The Honganji Temples

OK, this is the last post regarding Buddhist temples we saw in Japan last September. Today we’re going to visit two temples in central Kyoto that have an interesting history.


They are called Nishi Honganji and Higashi Honganji. That’s the entrance to Higashi Honganji above. Their names mean, respectively, Western Temple of the Original Vow and Eastern Temple of the Original Vow. We were told that the temples are known to locals by the nicknames Dear Mr. West and Dear Mr. East.

A small moat surrounds both temples.

Each temple serves as headquarters for a branch of Jodo Shin Buddhism, one of Japan’s largest Buddhist sects. The first Tokugawa Shogun ordered that Jodo Shin be divided into two branches as a means to diluting its power.


Buddhist monks of Jodo Shin had played an active role in the wars and political strife that led up to the establishment of Tokugawa rule. There were even thousands of “warrior monks” who took part in many battles. This displeased the various feudal lords who were maneuvering for advantage.


As a result, the main temple of Jodo Shin Buddhism, containing compounds that housed thousands of people, was burnt to the ground. In 1591, the Tokugawas ordered construction of Nishi Honganji as the new headquarters for the Honganji sect of Jodo Shin.

Main hall of Higashi Honganji.

Higashi Honganji was built 11 years later as the central temple for the Otani sect. The two temples are less than a mile apart.


Have you ever wondered why we use the word “sect” in some contexts and “denomination” in others? Why don’t we refer, for example, to the Methodist sect of the Protestant branch of Christianity? “Sect” is vaguely more negative in its connotations.


Anyway. We liked this lotus fountain outside Higashi Honganji.


Another moat outside Nishi Honganji.


A mysterious door.



Veranda at Nishi Honganji.



View of the courtyard at Nishi Honganji. This reminded me of what David and Michiko Young wrote in their book, The Art of the Japanese Garden. The Youngs said that Japanese gardens exist on a continuum of sacred to secular. Gardens at the sacred end are simple, austere, generally topped with a layer of gravel. In the Japanese tradition, these are the spaces that “evoke religious feelings and philosophical insights.”


At one end of the courtyard there was this ancient and enormous Ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba).

I’m not big on austerity myself – the gardens I like best are the opposite of austere. However, this Japanese tradition is interesting, and suggests parallels with strains of Protestantism, Judaism, and Islam that frown on almost any kind of ornamentation in a house of worship.

Anyhow, no more posts about Buddhist temples for the foreseeable future – but I’ve got one more post on Kyoto still to come.

24 Comments on “The Honganji Temples”

  1. Very interesting – and your thoughts on austerity too. I have often found Japanese gardens outside of Japan to be too ‘busy’ with far too many plants and flowers! I can appreciate that kind of plain garden, but much prefer our western style!

  2. You’ve triggered a memory, Justin. Early one morning while visiting Kyoto, I walked alone to Higashi Honganji to join the monks at 6AM for worship. A most interesting experience. Hard to sit on your knees that long! The chanting when you don’t understand the words is most soothing. And that splendid ginko tree was bare branched in late March. Thanks for the memory. I’ve very much enjoyed your Japan posts.

  3. I, too, love the carvings. Good point about sect and denomination. Also, the habit of war certainly rampages across cultures. My yard with its dry shade is perfectly suited for a minimalist garden. Naturally, what I want is a riot of colors. 😉

  4. I’m happy with your Buddhist temples posts, they are like little slices of history. I think Judy has done a great job photographing the temples…easy to see how enormous they are, and especially seeing the photo of people walking around outside the temple….looking very small indeed! Interesting to see the moats too, and the enormous doors and verandas.
    The gingko tree is amazing…and to think we once entertained the idea of having one in our front garden…!

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