The history of a temple and its sect that covers nearly 600 years: Starting and ending in Kyoto . . .

Honganji Temple History
Unusual history, cultural treasures & wide open spaces

Hongan-ji Temple was founded by Shinran in 1272, as the first temple of the True Pure Land sect.  It's original location was in the Otani area directly east of Yasaka Shrine.  In the 15th century, the temple's popularity increased dramatically under the influence of its seductive head monk Rennyo.  The power and popularity of the sect became so great that the temple was completely destroyed by an army of Tendai monk warriors, who descended in a fury from Mount Hiei.  But Rennyo survived the attack, and quickly set up a new base in Kanazawa, where he and his followers established themselves as the region's leading power.  

Eventually, the sect established its headquarters at Ishiyama Hongan-ji in Osaka, from with its leaders ruled like the popes of the European middle ages.  In the end, it took the brutal reputation of Oda Nobunaga, the first man to unify Japan, to make the sect realize that their fate could easily be the same as that of the militant Tendai sect atop Mount Hiei.  The Tendai complex, all 3,000 buildings, were razed, and 25,000 men, women and children cruelly put to death by Nobunaga's army in 1571  

When the Ishiyama head priest surrendered, the sect split in two--East and West--and Ishiyama Hongan-ji was destroyed.  In 1591, Nobunaga's successor, Hideyoshi, located the new sect headquarters on the site where Nishi Hongan-ji stands today.  The Eastern sect built their temple, appropriately, a few hundred meters to the east, and were later favoured by Hideyoshi's treacherous ally Tokugawa Ieyasu.  It would be hard to find a temple with a more unusual background.  Today, both sects maintain entirely different philosophies, universities, and traditions.

Nishi Hongan-ji Highlights
Besides its spectacular examples of Momoyama architecture, Nishi Hongan-ji has an incredible number of cultural treasures.  The Shoin boasts a series of stunning sliding door paintings, and a superbly designed dry landscape garden.  The Shoin is only open to the public when it is not being used for religious ceremonies, so advance application is a must.  Indicate when you wish to visit on a return postcard (ofuku-hagaki) and mail it to the temple, and the temple will quickly give you a fixed date and time.  Address:  Nishi Hongan-ji, Hanaya-cho sagaru, Horikawa-dori, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto-shi 600.  Tel: 371-5181  

Higashi Hongan-ji Highlights
This popular branch of the Jodo Shinshu sect has over 10 million followers, making the temple one of the busiest in Japan.  The grounds are nearly always bustling with the comings and goings of the faithful.  The temple's buildings are impressive and its entry yard awesome, it has very few cultural treasures on display.  The one exception, is a long coiled length of black rope which is made from the hair of the temple's female faithful, which was used to pull logs for the rebuilding of the Great Hall in 1895.

Shimabara has the distinction of being Japan's first licensed pleasure quarter, and one of its most infamous.  The hey day of the quarter was in the Edo period..  Prostitution was made officially illegal in 1958, and since that time the quarter's mood has become subdued and reserved.  What does remain are many fine examples of the elaborate architecture from the prosperous and stable Edo period.  If possible, enter the quarter from the East Gate.  Two of the area's tea houses, now preserved as Cultural Assets, continue to operate as traditional houses of entertainment, though not of the bawdy kind this area once thrived on.  Especially fine are the Wachigaiya, dating from the Genroku era (1688-1704), and the elegantly designed Sumiya, which dates from the 19th century. 

This large garden park, is an excellent place to completely leave the city behind.  The spacious green grounds, generally almost always empty, encircle a large pond full of carp and several kinds of waterfowl.  Unlike formal gardens, this garden is surprisingly free of restrictions, and you can pretty much walk anywhere you like unhindered, even the tiny, arched bridge and elegant, covered one can be crossed.  The garden is a particularly fine place from the early afternoon onwards.  Picnicing, by the way, is not frowned on.