1. Looking Down Instead of Looking Up.
Normally, Japanese temples stand in high places, on hills and mountains, and more often than not you have to climb a stone staircase to reach the sacred halls. Of course, there are also temples standing on level ground, but Sennyuji is the only temple I know where you actually descend the path to go to its main hall - from the Daimon Gate where the ticket office is, you look down upon the Butsuden and other halls - the massive tiled roof of the Butsuden is exactly on eye level!
2. A Failed Zen Temple?
Sennyuji now belongs to esoteric Shingon Buddhism, but when you enter its main hall, the beautiful Butsuden, you could easily mistake it for the Lecture Hall of a Zen temple. For one thing, there is the in Zen temples obligatory dragon painting on the ceiling, here ascribed to the famous Kano Tan'yu. Next, you will find nothing of esoteric Buddhism in this hall, no Dainichi Nyorai statues or fierce-looking Fudo Myo-o with flames at their back. Instead, on the altar sits a sedate trinity of Amida, Shaka and Miroku, or the Buddhas of the Past, the Present and the Future. They have been ascribed to the renowned Unkei, but false ascriptions to famous artists are as frequent in Japanese temples as mould in the Rainy Season.
The combination of these three Buddhas is in fact rare in Japan and was probably inspired by the Southern Song dynasty in China - Tsukinowa Shunjo, who built Sennyuji in 1218, had studied in China and - here we have the Zen connection - he built a temple in Chinese style in which he synthesized the four major Buddhist denominations of his time, Shingon, Tendai, Zen and Ritsu. So that is why we have a Zen Hall in a Shingon temple! By the way, this Chinese-style hall was (re-) built in 1668 by the then Tokugawa shogun, Ietsuna. At the back of the altar is a painting of the White-robed Kannon and - in a large wooden box - a picture of the parinirvana (nehan) of the historical Buddha (shown every year from March 14 to 16). And finally, the bell-shaped windows of this hall (and the Shariden or Relic Hall standing behind it) are also typical of the Zen style.
3. An Imperial Concubine from China as Kannon Bosatsu.
The small and unassuming Kannon hall houses a miraculous image of the Goddess of Mercy which is said to be a portrait of the famous Chinese imperial concubine Yang Guifei. A woman of exquisite beauty - the most beautiful woman in the long history of China - Yang Guifei was favored by the eighth century Emperor Xuanzong, to such a degree that he severely neglected his affairs of state. Eventually, a rebellion occurred in which the concubine was killed by uproarious soldiers. Her tragic fate was versified by the poet Bai Juyi in the famous poem Song of Everlasting Grief.
The present statue is said to have been made on behest of the grieving emperor after the death of Yang Guifei. It was brought to Japan in the middle of the thirteenth century by Sennyuji's second abbot, Rankai, who twice visited China for study and for the collecting of sutras, statues and paintings. It is a beautiful statue: the seated Kannon, carrying a lotus flower with a long stem, smiles down on you with compassion. The colors are still vivid, thanks to the fact that the statue was kept in a cabinet and only revealed once every hundred years in the past.
Adding to Sennyuji's gentility are its old connections to the Imperial House - several emperors and their consorts have been buried at the back of the temple grounds. The connection with the imperial family started already soon after the founding, in 1242, when the mausoleum of Emperor Shijo was erected here. Other imperial tombs are those of the Emperors Gohorikawa (r. 1221-32) and Gomizunoo (r. 1611-29). Including those of consorts and other family members, in all there are some thirty tombs. But Sennyuji is a quiet and reserved temple that has never boasted of its imperial connections. The imperial graves can be observed from what is called the Gohaisho, in the rear and to the right of the temple grounds (the access is half-hidden behind the Reimeiden and easy to miss).
Another imperial connection is the Gozasho, a building that was actually donated from the imperial palace, decorated with beautiful screens, impressive in their sober simplicity. It also feautures a throne room that is actually still used by the present Emperor, who came here several times during his reign, for example to visit the graves of his ancestors and inform them of his accession to the throne. The Gozasho also has a beautiful garden and a visit is recommended (seperate entrance fee).
Finally there are two buildings which are usually closed, the Reimeiden where the imperial ancestral spirits are enshrined and another building enshrining Buddhist statues that once belonged to the imperial family. The halls stand in their own, closed compound and are covered with cypress bark roofs, reminding one of the old imperial palace, Gosho.
5. Where are the Bubbles?
Coming out of the Butsuden, to the side of the grounds you will find a small wooden structure protecting a well. This is the "bubbling spring" that gave the temple its name. Peeping inside, however, you will only see dry moss. The spring apparently has succumbed to the hot weather - or has become the victim of diminishing groundwater levels in modern cities.
Address: 27 Sennyu-ji Yamauchi-cho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto. Tel. 075-561-1551
Access: Take the JR or Keihan Line to Tofukuji Station and walk 20 min. along Higashioji Street.
Hours: 9:00-16:30, in winter 16:00.
Note: Along the access road lined with stately trees inside the temple grounds, you will find several interesting sub-temples. My favorite is Kaikoji with its huge Shaka image. Here also stands Imakumano Kannonji, one of the temples of the Kannon Pilgrimage Route of Western Japan.