Crafts, private art viewings, private lectures, exclusive tea tastings…you’ll want to do it all!

If you’re looking for something to do this summer, look no further than JR Central’s “Souda Kyoto, Ikou” (“That’s right, Let’s go to Kyoto!”) program. They’ve paired with Kennin-ji Temple, one of the “five most important Zen temples in Kyoto” and the main temple Kennin-ji school of the Rinzai sect, to offer a selection of really cool experiences revolving around Kennin-ji’s history and culture. When our Japanese-language reporter Tasuku Egawa went to try them out, he was absolutely blown away!

The program is called “Kyo no Ryo Sagashi” (“Search for Cool in the Capital”), and it’s available now through September 30. It works not only with Kennin-ji Temple but with other temples and shops around the old imperial capital. Tasuku was lucky enough to be invited to a press preview for the Kennin-ji Temple experiences, so he’d like to share what he did and saw.

Kennin-ji was founded by Minamoto no Yoriie, the second shogun of the Kamakura shogunate. It might be best known for hosting the famous Fujin Raijin painting on a folding screen, which depicts the gods of wind and thunder on a shining golden background, and which is a national treasure entrusted to them by the Kyoto National Museum. Unfortunately, it’s not available for view by the general public, but they do have a very impressive replica on display at the temple.

If you live in Japan and have been watching TV, you might have seen the commercial for the “Souda Kyoto, Ikou” campaign, which features this absolutely gorgeous shot of a green, green garden and a Japanese-style room. (Turn your head, phone, or monitor sideways to get the best view.)

This is also at Kennin-ji Temple, near the temple’s lecture hall. A tour of the inside of Kennin-ji Temple to see these things and more is enough to satisfy its visitors, but the “Souda Kyoto, Ikou” program offers so much more. Not only do you get to visit this room with the stunning inner garden view, but you get to have it all to yourself while you lay about on the floor, gazing up at the twin dragons painted on the ceiling. You can also do this at Tachuu-jiin, a sub-temple within the grounds, where there is another enormous dragon painting on the ceiling.

Tasuku had the opportunity to lie down in the lecture hall and stare up at the ceiling painting of two dragons. In this room, a statue of the Shakyamuni Buddha, the original Buddha, stood watch, so it had a very solemn feel to it.

They’d set up reclining chairs and a few tatami mats where you could sit back, relax, and take your time admiring the mighty painting. Tasuku thought it was a really neat way to take time to study and appreciate it.

The Twin Dragons painting was absolutely huge. So big that Tasuku began to wonder how in the heck they made it. Apparently it was painted on 30 different, carefully divided parts outside the hall, which, upon completion, were brought in and installed on the ceiling. You really have to see it to understand how impressive it is.

Naturally, the lecture hall is closed while participants are appreciating the art, so you get to have it all to yourself, but there are only certain times you can do it, so make sure to check the official website for details. Tickets for this experience cost 2,000 yen (US$15.19).

If you’re more interested in the Fujin Raijin folding screen, try the mini Fujin Raijin folding screen DIY craft and national treasure explanation. In a special room inside Kennin-ji Temple, you get to sit before the Fujin Raijin painting and make your own replica of the national treasure. This experience costs 4,500 yen.

Tasuku was a little apprehensive about this one, as he was dubious about the quality he could produce in a DIY capacity. The original is such an amazing work of art; how could Tasuku possibly replicate that? But from the moment the envelope full of materials was placed before him he started to get kind of excited.

This is what was inside the kit:

He had to cut out all the parts himself and paste them together with glue, but it came with an explanation booklet that reads like the instructions for making a real folding screen, which was pretty cool. The different parts all felt really high quality too, with each piece having a different kind of paper quality and the prints being super bright. It really did feel like you were making something cool.

Tasuku had to assume they couldn’t have made many of these; it was about the level of a doujinshi (fan manga) made by a really zealous fan who didn’t care about the cost. It was probably the most exquisite mini Fujin Raijin folding screen ever. Tasuku highly doubts you’d find such a quality kit anywhere else.

Lastly, the program offers a lecture and a tea ceremony, featuring tea grown in a tea farm on Kennin-ji Temple’s grounds, in Kennin-ji’s famous garden, Cho’on-tei (shown in the picture of the garden above), and their rock garden, 〇△□ Garden (pictured below).

▼ The name of the garden is read as “Maru Sankaku Shikaku” (“Circle”, “Triangle”, “Square”)

Alternatively, you can appreciate Kennin-ji’s dry landscape garden Daio-en, while listening to a lecture by its designer, Yuri Ugaya, after which you can enjoy some of Kennin-ji’s tea.

Though the tea supplied in these experiences is ordinary matcha tea grown on the temple grounds, it has an important history, so you’ll definitely want to try it. While the founder of Kennin-ji was Minamoto no Yoriie, the one who actually organized and ran the temple in the beginning was Eizai, the monk credited as the founder of the Rinzai Sect of Buddhism. Eizai was believed to have brought tea seeds from Song Dynasty China, which is how green tea, which hadn’t been common in Japan until then, became a popular drink. That is why Kennin-ji cultivates tea to this day.

It is forbidden to remove Kennin-ji’s tea from the premises, and normally it’s only given to those associated with the temple or with nearby temples, so it’s super rare for visitors to taste it. That you can do so with a simple tour is really amazing! If you’re a matcha or green tea fan, you will definitely want to try it out. One of these tea experiences costs 6,000 yen.

Of course, if you’d rather just have a simple, self-guided tour of the temple, you can also choose to buy a 1,600 yen set that supplies a ticket to Kennin-ji Temple, two vouchers for sweets or drinks that can be used at cafes and restaurants around Kyoto, and an original folding fan.

The sweet Tasuku was supplied with as part of his press preview came from Itohkyuemon, a popular sweets shop famous for using Uji Matcha. He was able to try this fancy looking matcha ice cream that looked like a badminton racquet, which he’d seen on TV before and which we’ve perviously covered on our site.

It was so good that Tasuku went out looking for more. He found a branch of Itohkyuemon near Gion Shijo Station that served the same ice cream, where he ordered a cherry blossom-flavored one that was just as pretty. They had several different flavors to choose from, so those food and drink vouchers will definitely come in handy for trying some of Kyoto’s famed Japanese-style sweets!

If you’d like to participate in any of the Kyo no Ryo Sagashi awesome experiences, check out the official page to sign up. And if you plan to visit Kyoto this summer, don’t figure to have their “hidden-in-plain-sight curry” before you leave!

Images provided by JR Central
Photos © SoraNews24
Related: Souda Kyoto, Ikou, Kennin-ji Temple

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