Let me tell you a story of our various attempts to visit Chion-In in Kyoto. Chion-In is the headquarters of the Pure Land Sect of Buddhism, known as Jodo. Jodo is one of the most popular sects in Buddhism, with over a million followers. Jodo was founded by Honen, who simplified the teachings of Buddha and taught that salvation could be attained by chanting the nembutsu (I seek refuge in Amida Buddha/Namu Amida Butsu) with all your heart. The temple was also popular with the Tokugawa shoguns during the Edo period. Tokugawa Hidetada built the senmon, or main gate, that stands at the entrance to the temple and is designated as a National Treasure.
When we were planning what we would do on our honeymoon, I read about Chion-In in the Rough Guide. It sounded interesting, but the book informed me that the temple was closed for two years to enable restoration work to take place, in preparation for the 800th anniversary of Honen’s death in 2011. While we were in Kyoto, we strolled past the senmon on our way from Heian Jingu to Gion, and gazed up at its magnificence.
Then we walked on to Maruyama Koen to buy green tea ice cream before we went to a performance at Gion Corner.
The second time we went to Japan, in the autumn of 2010, we decided to give Chion-In another try but somehow couldn’t work out how to get in. The websites I had read suggested that the grounds were open all day, but that the buildings closed at 4.30. It was around 4.30 when we arrived, and we started to walk up the path alongside the steps that lead up to the huge gate – but it seemed as though everyone else was leaving, and the gates were being closed, so we baulked and turned round, heading back to Maruyama Park in a state of confusion. I wish I had read the official website for the temple, because that makes it clear that the gardens aren’t open all day and the gates do close at 4.30.
The third time we went to Japan, in spring 2012, we again failed to gain entry to the temple. We had planned to walk the entire length of Teramachi Dori, following the route in Judith Clancy’s book, but ran out of steam about halfway through, so never even made it as far as Chion-In.
Finally, last year, we made certain that we would visit this temple that seemed to be hiding from us. We caught a bus from Gojo-Zaka to Chion-In, slipped down a side street and crossed the canal, then started the walk up the long approach to the temple.
It felt like we really were attempting a pilgrimage, in a way, even though neither of us is Buddhist. I knew from the website that the main hall was still closed for refurbishment, but I didn’t care. I had waited four years to see this temple, and I was determined we wouldn’t be thwarted again.
The steps up to the grounds are steep. I’ve mentioned before that I’m not the fittest of people, and after climbing a certain distance I felt like I was going to pass out – so I took the opportunity to rest and enjoy the scenery, pausing in front of the North Gate.
We made it into the grounds where the main hall is shrouded in what looks like brown corrugated plastic, and took in the atmosphere. After the grandeur of the gate at the bottom of the hill, the grounds felt small and cramped – until I realised that they continue up the hillside towards the back of the main hall. There are plenty of buildings to see, and we went on a Sunday when lots of local people were paying their respects at various sub-temples, lighting incense in braziers and praying before altars.
We headed for the rest of the grounds, past a statue of Honen and up a really, really steep set of steps, at the top of which I had to sit down and drink some restorative CC Lemon.
We climbed ever higher, past the Seishido, built on the site of Honen’s meditation chamber, and the Gobyo mausoleum where Honen’s remains are interred, until eventually we came to another gate. We walked through the gate towards elegant wooden buildings and discovered that we were in a cemetery. As we were wandering around, wondering how we would get back on the correct path, we started to climb another set of steps towards a temple where we could hear chanting. Just then a monk appeared and kindly but firmly directed us away from this private and sacred space.
We followed his directions and started our descent, past a huge temple bell known as the Ogane, which is an important cultural property. It was cast in 1636 and is one of the three largest temple bells in Japan, alongside the bells at Hokoji in Kyoto and Todaiji in Nara. The daishoro, or great bell tower, which houses it is also an important cultural property, built in 1678. The bell is only rung twice a year – once in April for Honen’s memorial service and once at New Year.
We descended more steep steps, passing buildings whose roofs peeped above the tree tops, before emerging on the other side of the grounds near to the main hall.
Finally we descended the last set of steps back to the main gate, passing others who were beginning their ascent.
I’m glad that my determination to see Chion-In won through. The visit was worth the wait, even if I did end up building the temple up into something it wasn’t and probably didn’t appreciate it as peacefully as I could have.