When you think of Kyoto, temples like Kinkakuji, Kyomizudera, and other famous sightseeing spots that everyone knows about are scattered throughout the city, spots where you can enjoy sights like historic temples and famous townscapes. However, the fact that many of these places are so well known means that they are usually full of tourists, which can be a little disappointing when it’s hard to take your time and enjoy them. So I’m going to introduce you to Genko-an, a relatively quiet yet still famous Kyoto sightseeing spot that even I, a former tour bus guide, like to visit in my free time.
A Temple with Two Famous Windows
You might be thinking that you’ve seen these square and circular windows before. This is a picture is of the “Window of Enlightenment” and the “Window of Confusion” in Genko-an. Their images have been used on the Central Japan Railway “Of course, Kyoto, Let’s Go” posters, so many people have probably seen them before.
The History of Genko-an
Compared to temples with famous histories that start something like “The 3rd Ashikaga Shogunate…”, Genko-an is not as famous. However, it does have a long history, dating back some 700 years to 1346, when it was built for the Chief Priest of Daitoukuji Temple, Tettou Gikou, as a retirement residence. It eventually fell into neglect for years until it was rebuilt in 1694 by a Zen monk, Manzan Douhaku of Kaga Daijouji Temple, leaving it in the condition it can be found today. Basically, few people visit Genko-an, and if you’re lucky you might be the only one in the temple. It does happen. Since it’s in an area that also hasn’t become a major tourist spot it’s very quiet, and if you go in the summer the sound of cicadas outside echoes throughout the temple.
The Window of Confusion
After paying your respects to Sakyamuni, the Buddha statue inside the main building, promptly head over to the “Window of Enlightenment” and the “Window of Confusion”. Many of you are probably thinking “Yeah, I’ve seen this window somewhere before but what does it mean?” Well, allow me to explain. The meanings of these two windows include “principals of Buddhism and the Zen state of mind”.
Facing the windows, the square window on one’s right is called the “Window of Confusion”. “Confusion” refers to the four kinds of suffering according to Buddhism: birth, old age, disease, and death. It is said that this window represents the four and eight kinds of suffering from the four inevitable aspects of human life. Additionally, the window’s square shape symbolizes the “life of humans” from birth to death. …concepts which can be a little hard to grasp. Basically, it’s a window which helps to bring the realization that throughout one’s life, many things will happen. I think this whenever I look at the window.
The Window of Enlightenment
Facing the windows, the round window on one’s left is called the “Window of Confusion”. This window’s round shape expresses the Zen mindset. The true form of nature, a pure, form… which is meant to bring enlightenment. It is said that the circular design represents the universe…. The universe!? It’s all a little difficult, but basically it’s meant to help you think “I’ll do my best from here on out!” With the windows’ meanings in mind, it might be better to first look at the “Window of Confusion”, then to look at the “Window of Enlightenment”.
Buddhism, Zen, enlightenment, confusion… if these concepts are too much, it’s okay not to think about them. Even if you don’t really understand, just look at the window and you can’t help but want to ponder life… the feeling that pictures don’t do justice to! I definitely want you to try and experience it once for yourself. A Japanese garden is on the other side of the windows, and the view of fall colors you see through the windows is very famous. Since a lot of people visit to see these fall colors in autumn, it becomes very busy. If you want to see the windows in silence, I recommend seasons outside of the fall. Lush greenery and snowy landscapes are also beautiful, so I think it’s good to come in any season.
The Bloody Ceiling is also Famous
There is one more place in Genko-an that I definitely want you take your time to view. That is the above pictured “Bloody Ceiling”. From the name “Bloody Ceiling”, I imagine that you might be wondering if there is blood on the ceiling. Well, that is precisely the case.
The Bloody Ceiling is the remains of a battle that took place at Fushimi-momoyama Castle, located in present day Kyoto City, in July of 1600, during the warring states period of Japan. In the Battle of Sekigahara, 20,000 soldiers under Torii Mototada, who was entrusted to guard the castle by Tokugawa Ieyasu, came under attack from an army lead by Ishida Kazushige. Facing defeat against superior numbers, it is said that about 400 people committed suicide inside the castle. In order to memorialize these samurai, the floor boards of Fushimi-momoyama Castle were used as ceiling boards here at Genko-an, at Yougen-in Temple, and at other temples in the city in those days. Parts of the ceiling that were stained with blood are black, and you’ll find yourself looking up at them with a fixed gaze. There are footprints and handprints visible in the bloodstains, and since seeing them so clearly makes the events of the castle very real, you might get a chill if you imagine what took place there. But without knowing why, you’ll get the strange urge to look for more details in the ceiling.
A Quiet Spot Outside of the Fall Colors Season
Since it’s a little north of Kyoto’s City center, if you come from Kyoto Station it will probably take about 30 minutes by city bus. Buses are infrequent around this area, so when going, once you get off at the bus stop be sure check the time schedule for the return bus before heading out to Genko-an.
Even though my job as a bus guide took me to various famous places in Kyoto, I still frequently go to Genko-an in my free time. I’ve said it many times already, but my personal recommendation is go in a quiet season! You’ll be able to take your time to reflect on life, and to encounter a stunning window.
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