If you’ve had enough of the Kyoto cityscape and want to escape to a rural retreat only an hour from Kyoto, Ohara should be high on your list. Only 45 minutes by bus from central Kyoto, Ohara is a tiny town just on the northern limits of the City Famed for a Thousand Temples. There’s temples here too. Just as big, just as beautiful. Sanzen-in is the most acclaimed, it’s grounds a sea of maple trees whose leaves burn with a vermillion palette in the height of the upcoming koyou season. I would highly recommend a visit in mid-November.
Walking the path to the temples you can’t help but admire the curios that fill walls and tables of compact shops dotted along the way. Ohara is famous for shiso, a herb belonging to the mint family, popular in Japan and often found sitting underneath succulent pieces of sashimi in sushi restaurants and izakaya. It’s delicious. Here it’s found perking up pickles sold by the merchants and shops on the side of the path and it’s not to be missed. Last time I visited I bought six packs of various preserved produce and consumed all of them within a shockingly short period of time. Here’s to planning the next trip to replenish my stocks. Anyway, enough about the pickles (but seriously do try them… ). The real reason for our visit to Ohara was to see Hosen-in, a tranquil retreat with a disturbing piece of history.
Established over 1000 years ago, Hosen-in was built as a rest-house for pilgrims visiting the renowned Shoren-in temple complex in Kyoto. It’s mountain viewpoint, obscured by lofty bamboo emerging from the meticulously cared for moss garden, the highlight, a gnarled and ancient 700 year old pine tree – ‘Goyo-no-Matsu’ – taking pride of place and perfectly framed just beyond the temple’s tatami meditation hall. Hosen-in has an undisturbed harmony with nature so pure it was even immortalised in ‘The Tale of Genji’, Japan’s most celebrated novel.
With so many temples in Kyoto, it’s difficult to know which to visit. Hosen-in is known for its unusual suikinkutsu, a collection of earthen jars and bamboo pipes filled with small stones and water into which droplets naturally fall, creating meditative reverberations that help to soak in the stillness of your surroundings.
Peel yourself away, if you can, from the view of moss and mountains towards the ‘bloody ceiling’. In stark contrast to the serenity of the gardens, Hosen-in’s ceilings are built from blood-stained floorboards from Fushimi Castle. After a vicious battle at the end of the 16th century, over 100 defeated samurai committed mass suicide, their honour gone and their blood spilled, the floorboards were transported to Hosen-in to memorialise those who gave their lives.
Don’t forget to take a stroll around the karesansui (dry landscape garden) as you leave. The concentric sand circles and mini gravel mountains are an ode to patience and make for some very pretty pictures.
Stop in to Shorin-in temple as you leave and if you’re lucky you may get to hear the shomyo; a chant of admiration for Buddha, used by the Tendai sect and often practiced here in Ohara. It also features some of the most stunningly intricate wood carvings that I’ve ever been lucky enough to admire.