Sep. 18, 2019 UPDATE

We visited the Shōgo-in Monzeki Temple

While visiting the Shōgo-in Monzeki Temple for a separate piece, we were given a tour and learned a lot about the temple. Below we compiled some of the things we learnt.
Shōgo-in Monzeki

Hi everyone! This is Sharing Kyoto’s resident Kyoto shrine and temple enthusiast, Yumemi. We were fortunate enough to get the opportunity to visit the Shōgo-in Monzeki Temple and write a piece about it. While there, we heard a lot of wonderful stories about not only the temple itself but Buddhism and Buddhist temples as well, so we decided to write up this blog post to share some of the things we learned there with everyone.

About Shōgo-in Monzeki Temple

About Shōgo-in Monzeki TempleShōgo-in Monzeki Temple is the head temple of the Honzan sect of the Shugendō religion. In other words, this temple is the base of operations for the En no Gyōja founded religion.

◇ Shugendō

Shugendō is an original Japanese religion born from the introduction of Buddhism and Taoism into the ancient mountain worshiping religion of Sangaku shinkō, 

Shugendō refers to a group of people who through grueling training in the mountains aim to improve themselves as people and religious worshippers while also becoming someone to serve others.

In Shugendō training, worshipers fervently take part in practices aimed to rid themselves of their worldly desires, idle thoughts, and ambivalence.

From the Heian Period until the Edo Period, the teachings of the Shugendō religion were said to have such social influence that without them there would be nothing left of people's lives, culture, ideas, and religion.

◇ Shōgo-in Monzeki Temple

Monzeki Temples are temples where the emperor or someone from the Sekkanke (the highest ranked members of the court) are entrusted with the duties of the head priest. In Kyoto, there are over 30 Monzeki Temples, including the Daikaku-ji Temple in Arashiyama and the Sanzen-in Temple in Ōhara.

About the exhibits

So now that you have a general understanding of the temple, we would now like to introduce you to some of the items displayed within the temple that we were graciously able to learn out about. We heard some amazingly interesting and insightful things about the myriad of items; however, we have chosen a select few particularly impressive pieces to include in this article. 

◇ Fusuma-e | Paintings on Sliding Door Panels


Inside Shōgo-in Monzeki Temple, you can glimpse a host of incredibly beautiful fusuma-e paintings by a number of renowned Japanese artists.

From paintings of cranes

From paintings of cranes,

To those of waves

To those of waves.



The piece that particularly stood out among them was the one called "Taikobo."

 On the left side, the Zhou dynasty noble "Jiang Ziya" can be seen holding a fishing line, while on the right side, "King Wen of Zhou" stands with his attendants.


 The painting is based on the story of King Wen of Zhou and Jiang Ziya. In the story, the king was said to be visited by his deceased father in a dream just before heading out on a hunting trip. The king was told, "The spoils of this hunt shall be neither that of a tiger nor a dragon, but a person."


 After returning empty-handed from the hunting trip, King Wen ran into a man. After talking to the fisherman, Jiang Ziya, Wen realized that this must be the wise man his father spoke of and immediately appointed him as a strategist. Following this, Jiang was given the title Jiang Tàigōng Wàng, or in Japanese, Taikobo.


This is a close up of the painting of Jiang Ziya. Jiang Ziya lived a poor life and spent many years reading, which is likely one of the reasons for his renowned intelligence. It has been said that Jiang Ziya, who captured a ruler willing to utilize his intelligence with only a fishing rod, wrenched the kingdom from the depths.


Additionally, following this chance meeting, those who fish and who like to fish apparently came to be called Taikobo, or Tàigōng Wàng as well.


This is a close up of King Wen of Zhou. The pose King Wen is making is said to express the highest form of respect in China. 


Through this simple pose, we can see that in order to welcome the much lower status and poor Jiang Ziya on as a partner, the king is paying him the utmost respect. What is being depicted is not the status difference of two individuals, but the essence of connections between people.


Upon learning such stories, it feels like you have been instantly transported to the vast world of the painting.

◇ Shinden


Next, we were shown to the Shinden hall.

Inside the Shinden hall, there is an area called the Jodan-no-Ma which was used for hosting those of higher status than one's self. This room houses magnificent fusuma-e paintings by the famous painter Kanō Masunobu and a framed calligraphed image of the characters "研覃" done by Emperor Go-Mizunoo himself.

・The 研覃characters 

研覃characters When we first stepped into the room, the first thing that caught our eyes was this framed image of the characters "研覃" done by Emperor Go-Mizunoo himself.

"研覃" (read kentan) means "Refine yourself and cultivate the fields of your heart." 

We were moved when we first learned that these two lowly characters held such a profound meaning.


If you look further, you can see that the frame also has rounded edges. That is because there should be no "corners" in one's hearts. This is thought to be another touch by Emperor Go-Mizunoo.

・A hole for miceA hole for miceLooking to the side, we also discovered a small hole.

A rare sight anywhere, this small hole is meant to be for mice to pass through. You can see the hole in the bottom right of the picture.

The hole was made for mice because the openings of the Japanese ranma transom are too small for them to pass through.


It did seem as though that if the hole wasn't there, then the thin bars of the ranma would be gnawed at. And when we looked closer, there were actual signs that the mice had been using the hole as well! 


Usually, mice are unwelcomed by most, so it was lovely to see this attempt to live with them, rather than arbitrary seeing them as harmful and trying to exterminate them.


・Fudō Myō-ōFudō Myō-ōThe next area we were shown housed the temple's Buddhist statues. 

In here, we learned about the face of Shōgo-in Monzeki, the statue of Fudō Myō-ō.


First, we were told about the sword he holds in his right hand and the kensaku noose he holds in his left. 

The sword is double-edged and represents the knowledge of good and evil. Fudō Myō-ō moves us to act appropriately by cutting away the knowledge of evil with his sword and binding it with the rope-like kensaku. This is because people are hurt when knowledge is used incorrectly.


Additionally, Fudō Myō-ō's stern expression is said to be the expression people make when they are trying their best while walking the path of the righteous. We saw how this made sense, as when you're trying your best, you open your eyes wide, grit your teeth, and never lose sight of what you're after.


Furthermore, Fudō Myō-ō's tied up hair represents the fact that all humans are equal and that he strives to save all people. I, for one, am very thankful.

kohai Finally, take a look at the bottom left of the kohai aura that sits behind the statue. You may be able to make out a section that looks somewhat like the side of a bird's face.

Fudō Myō-ō is often engulfed in flames; however, the fire that burns behind this Fudō Myō-ō is called Karuraen and is said to be that breathed by Karura, a deified sacred bird and Japanese version of the legendary Indian bird Garuda.

As Fudō Myō-ō is inseparable from birds, he is also thought of as the guardian deity of those born in the Chinese zodiac's year of the rooster.

Being able to receive such kind and thoughtful explanations of these aspects of Buddhist statues that you would never know from just looking at them taught us a lot!

After learning so much about him, Fudō Myō-ō now feels closer than ever.

◇ The shoin study

At the end of the tour, we were shown to the temple's study.

This study is said to have been moved to the temple from Kyoto's imperial palace. The building was originally a house for nobles owned by Emperor Go-Mizunoo's beloved lady-in-waiting, Kushige Takako.

Because of this, you can feel the unique tweaks the aesthetically inclined emperor made in all aspects of the study.


・Two Tokonomawo Tokonoma

The first thing we felt was odd about this study was that there are two Tokonoma alcoves (there is usually only one). When we asked why, there was an unexpected supposed reason. 

traditional Japanese rooms

In such traditional Japanese rooms, the seat closest to the Tokonoma alcove is said to be for the person of highest status. As there is usually only one of these alcoves, seating hierarchy sorts itself out. However, in this room, as there are two Tokonoma, it becomes less clear as to where the highest status seat is.

So why were two Tokonoma made? The original owner of this study, Kushige Takako, wasn't actually of very high social status, so was continually reminded of the status difference between herself and the emperor.

That's why the emperor went out of his way to create two Tokonoma, blur the lines of the seating hierarchy and create a space where Kushige Takako could relax without having to worry about who is higher and who is lower in status. When you visit this study, you can truly feel the fact that the emperor was a gentle person who often acted in kindness toward women.

・Hidden love letters

While in the study, we were told of a special meaning hidden within the nail covers of the room. Nail covers are decorations used in Japanese interior design to hide the head of nails in rooms.


This is a nail cover found in the entrance way to the study. This nail cover takes the shape of a chrysanthemum in a sideways diamond, a design often used in buildings associated with the imperial house of Japan.

looks like folded letters

However, further into the room, there is a nail cover which looks like folded letters. These folded letters are actually meant to symbolize “love letters” one gives to their lover.

These letter-like nail covers are actually used in multiple places throughout the study, not only this one place.

 Placing a regular cover at the entrance and making it look like nothing is going on, then filling the room with hidden love letters just goes to show the romanticism of the emperor.

・Glass Shoji paper sliding doors.Glass Shoji paper sliding doors

When you make your way deeper into the study, you will find what was most likely once quite a precious paper sliding door that uses glass.

Each side of the sliding door uses one pane of glass each, with the right side using lead glass imported during the start of the Edo Period. While lead glass is incredibly translucent, it is also very brittle. As this pane is over 400 years old, it apparently doesn’t hold up to the quality of modern glass. This can especially be seen in the fact that the garden on the other side of the glass looks a little distorted.


When I peered through the glass, I could see what they were talking about. The glass did make things look distorted, but I thought that gave it it’s own unique charm.


The glass pane on the left broke at some point, so was replaced during the Meiji Period.

 This pane doesn’t differ much from modern glass so doesn’t make anything look distorted.


When you visit the temple, take a closer look at the distorted view through the window for yourself.

Address Eng: 15 Shōgoin NakamachiSakyō-ku, Kyoto, 606-8324 Jpn: 京都市左京区聖護院中町15
Event time 10:00~16:00 (reception closes) ※Closed on November 28th and 29th ※There is a possibility that the number of days when the temple is closed may increase depending on the circumstances of the temple.

Yumemi[ Sharing Kyoto Staff ]
Learning about the meanings of the Buddhist statues, I felt like I got a more in-depth insight into not only the temple but the essence of Buddhism itself. It was an enjoyable experience. I would be incredibly happy if before reading the full-length article about the temple, you read through this article and gain the prior knowledge you need to enjoy the temple’s special opening event to its fullest.
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