nightingale floorboards are also some of the oldest in the country. Sen-no-Rikyu, the tea master, visited Daisen-in often and was inspired by the water basin in this garden to create his own signature water basins.
Unlike Shigemori’s contemplative sitting gardens like at Zuiho-in’s, older gardens like this one were inspired by the gardens in Song Dynasty China and are therefore more for strolling about. In this case, the rocks bring you on a ride on a treasure boat beginning with the narrow rapids of youth, then the waterfalls of the trials and tribulations of life, and finally out into the great plains representing the void of death. Be sure to borrow from reception the board with descriptions of all the rocks in English to understand what’s going on.
Daisen-in Temple has a guided zazen (seated meditation) class every Saturday and Sunday, at 5-6pm from March to November, and 4:30-5:30pm in the winter months of December to February. Call to reserve. ¥1,000 per person. More information on their website.
Daitoku Temple has several other temples worth visiting: Ryogen-in, where you will find the smallest zen garden in Japan, Shinju-an, which has controversially modern fusama sliding doors now, and Koto-in, blanketed in soft greens in summer and brilliant yellows in the autumn (closed for restoration work). But there’s the risk of feeling templed out, especially if you have already spent the morning at a shrine or a temple, so let’s have tea. Walk 10 minutes to the back of the temple complex to get to Ichiwa.
Third stop: Ichiwa
The Hasegawas run Ichimonjiya Wasuke 一文字屋和輔, better known as just simply Ichiwa (closed Wednesdays and the 1st and 15th of every month, open 10am till sunset). This is one of the oldest food establishments in the world (the oldest restaurant in Kyoto is the soba shop Honke Owariya), founded in 1002. The 25th generation of the Hasegawas have continued making the same hand-grilled, charcoal-fired mochi rice cakes coated with soy bean flour. 16 skewers of tiny bobs of mochi and tea goes for just ¥500. Every serving is made to order, but they won’t take long. The typical wait here is 5-10 minutes.
Have a seat inside if possible; the building on the left has a garden ostensibly built by Kobori Enshu (1579-1647), a renown garden designer and tea master, while the building on the right is cozier and quieter. Both have tatami flooring, are heated in winter, and are air-conditioned in summer. Also take a look around the little courtyard — you can just make out a well through the grating in the middle of the space. It’s this well that Ichiwa uses to make its mochi.
You’ll hear ladies earnestly calling out “Oideyasu!” (“Welcome” in Kyoto dialect) on both sides of the street because even the oldest mochi shop in the world has a competitor. Kazariya あぶり餅かざりや, the shop next door, has been around since 1656 (same prices, also closed Wednesdays, same opening times). It changed hands 200 years ago so it hasn’t been around for quite as long as Ichiwa. Kazariya’s miso sauce is a tad sweeter.
Both shops are here because of the Imamiya Shrine, completed in 1001 to pacify the spirits of falling sakura flowers, thought to have caused the great epidemic of 1000. These days the end of the epidemic is commemorated with the Yasurai Matsuri, held on the second Sunday in April each year. The gods are easily placated. They ask only for offerings of sekihan (red bean and glutinous rice) and skewers of aburimochi, which both shops are very willing to make.
Fourth stop: Imamiya Shrine
Step over to the Imamiya Shrine 今宮神社 (free entry, open 9am-5pm). The shrine is best visited during the sakura season when the weeping sakura trees are in bloom but the peacefulness it offers year-round makes it a worthy stop. The major festivals here are on the second Sunday of April (the Yasurai Festival as mentioned above), the nearest Sunday to the 15th of May (the Imamiya Festival), and 8-9 October for the Autumn Festival.
A popular stop among Japanese tourists is the magical rock called Ahokashi-san (reminiscent of the omokaruishi stone lanterns at Fushimi Inari Shrine). This Important Cultural Property is housed within a tiny hut on the premises, and rests on a stack of three very elaborate brocade cushions. Typically politely translated as “Deity’s Rock”, the Japanese name means something more like “Dumb-Clever Rock”. Follow these instructions:
Give the rock three light taps. Then make a wish.
Pick it up with both hands then put it down.
Make a wish then rub it again thrice.
Pick it up once more. If it feels lighter, your wish will come true. If it feels heavier… well you know.
You may also rub the rock and then any injured part of your body. The rock apparently quickens healing that way.
Fifth stop: Funaokayama Park & the Kenkun Shrine
Funaoka 船岡 is one of the best places in the city to watch the fire on Daimonjiyama when the Gozan-no-Okuribi fires are lit to send the ancestors home on August 16. Even if you’re not here then, you will still be able to enjoy the views on this hill, historically an important military fort for the western part of the old city.
Battles took place here during the Onin War (1467-1477) and then again in 1511. After that the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) granted ownership of this hill to Daitokuji Temple, which dedicated part of the hill to the spirit of Nobunaga Oda (1534 –1582), Toyotomi’s former lord. Today Nobunaga is deified at the Kenkun Shrine 建勲神社, located on the eastern part of the hill.
At the front of the main shrine at Kenkun Shrine is a table with a haraigushi wand that you are welcome to use to purify yourself. Most shrines do not make the wand available so take the opportunity to wave it over yourself. Wave it left first, then right, left, then over your head while thinking about something to be grateful for.
Take a 5-minute walk down the southern part of the hill to get to Funaoka Onsen.
Last stop: Funaoka Onsen
Funaoka Onsen 船岡温泉 (¥430, open 3pm-1am Mondays to Saturdays, 8am-1am on Sundays) is the oldest sento in Kyoto, having been established in 1923. The water in the baths here are from the ground below, but Kyoto is largely devoid of naturally-occuring hot springs, so the water has been artificially heated. It is still soft, clear, and as pleasant as any real onsen would be. Funaoka Onsen is also happens to be one of the rare tattoo-friendly bathhouses in town. Soap and shampoo are not provided inside, so buy some at the counter before heading in. They will loan you a small flannel if you don’t have a towel with you.
The two sides to the onsen are alternated between men and women every day so if you make time to return the next day you’ll get to experience both sides. The left has a better outdoor area with three rocky pools and a waterfall with a dragon head. The right has a smaller hinoki cypress bath. Both have dry saunas, cold baths, and 4 indoor pools. Funaoka Onsen was the pioneer of the electric bath, so be sure to take part in the electrifying experience.
Look up once you get into the changing rooms. You’ll see a Tengu, a goblin from Mt Kurama, staring down the middle of both rooms. There are also beautifully carved wooden dividers around both rooms. The carvings on the sides depict the procession of the Aoi Matsuri, the horseback archery competition at Kamigamo Shrine, and the Imamiya Festival at Imamiya Shrine. The carving in between the rooms depict the Shanghai Incident of January 28, 1932, and the three men depicted larger than the rest are the Three Heros of the Shanghai Incident, the Japanese soldiers who blew themselves up when they hand carried a missile to attack defending Chinese forces. The story of these 3 men was wildly popular as war propaganda and has been memorialised in kabuki, films, and songs. The 4th generation owner, Yoshio Ono, has understandably left photos of this carving out of the website. Inside, you will see Majolica tiles imported almost from the Mediterranean a century ago adorning numerous surfaces.
This isn’t the most modern bathhouse you’ll come across, nor the oldest, but it preserves an older time when Kyoto echoed with the sounds of temple bells and click-clack of wooden clogs on the feet of people headed home for dinner. A soak here will bring you back to those times, and is probably the best way to end the Zen Out Peace Out Walk.
Or… The Golden Pavilion
If you have arrived at Funaoka Hill by 3:30pm you could consider taking an alternative route down Funaoka Hill to get to Kinkakuji Temple (better known as the Golden Pavilion), a 15-minute stroll away.
Kinkakuji (admission ¥400, no closing days, open 9am-5pm) closes its doors to visitors at 4:30pm sharp. All visitors have to leave by 5pm. Get there by 3:45pm to have enough time to soak in the gardens. Most tour buses stop taking tourists to the temple by 4pm, so you will share the last hour with fewer people than if you were to try to get there at opening time.
If you’re taking this walk to Zen Out, however, you won’t regret making Funaoka Onsen your last stop on this walk.
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