Five temples in Kyoto have a bloody ceiling from one of the most important seppuku, or honor suicides, in all of Japan’s history!
Stand in awe as you see the boards, still soaked with blood, showing imprinted hands, feet and faces from when samurai gave up everything to save the nation. Then take time to admire the peaceful grounds, renowned artwork and beautiful architecture that will just add to the memories.
We have made it a goal to see the special hidden treasures wherever we live, and this is one of our favorites!
Serene Grounds and Architecture
This temple is hidden up a verdant tunnel of trees, behind centuries-old gates that have stood the test of time, and guarded by a stone lion. Before you enter the temple itself, or at least before you leave, take time to find some of the peace the temple was intended to give. The bloody ceiling shouldn’t detract from the tranquil greenery, beautiful flowers, or the calmness that the contrasting architecture can provide.
The lives of samurai stain the bloody ceiling in this 16-century temple. It was originally built in 1594 to hold a memorial service for Azai Nagamasa. Nagamasa’s daughter, Yodo-dono, became concubine to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the first man to unify all of Japan. The temple burned in 1619, and in 1621 the main temple was reconstructed by relocating part of the remains of Fushimi Castle, including the famous bloody ceiling.
Fushimi castle was originally constructed in 1592, but it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1594 and rebuilt. Later, it was controlled by Mototada Torii, a samurai loyal to Tokugawa leyasu, whose family went on to rule Japan for 268 years. At this time, though, things were far from settled!
In 1600, an army of 40,000 was approaching Tokugawa in Kyoto, and he was vastly outnumbered. Mototada volunteered his clan of 2,000 men to hold off the invaders and give Tokugawa time to escape. Mototada held off the invasion for 11 days; Tokugawa built up his army in that time, and thus was able to win the decisive battle that placed all of Japan under his control. Mototada’s men were slaughtered, but on the last day, the 10 remaining samurai, including Mototada, committed seppuku rather than be captured.
Why a Bloody Ceiling?
The bodies were left for so long that the blood stained the floors with the hand, foot and body prints of those who died. Eventually, the castle was dismantled and the floorboards were stored for 20 years before being incorporated into five temples in Kyoto, providing the bloody ceiling we see today.
With such a rich history you would think that people would be lining up to see this place! I was amazed at how few people were actually here.
Tawaraya Sotatsu’s Paintings
There were a couple dozen students there taking notes. Works from one of the most famous Japanese artists, Tawaraya Sotatsu, are found on the cedar sliding doors, or fusuma. Many of his works are considered National Treasures in Japan, and you can stand just inches away from them here!
Chinese lions, white elephants and giraffes are all depicted; they are seen in art education textbooks for junior high school students around the country. The paintings were added when the temple was reconstructed in 1621. See more of Sotatsu’s work at Itsukushima on Miyajima, and just down the street at the Kyoto National Museum!
Directly across the street from Yogen-in is a popular tourist site, Rengeo-in or Sanjusangendo, which had several tour buses. Sanjusangendo is known for having 1001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, but our schedule was tight and the bloody ceiling was our priority!
The Kyoto National Museum is half a block west of Yogen-in. We were headed out of town so we didn’t go here either. We did use their public bathroom which was located just to the left of where you buy your tickets to enter the museum. There is no public bathroom on the Yogen-in temple grounds, so this is the closest place to run yourself or your potty-trained kids (like we did)!
The bloody ceiling, artwork and architecture would ideally be enjoyed as a peaceful morning. Afterward, you can head to Rengeo-in and the Museum. My priority would be to see Yogen-in before seeing the other two places, but it’s nice that there are several things close together so you’re not spending all of your time traveling!
Our favorite parts about Yogen-in:
- Close to other popular destinations.
- Experience history up close.
- Beautiful architecture.
- No crowds!
What we would do differently:
- Park closer – Google Maps is misleading, so follow our map down below!
- Go to more temples with a bloody ceiling!
What To Expect
Most of the temples close at five, so keep that in mind. We went to Genko-an, a bloody ceiling temple with beautiful grounds, but were not able to explore inside because we got there at 5:05.
Be prepared to pay 500 yen and take off your shoes; if you’re lucky, they will speak enough English to explain the highlights, but you won’t get the full experience. Rather than have us go with a Japanese group, the priest giving the tour kindly let us go through by ourselves, which gave us more space and time than we would have had otherwise!
We had a bit of a hard time finding the entrance to the temple. It seemed we were walking along a big wall that didn’t have any way to get to the other side. We eventually asked someone at the Hyatt Hotel and they told us where to go. Across the street from the Kyoto National Museum is a parking lot with tour buses for Rengeoin Sanjusangendo. There is a side road that goes along side this temple usually lined with taxis that leads right to the small temple entrance, it will be on your left. There is nothing announcing it except a long walkway leading to the main building.
There are so many things to see in Kyoto. We have been there four times and usually go to the same main attractions: Fushimi Inari shrine, the Arashiyama bamboo forest, Kinkaku-ji, and Kiyomizudera. We go to these so often because we are going with people who are there for the first time; they are beautiful, and not to be missed. That being said, we love going to the lesser-known parts of the city, like Yogen-in. I think the kids enjoy them, too, because they have more freedom to explore since there aren’t as many people.
This was one of our most memorable and awe-inspiring places in Kyoto. People that were central to Japan’s history walked here, gave audiences here, and died here; and in this special case, you can literally see their lifeblood that will forever demonstrate how much some were willing to give for something greater than themselves.
If you want to come face-to-face with Japanese history, avoid crowds and be simultaneously thrilled and at peace, then Yogen-in temple is for you!
Another one of our favorite places in Kyoto is the Monkey Park, if you haven’t been you should definitely check it out!
* All pictures of the bloody ceiling were taken by our friend Jillian from foodfolksandfun.net. They are pictures from Gohen which is another bloody temple in Kyoto. We were not allowed to take any pictures at Yogen-in but these are very similar to what you will see there.