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Why Nanzenji is worth your time

Updated: May 4, 2022

Nanzenji Temple (南禅寺), whose spacious grounds are located at the base of Kyoto's forested Higashiyama mountains, is one of Kyoto's most prestigious Zen monasteries. It is the head temple of one of the schools within the Rinzai sect of Japanese Zen Buddhism and includes multiple sub-temples, that make the already large complex of temple buildings even larger. More importantly for this article it's got a lot to offer if, like me, you're passionate about photography.

At golden hour a man heads to pray at Nanzenji
FUJIFILM X-Pro1 1/75 second F/8.0 ISO 400 53 mm (35mm equiv.)

Nanzenji's central temple grounds are open to the public free of charge, but separate fees apply for entering temple buildings and sub-temples. You will first come across Nanzenji's massive Sanmon entrance gate, partly seen above and below, which extends over the treetops. The gate was constructed in 1628 by the ruling Tokugawa clan for soldiers who died in the siege of Osaka Castle in 1615. Looking through the gate we can see the incense bowl in the distance. The wooden pillars are richly textured and are a beautiful warm colour in the late afternoon.

The pillars of the Sanmon gate, Nanzenji
Canon EOS 5D Mark II 1/200 second F/5.6 ISO 320 200 mm

As you progress further you'll come to the Hojo, the former head priest's residence and Nanzenji's main hall. The Hojo is most famous for its rock garden whose rocks are said to resemble tigers and cubs crossing through water.

One of Nanzenji's famous rock gardens
FUJIFILM X-Pro1 1/3000 second F/1.4 ISO 400 53 mm (35mm equiv.)

Looking back from the incense bowl we can see the giant Sanmon gate. Incense sticks are placed in carefully sculpted ash in this giant bowl. The act of offering incense is an important part of worship as it purifies the air and facilitates the presence of deities.

The incense bowl at Nanzenji
FUJIFILM X-Pro1 1/3800 second F/1.4 ISO 800 53 mm (35mm equiv.)

In the Meiji era, an aqueduct was built within the precincts of Nanzenji to transport water from Lake Biwa. Fortunately, it has aged well and is now a popular filming location for TV dramas, tourists and photographers.

The aquesduct at Nanzenji
FUJIFILM X-Pro1 1/40 second F/11.0 ISO 1250 35 mm (35mm equiv.)

Kyoto is famous for its beauty during the Autumn and Nanzenji is no exception. The temple grounds are full of maple trees and make Nanzenji an absolute must to visit during the fall.

Fall splendour at Nanzenji
Canon EOS 50D 1/60 second F/8.0 ISO 400 115 mm

The red leaves are absolutely stunning, however they're not too shabby in the spring either.

Green maple at Nanzenji
FUJIFILM X-Pro1 1/80 second F/11.0 ISO 400 53 mm (35mm equiv.)

Even without any leaves it's worth a visit.

Snowy Nanzenji in winter
Canon EOS 5D Mark II 1/40 second F/11.0 ISO 200 190 mm

Nanzenji has always had a really peaceful atmosphere, a phenomenon which seems to be common in many of the Zen temples.

Snoozing at Nanzenji in the Spring
Canon EOS 5D Mark II 1/160 second F/5.0 ISO 500 182 mm

The good news for photographers who enjoy night time photography is that the main area of Nanzenji is open 24 hours a day. Coming from Scotland I've always been amazed that there is no security here and we can enjoy the place day or night, with the exception of the sub-temples. Here is the main gate set against the starry sky.

Stars above the Sanomo gate at Nazenji
Canon EOS 50D 15 second F/4.5 ISO 400 19 mm

The roof of the main hall is seen here with clouds zipping overhead.

Nanzenji by night
Canon EOS Kiss X 105 second F/8.0 ISO 100 17 mm

For me the aqueduct is the main attraction here at night but it can be pretty spooky. Take a torch as there isn't much light and in the summer months the mosquitos can be brutal. Be warned.

Kyoto - The aqueduct at Nanzenji by night
Canon EOS Kiss X 105 second F/8.0 ISO 100 17 mm

Another good reason is to come here is the abundance of wildlife, especially dragon-flies. They are a ubiquitous sight from late Spring on-wards.

Dragon fly at Nanzenji, Kyoto
Canon EOS 50D 1/60 second F/5.0 ISO 400 100 mm

Not exactly wildlife but you may some priests around the precincts too.I

Kyoto - Priests at Nanzenji temple.
Canon EOS 5D Mark II 1/160 second F/4.0 ISO 800 187 mm

I hope you've enjoyed this quick look around Nanzenji. If you'd like to know more or would like to inquire about my photography tours please drop me a line at

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