Bishamondo Temple is one of the undiscovered gems of Kyoto, at least for most foreign visitors to this beautiful old city. In fact, even many Japanese who do not live in Kyoto or the surrounding area may be unaware of the temple’s existence. Yet Bishamondo is a delightfully tranquil temple, rich in history, and with an autumn display that surpasses many of Kyoto’s more famous locations.
Autumn in Kyoto
For many people in Japan, autumn is their favorite season. Not only is the milder weather a welcome relief after the muggy heat of summer, but everywhere turning leaves paint the landscape in rich red and golden hues. Kyoto is particularly blessed with this annual spectacle; from mid November to early December, well-known locations such as Sanzenin, Tofukuji and Kiyomizudera temples throng with visitors come to marvel at the beautiful autumn colors.
Bishamondo temple might not attract quite such busy autumn crowds, but it is no less picturesque. The cherry trees, and weeping cherry trees, leading up to and within the temple grounds form a dramatic red and orange canopy to rival anything the more illustrious Kyoto temples have to offer.
Bishamondo Temple Gardens
The temple itself is no more or less remarkable than many other Japanese temples, although it is extremely well-laid out and a pleasure to stroll around. With its perhaps atypical temple gate, it is complete with huge paper lantern, the quaint temple courtyard and the splendid main hall. However, what impresses most is the way the various buildings and gates seem to rise out of the trees and hillside, as if themselves grown from seed, rather than built by the sweat of men.
The Bishamondo Temple garden originates from the Edo period (1603-1868) and was designed around a small central pond with a stone foot bridge, known as “The Bridge to Paradise.” Beyond this is a small Shinto shrine which adds to the restful, ethereal charm of the garden. This is especially true in the autumn when the shrine’s orange-red woodwork counterpoints the colors of the surrounding trees and fallen leaves. There is a second garden too featuring a larger pond, a stone pagoda and mausoleum.
With so many weeping cherry trees at Bishamondo, some being 150 years old, you can be sure that they provide a stunning springtime cherry blossom display. But in the autumn, the temple gardens’ soothing charm is further enhanced by the carpet of fallen leaves covering the stone pathways, and floating on the surface of the ponds and stone water troughs. Surely, this must be one of Japan’s most photogenic religious sites!
The History of Bishamondo
“Monzeki-jiin” (special temples for nobility), one of the sect of Tendai, is at the origin of the name Bishamondo. One of the seven lucky gods, or gods of good fortune is named Bishamon. The deity, whose statue is enshrined at the temple, is portrayed in Japanese mythology as a warrior god and a punisher of evil-doers. Typically depicted wearing full armor and armed with a spear, the fortune he bestows brings success in competitions, prosperity in business and safety in the home.
The temple itself was founded in the year 703 on the orders of the emperor Monmu, when it was called Gohozan Izumo-ji temple. At that time it was closer to Kyoto Imperial Palace. Subsequent feudal wars and fire forced the temple steadily into decline until the Edo period, when reconstruction began at the current location of the temple in the early eighth century. Since then, the temple has been expanded with buildings and gates originating, in part, from the Imperial Palace. A son of the emperor Gosai was ordained there and served as a head priest, allowing Bishamondo to become a “Monzeki-jiin” and serve both nobility and the imperial household.
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Address: 18 Inariyama-cho, Anshu, Yamashina ward, Kyoto
Access: 20 minute walk from Yamashina Station
Hours: 8:30 AM – 5:00 PM
Admission: 500 yen
Website: Bishamondo Temple (Japanese)