Nishi (west) and Higashi (east) Hongan-ji loom large in Kyoto city. However, owing to the more recent addition of the Kyoto station area’s high-rise buildings, both of these gargantuan temples remain difficult to actually spot. They hide in plain sight, with only a vertical slice of Higashi Hongan-ji visible from the station’s northern escalators.

Despite both temples being mere minutes’ walk from JR Kyoto station, they’re often overlooked by international tourists. Conveniently, Nishi and Higashi Hongan-ji are only a 10 minute walk away from each other (or a little longer if you want to explore the historical side-streets between the two temples). From Higashi Hongan-ji, the captivating Shо̄sei-en garden is a few more minutes’ walk; although, you may want to make a detour to a cafe called ‘Ko:Hi:Kan.’ It sells delicious coffee and massive, fluffy pancakes, but most importantly, overlooks the intersection in front of Higashi Hongan-ji, making its window seats ideal for people-watching.

Both Nishi and Higashi Hongan-ji are excellent examples of Azuchi-Momoyama architecture, which encompasses the Western calendar years of 1574–1600. Both temples also belong to the ‘Jodo Shin’ sect of Japanese Buddhism, which is the most commonly practised school of Buddhism in Japan. Nishi Hongan-ji’s construction was completed in 1591, at the order of Japan’s de-facto leader of the time, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Several years later, the new shо̄gun (feudal head of state), Tokugawa Ieyasu, fearing the rapidly growing power and influence of Nishi Hongan-ji, ordered the sect to split. This resulted in the construction of Higashi Hongan-ji in 1602, only a few hundred metres east of its twin.

Both Nishi and Higashi Hongan-ji’s temples are incarnations of a single predecessor, named Ishiyama Hongan-ji. This earlier temple was a mighty complex, built on the site of the present-day Osaka Castle. Established in 1496, it existed for less than a century before disgruntled daimyо̄ (feudal lord) Oda Nobunaga laid siege to the complex, eventually leading to its destruction.

Luckily, despite the odd fire (accidental or otherwise), both Nishi and Higashi Hongan-ji are still standing today. They are free to enter, and open not only to practising Jо̄do Shin Buddhists, but all members of the public. A visit to these temples is the best way to experience contemporary Japanese Buddhism, and to gain a more nuanced (and slightly less esoteric) view of how Japanese people engage with the practice in the 21st century.

The Jо̄do Shin (True Pure Land) sect was originally established by the Buddhist monk Hо̄nen. Hо̄nen entered into Buddhist practice through the Tendai sect, studying atop Mt. Hiei at Enryaku-ji. Dissatisfied with the highly esoteric ways of Tendai Buddhism, Hо̄nen broke off and developed his own school of Buddhism. Through many trials, including exile, Hо̄nen’s most dedicated student was the monk Shinran, who had followed Hо̄nen when he left Enryaku-ji. After Hо̄nen’s death, Shinran continued to develop and disseminate the ‘True Pure Land’ school of Buddhism, which became popular due to its simpler and more accessible teachings. 

Although Shinran died in 1263, his own disciples continued his True Pure Land path with fervour and dedication. Over three hundred years later, Nishi and Higashi Hongan-ji were created as testament to the enduring popularity of Hо̄nen and Shinran’s teachings.

The temple's golden ginkgo tree will be at the peak of its autumn colour in the first week of December, depending on the year's weather.

To enjoy the breathtaking magnitude of the two Hongan-ji temples, a relaxed morning walking tour with a coffee-pancake interlude is hard to beat. Nishi Hongan-ji makes an ideal starting point. If you’re lucky enough to be visiting Kyoto in late November to early December, you’ll be able to see a four-hundred year old ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) tree at the height of its golden explosion in the temple’s courtyard. 

The colours of this tree are the kind that need to be seen to be believed, seeming almost too bold to be of this world. They’re the real thing, though, and when the morning light catches the leaves, this venerable tree shines as if it were the sun itself. The dazzling ginkgo’s hues are the perfect contrast to Nishi Hongan-ji’s Goeidо̄ (founder’s hall), a structure of blackened wood and deep grey slate tiles. 

More architectural wonders abound within the walls of Nishi Hongan-ji. Most notable is the Karamon gate, which is richly carved and painted with traditional Chinese motifs (chiefly dragons and lion-dogs). The largest building is the aforementioned Goeidо̄, with a sloping roof that constitutes half of the building’s overall height. Multiple cedar pillars stand throughout the temple’s veranda, holding up what must be a spectacular weight of roof beams and heavy slate tiles.

Beyond the ostentatious splendour of the Karamon, small details and flourishes add a sense of identity to Nishi Hongan-ji, giving it nuance and complexity beyond its scale. Carved lion-dogs ride atop roof slates, and a fantastically hairy-faced dragon dribbles water into a stone basin in the front courtyard. 

However, the truly breathtaking features of both Nishi and Higashi Hongan-ji are inside the enormous temple buildings themselves. In the Goeidо̄, photographs are not permitted, as these are active places of worship and repositories of protected national treasures. Because of this, both Hongan-ji temples are best enjoyed in person. Better still, non-members of the Jо̄do Shin sect are welcome to quietly observe prayer and sermon sessions inside of the hall (shoes off, clean socks!). Out of respect, it’s best to quietly seat yourself behind those attending for prayer, so as not to intrude on their acts of worship. The Hongan-ji schools of Shin Buddhism also have temples overseas, so attendees may also be from South Korea, or as far afield as the U.S.A.!

Nishi Hongan-ji’s interior is nothing short of jaw-dropping. Immense pillars rise into the darkness of the rafters, with the entire width of the hall sectioned into a public gallery and a separate space for priests. Behind this space, statues of Amida Buddha and Shinran are displayed with a mantle of spectacular, effervescent colours. Carved ranma (known in English as a ‘transom’, a carved panel which divides rooms) are painted in gold, giving off an ethereal shrine from the depths of the butsuden (Buddha rooms). Next to the Goeidо̄, the Amida-dо̄ (Buddha hall) houses an even more impressive array of statuary and decoration. The interior spaces of both temples within Nishi Hongan-ji are periodically repainted. While the Goeidо̄’s colours are currently beautifully muted and time-faded, the Amida-dо̄’s paintwork has been recently refreshed. The woodwork in this temple shines out from the gloom, creating a far more energetic and dazzling space.

A close-up of an enormous bronze lantern, hanging at the gate of Higashi Hongan-ji.

If you’re able to tear yourself away from Nishi Hongan-ji, the next stop will either be Higashi Hongan-ji, or the Ryukoku Museum just over the road. The Ryukoku Museum offers a fascinating insight into the history of Buddhism around the world and in Japan. The clean, modern interior houses a large number of Buddhist statues, art and artefacts. It’s even home to a painted reproduction of the cloister of the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves; the original is east of the Gobi Desert’s ever-shifting sands.

A few minutes’ walk through some intriguing side streets will bring you to a moat that wraps around the front entrance of Higashi Hongan-ji. Koi carp of varying sizes glide through the water; most are black, but one or two are a creamy, pale gold, stark in the darkness. Centuries ago, this moat was fed by water from Lake Biwa, existing as part of the Biwa canal and aqueduct infrastructure that is still active today (and viewable at Nanzen-ji). Walking under the central gate gives visitors an opportunity to admire panels of intricately carved woodwork, and an enormous brass lantern hanging from the gate’s crossbar.

Higashi Hongan-ji is a separate entity from Nishi Hongan-ji, existing as a result of a suspicious shо̄gun’s distrust of Japan’s monasteries and their fondness for involving themselves in politics. However, in appearance at least, Higashi Hongan-ji is an architectural ‘sister’ of its neighbour to the west. 

Here, too, a Goeidо̄ (founder’s hall) and Amidadо̄ (Buddha hall) have been built in Azuchi-Momoyama architectural styles, with great sweeping gabled roofs gilded in ornate metalwork. It seems almost strange that the buildings don’t quietly groan under the enormous weight of slate and metal bearing down on their wooden pillars. The current Goeidо̄ was reconstructed in the 1890s, modelled on its burned predecessor. It stands as one of the largest wooden buildings in the world; seeing it in person only serves to illustrate this fact. Viewed from the gate, people walking past either of the site’s two halls appear miniscule. 

Higashi Hongan-ji’s Amida-do contains an open veranda, with enormous, four-sided pendant lamps cast in bronze dangling from the eaves. Here, too, visitors can quietly attend public sessions in this hall and the adjoining Goeidо̄. Both buildings are so cavernous on the inside that it can be difficult to see the ceiling, again supported by cedar pillars of astounding bulk. Like Nishi Hongan-ji, both halls are also richly decorated with gilded ranma and ornate carvings within their respective butsuden.

Both are huge temples - half of their overall height is made up of roof.

When you’ve spent enough time marvelling at the staggering scale of Higashi Hongan-ji, you may wish to schedule the aforementioned break for coffee and pancakes before heading to Shо̄sei-en. The streets surrounding both Nishi and Higashi Hongan-ji are also full of merchants selling the myriad wares and supplies used for Buddhist ceremonies and daily life. These include incense, prayer beads, and a range of Buddhist altars for use in the home. The buildings are stunning examples of old Kyoto’s machiya, or merchant homes, meaning you can enjoy both window shopping and architectural appreciation as you make your way towards food and flowers.


From JR Kyoto train station, both sites are a 10-15 minute walk, as are the Ryukoku Museum and Shо̄sei-en gardens.

Name: Nishi Hongan-ji and Higashi Hongan-ji

Address: Higashi Hongan-ji: Japan, 〒600-8505 Karasuma Shichi-jo Agaru, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto

Nishi Hongan-ji: Japan, 〒600-8501 Honganji Monzencho, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto

Open: Higashi Hongan-ji: March through October: 5:50am – 5:30pm. November through February: 6:20am – 4:30pm.

Nishi Hongan-ji: March through October: 5:30am – 6:00pm. November through February: 6:00am – 5:00pm.

Admission: Free

Website: Higashi Hongan-ji: Hongan-ji:

Post by Japan Journeys.