When I was an exchange student, I spent a lot of my free time sight-seeing. I would get up early every weekend, hop on my bike, with friends or by myself, and spend the day exploring or visiting some famous historical sight. I wanted to squeeze in as much of "Kyoto" as I could in my short year abroad.
Now that I've lived here a few years and started working, I don't feel the same pressure to go out and find something new, take a lot of photos and "enjoy Japan"--it became my normal life. Now I rarely visit temples or touristy spots in Kyoto, unless friends come to visit.
The one exception is Sanzen-in Temple, which I have visited a few times now and is one of my favorite places in Kyoto.
It's tucked away up in the mountainous village of Ohara, at the end of a twisty-turny bus-ride that starts at the very end of the Karasuma subway line at Kokusai Kaikan (the giant ugly structure with a beautiful park where the Kyoto Protocol was signed). Since it's rather removed from the city center, it seems to be the temple a lot of tourists skip in favor of the more accessible Kiyomizu or golden Kinkakuji Temple.
I didn't visit it myself until my last month in Japan as a student, and thought "why didn't I come here sooner??"
Sanzen-in is a secluded, quiet place and a feast for the five senses.
After you get off the bus, you cross the street to a narrow little road and an uphill climb to the temple. The road is lined with little shops and cafes, many selling shiso products--the purplish-red savory herb Ohara has grown since ancient times. I love the salty taste of shiso, especially in salad dressing, though it's a unique one we don't encounter in the States.
In any case, the shops around Sanzen-in are definitely aimed at Japanese, rather than foreign, tourists. It makes for a more authentic sights and smells, I think.
Along the other side of the road is a small river flowing in a deep channel, overshadowed with Japanese maple trees. Depending on the time of year, you can spot all kinds of wildlife, especially of the six-legged variety. When we visited in summer, there was a warning sign to look out for suzume-bachi, the giant Japanese wasps. Luckily we have yet to see one there!
After the climb is the temple itself! It's not too expensive as far as temples go, and the complex offers some great experiences. First you take off your shoes and put them in a provided plastic bag to carry, then you can wander through the main hall of the temple. I love Japanese temple architecture: the straight, clean lines, the open spaces that frame views of the many lovely gardens. Take your time; feel the wooden floors in your sock feet. It's especially lovely if you go during a gentle rain. Within the temple there is a room where you can trace a sutra (Buddhist prayer) with a brush-pen for free. Try out your kanji-writing skills! You kneel at a low little desk and trace unpronounceable archaic kanji. I don't think you can take the paper home unfortunately. I tried it once, and later thought it's probably not the best thing for a Christian to be involved in, use your judgement.
Once you've wandered through the main hall you will catch a glimpse of the moss garden and feel it's time move on. You put on your shoes and walk through the beautiful moss lawns, dotted with weepy Japanese maples and towering cedar trees. I recommend visiting in late spring to summer to see the moss when it's vibrant green. There's a little rivulet and pond stocked with colorful koi.
After the moss garden are some steps up to the temple complex for their funeral functions. You can find many strange little altars and places to put candles for deceased loved ones. In this way it is much more obviously a functional temple than some of the more touristy ones, because real people are interred/memorialized there. This area also has a lovely hydrangea field--visit in June to see the blue and purple blooms, baby frogs too if you're lucky. There is also usually a booth giving out free samples--when we went in June, cold shiso juice that stained your teeth like wine. When we went in September, hot shiso tea with real gold flakes sprinkled in--a luxurious-looking pale pink and slightly salty liquid.
After you've left the temple, you might feel a bit sad it's over and need a little pick-me-up in the way of edibles--there is a little noodle shop right outside the temple that offers great views over the valley, and you can try more shiso in your soba or udon.
Back at the bus stop, if you still feel like walking, there is a path going in the opposite direction that leads to a network of hiking trails. I've never gone far on them yet but if you do, be prepared with proper hiking shoes and bug repellent.
I love this temple for its quietude and relaxed atmosphere, its closeness to nature and abundant greenery. Living in the city center, I need green in my life regularly. Now it's the tail-end of winter and there's hasn't been green since November of last year, and I'm so ready for spring to come and freshen up the drab mountains around Kyoto! Hence this post on Sanzen-in, my favorite temple in Kyoto, which I highly recommend visiting in the green months of May to October.