and the heart begins to dream
of four-tatami rooms
Few people might be able to recognize this small city as the site of the former capital of Japan even before Kyoto. Here was the national capital called Nagaokakyo, which Emperor Kanmu commissioned to relocate to after the Heijokyo capital in Nara in 784. However, after only 10 years, an even larger scale capital was established at the location we call Kyoto today. Sometimes it is called ”the forgotten capital” but in fact, it is a great day-trip destination out of Kyoto and Osaka. Visit Nagaokakyo, the city filled with history, culture, good wining & dining places, and beautiful nature.
More than 1200 years ago, on November 11th in 784, Emperor Kanmu declared the beginning of the new capital of Japan, Nagaokakyo. The new capital extended across a massive site (4.4km east to west, 5.3 km north to east); almost as large as the previous Heijokyo capital in Nara and the following Heiankyo capital in Kyoto. The imperial court was constructed on a vast hill with large rivers streaming by beside it.
However, Nagaokakyo didn’t prosper as the capital for even 10 years. Some serious natural disasters attacked the capital and the death of the imperial prince triggered the people to suspect that this new capital had bad omens. As a result, the Emperor Kanmu, who merely wished for peace across the nation, had no choice but to declare another relocation of the capital after a mere 10 years.
Since Nagaokayo spent only 10 years as the capital, it is not widely recognized as a national capital, but historical research indicates that this time in Nagaokakyo was very important in Japanese history because a number of political foundations were established during its reign that were significant in the transition to the next Heiankyo. After most of the important court buildings and people were moved to Heiankyo, Nagaokakyo changed once again into idyllic countryside as if it was ”forgotten.”
There are a number of Shinto shrines in Japan named Tenman-gu, and the one in Nagaokakyo is one of them. All Tenmangu shrines in Japan enshrine the Heian period aristocrat and scholar, Michizane Sugawara (845-903) who was a great politician as well as a master of ancient Chinese poetry, calligraphy and Japanese poetry.
His life ended tragically, however. Michizane’s opponents in the court trapped him and they succeeded in expelling Michizane from Kyoto. Late in his life, Michizane lived in Dazaifu (present-day Fukuoka prefecture on Kyushu island). On the way to Dazaifu, Michizane stopped by Nagaokakyo because it was one of the memorable places in his life where he had enjoyed playing music and making poetry.
When they arrived in Dazaifu, three servants who had accompanied Michizane all the way from Nagaokakyo to Dazaifu were given the wooden statues he had made. They appreciated this gift and enshrined the statues, which is said to be the beginning of the history of Nagaoka Tenman-gu Shrine.
A large pond called Hachijo-ga-ike was created in the precinct by the Hachijo-nomiya imperial family in 1638. The whole property extended to as large as 330,000 square meters at its peak but it has shrunk after the Meiji restoration and is about 66,000 square meters today.
The main shrine building that emanates an elegant Japanese style was relocated from Heian Shrine in 1941. The entire shrine precinct is highly valued as a scenic beauty site in Kyoto regardless of which season people visit. Particularly noteworthy is Kirishima Tsutsuji (Japanese azalea) in late April to the beginning of May. A number of shrubs grow on both sides of the approach over the pond and it is such a breathtaking scene when the azaleas bloom fully and surround the garden. The colored leaves in late autumn are also worth seeing.
Access: A 20-min. walk from JR Nagaokakyo Station. (west exit) or a 10-min. walk from Hankyu Nagaoka Tenjin Station.
Take Asobi Bamboo Festival
One of the local specialties of Nagaokakyo is takenoko, or bamboo shoots. Bamboo has been an important plant in Japan in many ways, not only as an early spring specialty but also as materials for architecture, daily utensils and craft works.
Take Asobi is a fun event as an opportunity for the public to learn and enjoy games and craft making experiences using bamboo as well as romantic evening illuminations using bamboo stems as lanterns.
12:00-20:00 (the event will be postponed to the 9th in case of rain); Admission free; The event is held in the Nagaoka Park next to the Nagaoka Tenman-gu Shrine.
Though the official name of the temple is Yokoku-ji, it is more affectionately known by local people as Yanagidani Kannon. The origin of the temple dates back to 806 when a high ranked monk, Enchin, who was also the founder of the famous Kiyomizu Temple, founded it.
The most important deity of the temple is the Kannon (the Goddess of Mercy) who has 11 faces, and a thousand arms each bearing an eye. The thousand hands represent the mercy which can rescue all people and the thousand eyes are for not failing to find people who are in trouble.
After Enchin left the temple, another important Buddhist monk, Kukai (774-835), the founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, stayed at Yanagidani Kannon in 811. One day he ran into a mother monkey and her baby by a small puddle near the temple hall. The baby monkey had badly damaged his eyes and the mother was trying to wash the hurt away with her whole heart using water from the puddle. Kukai was deeply moved by the mother’s love and prayed for the baby monkey every day for 17 days. Then, miraculously, the baby monkey’s eyes were cured.
Kukai was impressed with the power of the puddle of water and made it sacred by offering a special prayer, and then distributed the water to those who suffered from eye illnesses. This sacred water still exists in the temple today. There is a small water place called Okozui and many people come to receive its blessings.
The temple has thus become respected and worshipped as the deity of curing eye illness. The blessings of Yanagidani Kannon have spread around Japan by word of mouth and many people still visit to pray to the Kannon even today.
”Feel and see with eyes in your heart.” This is the motto of Yanagidani Kannon throughout its history. Take an autumn walk along the hill to Yanagidani Kannon and meet the Goddess of Mercy who will listen and ”see” your voice.
Access: Take the Hankyu Bus from JR Nagaokakyo Stn. (west exit) or from Hankyu Nagaoka Tenjin Stn. and get off at Okukaiinji Bus Stop. The temple is about 40 min. on foot from the bus stop. Local bus runs from Keihan Yodo Stn. to Nishiyama Tennozan Stn. (about 10 min.) *Shuttle bus services are available between JR Nagaokakyo Stn. or Hankyu Nishiyama Tennozan Stn. and the temple on the day of the monthly ceremony on the 17th.
Monthly Ceremony & Special Opening of Kami Shoin Room
Every month on the 17th is a special day at Yanagidani Kannon. The door of the hall where the main deity is enshrined is opened only once a month on this day and visitors can meet the Kannon. In the morning, chanting of Buddhist sutras (Hannya Shinkyo) and a special ceremony in which people form a line and hold and pass a large Buddhist rosary are held (from 9:30 and 10:45; visitors welcomed).
The Kami Shoin room is open to the public only during the morning of this day, too (10:00-13:00; 500 yen). Kami Shoin used to be so special that until recently only imperial family members and true VIPs could enter. The view of Jodo-en Garden from Kami Shoin is breathtaking.
It is located at the foot of Nishiyama mountain. It is said to have been the venue where the founder of the Jodo sect of Buddhistm, Honen (1133-1212), carried out the first Buddhist sutra chanting in Japanese history.
Later, in 1198, one of Honen’s disciples, Rensei Kumagai, established a temple on this site in the deep mountain. Honen liked the isolated location which was ideal for Buddhist training and gave it the name Nenbutsu Zanmai-in. This is the origin of Komyo-ji Temple.
The temple precinct, which runs extensively across the slope face of the mountain, accommodates 33 buildings in three districts. The most important building is the Mie-do Hall where a statue created by Honen is enshrined. Every morning, the monks of Komyo-ji Temple pray and chant in the Hall.
The Mie-do Hall has burnt down in fires many times, thus no original temple buildings have survived. The present day Mie-do Hall was reconstructed in 1754. It shows prominent craftsmanship from those days in every corner. Particularly noteworthy are the woodcarvings on the surface of exterior representing dragons, elephants and many other animals.
Komyo-ji Temple is especially famous as a great location for the autumn colored leaves in late autumn. A number of tourists visit this temple from all around Japan and enjoy the blazing colors of several hundred maple trees. The temple approach has the nickname ”Momiji Sando” (the approach of maple leaf). Passing through the natural crimson tunnel of maple leaves will be an unforgettable experience.
Open: 9:00-16:00; Tel: 075-955-0002; www.komyo-ji.or.jp; Access: From JR Nagaokakyo Stn. or Hankyu Nagaoka Tenjin Stn., take the Hankyu Bus #20, #22 and get off at Asahigaoka Home-mae Stop.
Kyoto Guest Inn Nagaokakyo
Just opened in April this year, the Kyoto Guest Inn Nagaokakyo has welcomed tourists to Nagaokakyo not only from around Japan but also from around the world. The rooms are very comfortable as they have Western style bedrooms with a relaxing space on the tatami mats. Meals are served according to your choices: sushi, sukiyaki (beef hotpot using the finest Tanba Beef), kaiseki course for dinner, for example (advance reservations required).
Visitors can enjoy various unique Japanese cultural experiences such as tea ceremony, flower arrangement, kimono dressing, Japanese cooking classes (enquire directly for details) too. There is a cool bar, ”Kura,” in the inn which offers fine beers, a variety of wines and whiskies from Suntory all at reasonable prices (18:00-22:00).
Round trip transfer between the inn and JR Nagaokakyo / Hankyu Nishiyama Tennozan / Keihan Yodo Stn. is available; Tel: 075-952-1058; http://www.kyoto-nagaokakyo.com/