Ohara - Kyoto's Hidden Gem
Chi-tenjo: The Blood Ceiling of Kyoto
I knelt on the wooden floor and gazed at the ceiling above me. It was a Chi-tenjo, or 'blood-stained' ceiling, and as I could see the faint outline of a hand. In 1600, defeated by overwhelming odds, a group of samurai in Fushimi Castle committed harakiri. Some fifty years later the bloodstained floor-panels were moved to the Shorin-in Temple in Ohara, placed on the ceiling for both the nuns and all who visit to remember and pray for the repose of the dead.
This is Ohara, a small town near Kyoto where the past is embedded in the everyday. Nestled at the feet of Mt Hiei-zan and surrounded by forest, the ancient town lies within Kyoto city's limits, yet sees only a fraction of her tourists. Ohara is even mentioned (by its old name, Ono), in The Tale of the Genji. Ukifune, a daughter of the Eighth Prince, retires to a nunnery in Ono after being miraculously rescued by a river spirit when she tries to drown herself. (This is preceded, naturally, by an unsolvable love triangle.)
A Side Trip From Kyoto
Even today reaching Ohara involved crossing a small river in the heart of Kyoto. The nearest bus stop stood on the far side, and the choice was between a footbridge or stepping stones. The stepping stones won, for some were shaped like turtles. White herons stood motionless in the stream as butterflies danced amongst the flowers.
The bus left the river and wound through the outer suburbs of Kyoto, past multi-story flats, car repair shops and other buildings and shops which can find no room inside the old capital. Gradually the road began to climb, passing through little towns unmarked on the map and into a rambling, rioutous countryside so different from the strict control of Kyoto, where every bush and tree is pruned so precisely.
After some thirty minutes the bus reached Ohara. What struck me most was the quiet. Few people were around, with those on the bus vanished quickly into the countryside. The air was a few degrees cooler than Kyoto, the oppressive humidity gone. Rice paddies and vegetable gardens stretched down the mountain side and into the forest.
Most come to Ohara for her temples. Some are in the town, while others are linked by a some four hour forest walk. The place is particularly popular in November, when the leaves don their autumn finery. Small shops line the street to the Sanzenin Temple, Ohara's most famous temple. Many of these shops specialise in snacks such as aisu kyuri, which are cucumbers pickled in seaweed flavoured ice water and served on a stick.
The Literary Traveller
Written in the 11th C, this novel is essential reading for anyone interested in either Japanese history or literature
The Temples of Ohara
Sanzenin Temple was built during the Early Heian Period by the revered monk Saicho, who introduced Tendai Buddhism to Japan in 804. The temple is a series of wooden buildings and sub-temples, set amongst justly-famous gardens. The result is simple and elegant, perfectly proportioned, with carefully placed windows and archways framing the views of the gardens and trees in classic Japanese style. Sanzenin is also a rare monzeki temple, where the head priests were once members of the Imperial Family.
After entering through the main gate, a series of buildings leads to the Kyayuden, (or guest hall), famous for its displays of calligraphy and paintings on sliding doors (or fusuma). The halls opens onto a traditional garden with a small pond.
In the Shinden (or main hall) are statues of three Buddhist deities: the Amida Buddha stands flanked by Kannon and Fudo Myoo. From the Shinden, the Ojo Gokuraku-in Hall can be glimpsed through maple and cedar trees. Around it stretches the famous moss garden, complete with small stone faces peeking out from the moss.
The Ojo Gokuraku-in Hall has a funazoko (or boat-bottom) ceiling, designed to make the visitor feel they are in an upturned boat. To one side of the hall stands a golden Amida-Nyorai Sanson-zo - an image of the Buddha which symbolises paradise. A meandering path from the Ojo Gokuraku-in Hall begs the visitor to walk deeper into the temple grounds. In a building in a hidden corner stand row upon row of miniature Kannon statues, donated by visitors to the temple.
Other Hidden Gems Of Ohara
It is easy to pass the day here wandering through the temples or delighting in the grounds. Ohara, however, has another half dozen temples worth visiting, as well as ancient gardens and quiet walks through the mountain countryside.
The convent Jikko-in also a beautiful moss garden complete with walking trails, plus the price of admission includes some green tea completed with a sweet, served as you sit on a tatami mat, enjoying the view. Many of the statues in the convent date back to the 10th century. The empress Kenreimon-in Tokuko retired here, spending the last years of her life performing memorial rites for her son Empreror Antoku, who was defeated in battle at the age of two.
Shorin-in Temple was founded in 1013 by Jakugen, (a son of an imperial prince Minamoto no Masanobu, who was the progenitor of the Uda Genji, a powerful clan of the Heian period). The temple was designed as a training hall for Tendai Buddhist chant. The main hall, belfry, bell and stone monuments have been designated Important Cultural Properties by Kyoto City. The small Karesansui garden is a restored masterpiece.
A sub-temple of Shorin-in is the Hosen-in, which is where I knelt gazing at the outline of a bloody footprint. In the garden outside stands a 600 year old pine tree siad to resemble Mt Fuji.
Ohara is also known for her 'Oharame', female peddlers who in the 12th century walked the streets of Kyoto with their wares of brushwood, firewood and flowers balanced on their heads. The practice survives today. A towel protects their ornate hairstyle, and their kimono is traditionally indigo in colour. Today, the costume can be seen in the two week Oharame Matsuri festival in May.
Returning to Kyoto
Winding back towards the bus stop to return to Kyoto, we stopped to eat in a tiny noodle restaurant. A dragonfly buzzed lazily in the corner. For the moment we were the only customers, fussed over by the elderly proprietress as she prepared our bowls of steaming noodles. Another food to try here is miso. Over 100 different types are produced in Ohara, including a white miso and the gourmet of misos, Saikyo. Miso nabe is a traditional hot pot served in many of the restaurants here.
The magic of Ohara comes as evening falls, when the day-visitors leave and the silence of the town deepens. The town has a few ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) with natural hot springs, perfect after a day of sight-seeing. The lights of Kyoto are hidden by the forest, and Ohara lies locked away in a different time, where even a bloody handprint can become a symbol of peace.
© 2015 Anne Harrison
More by this Author
Whereever you may visit in Japan, there is always something different, something unusual, something unique to find. Embrace the spirit of wanderlust and you'll be amazed at what you will find.
Walking through Nara Deer Park is walking back in time. Temples and shrines are hundreds of years old, the chant of monks fills the air, and tame deer, regarded as messengers of the gods, roam freely.
When in Florence it's all too easy to succumb to cultural overload. Here are a few practical tips for surviving a visit to Florence that can make a trip so much easier—and so much more enjoyable.