Sanzen-in is a celebrated Tendai Buddhist temple located in Ohara, a northern suburb of Kyoto.
Ohara is a rustic countryside which makes you wonder if it’s really within the border of Kyoto City, and you can experience a completely different aspect of Kyoto compared with urban areas like Higashiyama or Arashiyama.
Ohara bus stop is a 1-hour ride from JR Kyoto Station, and to reach the temple, you need to walk eastward from there for ten minutes along the road running next to a stream and on which many tsukemono (pickles) shops are located.
Sanzen-in, now situated in the middle of Ohara, is said to have been founded by Tendai Sect founder Saicho (767 – 822), also known by his posthumous title Dengyo-daishi, in the Todo area of Mt. Hiei, and after being relocated several times, it finally settled to its current site in 1871.
Since Sanzen-in is relatively new in Ohara, there are not many old historic buildings for a temple of this class. The Only construction designated as an Important Cultural Property is Ojogokurakuin, which was erected here in the 12th century and was renovated largely in 1616.
Though most part of the temple complex is not so old, the temple precincts, including its buildings and moss garden, are beautiful throughout the year – fresh green in spring, hydrangea blossom in early summer, colored foliage in fall, and snowscapes in winter.
Temples nearby Sanzen-in such as Jikko-in and Shorin-ji are also neatly maintained, though not so large.
On the opposite side of Ohara from Sanzen-in, there’s a Buddhist temple called Jakko-in, which is another known attraction in this district. This tasteful convent, founded in 594 by Prince Shotoku, is a 15-minute walk from Ohara bus stop, which means it takes about 25 minutes from Sanzen-in on foot, but you’ll be able to enjoy the pleasant views of the rustic farming village along your way.
Ohara is a tranquil place compared with Kyoto proper. If you avoid high season and weekends, you can fully appreciate its lovely nature. But you must be careful in winter since it snows heavily sometimes.
Where to eat around Sanzen-in
If you want to take lunch around Sanzen-in, we recommend Michikusa-bento offered at Seryo, a restaurant and ryokan-style inn. Michikusa-bento, which costs about 3,000yen, is a gorgeous lunch composed of local mountain vegetables, fish, rice, etc. stuffed in three-layered jubako (lacquered lunchbox).
If you want a lighter and more affordable meal, there is Rogawa Chaya. It is famous for Kyoyasai Udon, which is a tricolored udon noodle dish containing winter squash, shiso herb, and carrot which you eat with dashi or tororo soup. It also sells grilled dango (a kind of sweet rice cake) in front of the restaurant, and having them with green tea is a nice idea.
Where to stay around Sanzen-in
If you are planning to stay overnight in Ohara, you need to book a ryokan or a minshuku. If you want to sleep in a Western-style bed, book a hotel in central Kyoto.
Oharasanso is a not-so-famous but cozy minshuku-style inn with hot spring baths. For dinner, it serves dishes such as stew using home-made miso (soy paste), home-grown rice, and domestic free-range poultry.
Sanzeninmichi, located on a hillside, is a minshuku which is a 5-min walk from Sanzen-in. It’s a comfy inn with an open-air bath blessed with splendid views. For meals, you can choose dishes like pork miso stew, boiled tofu, chicken sukiyaki, beef sukiyaki, and boar stew.