Several magnificent temples share this corner of the forested foothills between Heian Jingu and Ginkaku-ji. The most prominent is Nanzen-ji, with its awesome gateway. A short distance away you'll enjoy Nanzen-in's serene beauty, Kochi-in's precise garden, and Murin-an's expansive lawns.
Like Ginkaku-ji, the villa of Nanzen-ji was turned into a temple on the death of its owner, Emperor Kameyama (1249–1305). By the 14th century this had become the most powerful Zen
temple in Japan, which spurred the Tendai monks to destroy it. The 15th-century Onin Civil War demolished the buildings again, but some were reconstructed during the 16th century. Nanzen-ji has again become one of Kyoto's most important temples, in part because it's the headquarters of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism.
Monks in training are still taught at the temple. You enter through the enormous 1628 San-mon (Triple Gate), the classic "gateless" gate of Zen Buddhism that symbolizes entrance into the most sacred part of the temple precincts. From the top floor of the gate you can view Kyoto spread out below. Whether you ascend the steep steps, give a moment to the statue of Goemon Ishikawa. In 1594 this Robin Hood–style outlaw tried but failed to kill the daimyo (feudal lord) Hideyoshi Toyotomi. He hid in this gate until his capture, after which he was boiled in a cauldron of oil. His story is still enacted in many Kabuki plays.
On your way to see the major temples and gardens within the complex, don't overlook Nanzen-ji's other attractions. The Hojo (Abbots' Quarters) is a National Treasure. Inside, screens with impressive 16th-century paintings divide the chambers. These wall panels of the Twenty-Four Paragons of Filial Piety and Hermits were created by Eitoku Kano (1543–90). Enshu Kobori created what's commonly known as the Leaping Tiger Garden, an excellent example of the karesansui style, attached to the Hojo. The large rocks are grouped with clipped azaleas, maples, pines, and moss, all positioned against a plain white well behind the raked gravel expanse. The greenery effectively connects the garden with the lush forested hillside beyond.
Nanzen-in. Past Nanzen-ji's three-tiered gateway, quiet Nanzen-in has a peaceful garden that is well worth exploring. A curiously modern brick aqueduct cuts through the maples leading up to Emperor Kameyama's mausoleum. Nanzenji-Fukuchi-cho, 606-8435. 075/771–0365. www.nanzen.com. ¥300. Daily 8:40–4.
Konchi-in. Recognized by garden aficionados around the world as one of Japan's finest, Konchi-in was first established in the 15th century. It was moved inside Nanzen-ji's temple complex in 1605 and landscaped by designer Enshu Kobori several decades later. Shadow-dappled stone pathways wind past moss-covered hills to a pond hugged close by maple and cherry trees. There's a lovely temple building and a dry garden whose solemn rocks figure a crane and turtle symbolizing wisdom and longevity. Kochi-in is on the path leading up to Nanzen-ji, just before the main gate. A climb to the top of this temple's pagoda affords superb views of the eastern mountains. 86 Fukuchi-cho, Nanzen-ji, 606-8435. 075/771–3511. ¥400. Daily 8:30–5.