Have you ever gazed upon the ancient, smiling face of Buddha? Or walked mountain paths that draw you back in time to an era of devoted priests and peasant craftsmen? These experiences are within reach in a little-known area of southern Kyoto.
The Tono region of Kizugawa City sits on the border of Kyoto and Nara prefectures, a forested highland often overlooked by foreign tourists. The best way to experience the secrets of Tono is on foot. A popular walking trail brings hikers past numerous ancient Buddhist figures carved into huge mossy boulders. Two famous temples bookend the trail, offering peaceful scenery and insight into Buddhist art and culture.
For visitors looking for an adventure outside of the city, Tono is the perfect escape into nature. With an early start from Kyoto, visitors can pair Tono with a visit to Nara and be back at Kyoto in time for dinner.
Gansen-ji Temple: Ascending Towards Heaven
Begin the adventure at JR Kamo Station, which can be reached for free for holders of the Japan Rail Pass. A brief bus ride into the hills brings visitors to Gansen-ji Temple, the small but important temple that established the Tono region in 729. This was where the most devoted priests from the imperial capital of Nara settled to escape urban life, and it’s easy to see why they chose this enchanting area.
There’s a wonderful sense of being at one with nature when entering Gansen-ji. It’s known as one of the “flower temples,” as there are various flowers blooming throughout the grounds during most of the year. In June, temple explodes with hydrangea blossoms, with over five thousand bushes flowering at once. The Autumn leaves are particularly enjoyable here as well, but any time of year is suitable for a visit.
Gansen-ji was once a busy center of monastic activity, but nowadays it’s a much more relaxed location. There’s a good chance you’ll be the only visitor here, so enjoy the peace and quiet while exploring the temple’s main hall. Inside, you’ll find a three meter tall wooden statue of Amida Buddha. This is the buddha that the faithful believe will greet them upon their death, and he’s been a popular figure throughout the history of Japanese Buddhism. It’s a treat to gaze upon Amida’s calm visage and admire the large amount of gold leaf and red paint that still remains on his body after a millennium. Amida’s sublime expression draws viewers in with an inviting yet mysterious hint of an enlightened smile.
The four guardian statues surrounding Amida are also in excellent condition, with vivid pigments still clinging to the ancient carved wood. Usually we can’t get so close to artwork in temples, but here the guardians are almost within arm’s reach. The gallery that encircles the statues is filled with smaller works of art and treasures held by the temple.
Beyond the main hall is a clearing where a colorful pagoda towers over a small pond. There’s an interesting perspective trick that happens here where the pagoda seems to be much more distant and larger than it actually is. Upon approaching the tower and inspecting the design, it’s evident that the structure tapers towards the top, creating the grand illusion.
For an up-close view, guests can follow the hillside path that spirals up and around the pagoda. It feels as if you are floating alongside the tower as it stretches towards heaven. The lookout point alongside the second story is a great vantage point to see the small wooden oni demons squatting under the support pillars at the four corners of each roof. These funny little characters are said to ward off evil spirits, and they’ve become a humorous symbol of this temple.
As you exit the temple entrance, check the rows of hanging vegetables on sale from local farms. This produce sold on the honor system is a famous characteristic of the area, so feel free to drop a few coins in the basket and pick up a piece of seasonal fruit or even a fresh cucumber to snack on while walking.
Gansen-ji Temple is an ancient Buddhist temple located in Kamo-cho, part of Kizugawa City in the southernmost part of Kyoto Prefecture. Thought to have been built in 729, the name “Gansen-ji” translat …
After departing Gansen-ji, the walk through the countryside begins. It’s all downhill and about 40 minutes (2 km) to the destination; don’t worry, it’s more of a nature walk than a real hike. Along the way, discover how the ancient communities here left their mark on the region in the form of religious icons carved into massive stones. There is a map board in front of the temple to help you get oriented.
Descending into the forested valley, the route winds past rice paddies and vegetable farms. Unpaved at times and running along a whispering stream, this nostalgic road conjures up a time when samurai, monks, and peasants walked through similar countryside scenes.
It was local craftsmen who made Tono’s stone buddhas at the request of the priests from nearby temples. These holy men sought to turn the wilderness into a paradise where Buddhism could flourish outside of the city, so they decorated the Tono region with carvings to mark sites of worship for the locals. It was a massive project, resulting in countless statues that are now lost in the growth of the forest. Luckily, we can still see some excellent artwork along the hiking path to remind us of the Buddhist origins of the region.
There are several routes to follow, so please refer to the map below. The first encounter will probably be with either the life-sized carving of Fudo Myou, a fierce guardian deity (MAP1), or the trio of Jizo Bosatsu, the protector of children and travelers (MAP2).
A few minutes further down the path is the Laughing Buddha (MAP3)., a 13th century carving that remains in remarkable condition thanks to the rocky overhang protecting it from rain. This is a renowned carving and perhaps the most popular on the trail. The script on the rock tells us that it was commissioned by Gansen-ji, indicating that the temple’s grounds once encompassed a huge portion of the area.
Two interesting 14th century buddhas of t await when the path reaches the bottom of the valley (MAP4). The Smiling Amida has the shape of a stone lantern carved beside him, with a deep cavity in the lantern’s head. Perhaps this nook was once home to the candles of local worshippers, the dim light a symbol of the illumination that the Buddha brings to the world. Be sure to peek around the left side of the boulder to find a hidden carving of Jizo Bosatsu.
The final meeting is with a trio of figures just off the roadside under a leafy canopy (MAP5). These jovial buddhas in the 13th century are a bit more primitive in their appearance, and remind us that these etchings were simple, rustic icons for the local populace to worship. It’s easy to imagine the comfort that such artwork brought to the peasants and farmers in Tono as their smiling guardians watched over them.
Joruri-ji Temple: Paradise Over the Water
If the hike through Tono’s wilderness can be thought of as a sort of mini pilgrimage, a spectacular reward awaits at the final destination. Here stands Joruri-ji Temple, a Buddhist sanctuary that promises a glimpse of the paradise that awaits devout followers in the next world.
Like Gansen-ji, Joruri-ji Temple is not well known amongst tourists and therefore offers an atmosphere of peaceful solitude. A path winds around a central lake, inviting guests to stroll through an expertly designed landscape. On one side of the water stands a three-story wooden pagoda. This 12th century structure houses a hidden statue of Yakushi Nyorai, the buddha of medicine. It’s only open on the 8th day of the month when the weather is good. Yakushi watches over us in life, so this eastern bank of the pond represents the world that we currently exist in.
Across the water, our gaze is directed towards the world of Amida Buddha, the western land of the setting sun. Followers of Amida believe that he will greet them upon death and usher them into his eternal paradise. These paradise gardens were popular in past eras, but very few examples of them remain in Kyoto.
Experiencing this lovely vision at Joruri-ji is an excellent way to directly understand the connection between landscape design and Buddhist doctrine that you find in some Japanese gardens.
Guests are invited to enter the main hall and come face to face with Amida himself – all nine versions of him, actually! In the 11th century, there was a popular belief that nine different manifestations of Amida greeted the dead as they entered paradise. Joruri-ji houses the oldest complete set of nine Amida statues, making for a remarkable site upon entering the hall and seeing the buddhas sparkling in the darkness.
There is no doubt that these magnificent beings come from a paradise beyond our world, a message conveyed by the brilliant golden background flanking the central Amida figure. With this close up view, we are fortunate to experience the full impact of the statues in a way that was denied to ancient worshippers as they longingly gazed from across the water.
Emerging from the gloom of the main hall feels a bit like being reborn into the human world. Visitors experience all of life and death via a simple walk through a small garden. Even a non-Buddhist can’t help but feel something in their soul after experiencing Joruri-ji. Perhaps the revelation of the garden – and the entire experience of Tono’s stone buddha trail and natural beauty – is that our own world can be a paradise if we strive to think of it as so.
*Please note that the Amida statues are being removed and repaired in pairs until the end of 2023.
Joruri-ji Temple, located in the “Kyoto Infused with Tea” region, is a temple of the Shingon Ritsu Buddhism (Nara sect) that holds 4 national treasures and 9 important cultural properties.