Maruyama’s Small Hidden Temple
Choraku-ji is a small Buddhist temple located behind Maruyama Park, on the heights of Higashiyama in the east of Kyoto. In a timeless and quiet atmosphere, the visit is recommended in autumn to enjoy its reddening maple trees alley, bordered by lanterns.
The end of the renovation works has been postponed by one year, until March 2024. A special spring temporary opening is taking place in 2023 from April 1 to May 7.
During this period, the temple opens from Friday to Sunday and on holidays. The guided tour is only available upon advance reservation of a time slot (10 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 2 p.m. or 3 p.m.) and costs ¥1,500 (~US$10.15) per person.
To find Choraku-ji’s entrance, you will have to meander in the hilly, narrow streets of Higashiyama’s residential neighborhood in Kyoto. Located a few hundred meters from major touristic sites, the place is still little-known and therefore far less crowded. This pleasant little Buddhist temple therefore offers a relaxing break and a time to meditate.
History related to the Imperial Household
Founded in 805 by Saicho (767 – 822), the founding monk of the Tendai School in Japan, and on the order of Emperor Kanmu (737 – 806), Choraku-ji worships the deity Kanzeon Bosatsu, goddess of compassion and mercy. The temple’s grounds have long been reserved to the use of the Imperial Household, and therefore forbidden to the public. It was only opened for great ceremonies held during the Yakudoshi years, that is to say the unlucky years or "calamitous years" according to the popular Japanese belief.
In 1185 the temple welcomed former Empress Consort Taira no Tokuko (1155 - 1214), who was renamed Kenreimon-in. Following the fall of the Taira Clan and the tragic death of her young son, emperor Antoku (1178 – 1185), she withdrew from power and retired as a nun. She lived her last years as a cleric in Ohara’s Jakko-in temple.
In more recent times, Choraku-ji’s gardens and especially theirsimple and quiet beauty inspired the area’s artists to write or paint. The temple’s grounds thus shelters the grave of poet and painter Rai San'yo (1780 – 1832) who had asked to be buried in the place he loved.
Serene fall landscape in Kyoto
From Maruyama Park, at the eastern end of Gion, you can visit the great Chion-in temple in the north or go to the south to discover Choraku-ji. At the end of November, you can pleasantly walk the gentle slope to its entrance. This small alley bordered by red maple trees and lanterns 🏮 is an interesting haven of peace to enjoy the koyo 🍁 in Kyoto without the crowd.
Then, the enclosure harmoniously displays several little wooden pavilions surrounded by gardens. The temple’s bell is renowned for the mysterious sound it makes. Worshipers specifically visit for the New Year celebrations to make it ring with the monks.
A small sacred waterfall is enclosed by a stone wall on which were sculpted representations of Buddha. One can stay a few moment concentrating to find the many faces emerging from the rock and the vegetation. Moreover, the temple also has an inner garden surrounding a pond. Do not hesitate to enter the open building to reach the balcony opening on a green landscape typical of Zen Buddhism. Lastly, at the back of the temple’s grounds, a cemetery offers a viewpoint on Kyoto, through the trees’ foliage on a clear weather day.
Choraku-ji is suitable for sightseers looking for a relaxing and quick visit, conveniently located in the center of Kyoto, but remote enough on the heights of Higashiyama to avoid the crowds. The only downside is the admission fee, quite expensive for such a small temple.