Three Temples on Lake Biwa: Konan Sanzan
A day trip from Kyoto, a trip among three beautiful, old temples south of lake Biwa, in Shiga-ken: Konan Sanzan
Once again everything revolves around a bowl of hot ramen. And I already know that memories of this day will unravel from this meal once I will be back home. We are sitting at the counter of a restaurant which probably hasn’t changed a bit in the last forty years. It is called Ramen Fuji and is along an anonymous road, in the middle of an industrial area close to Ishibe station, Shiga province. We are very close to Kyoto but, from here, it really seems another world, far away.
How did we end up here I’m sitting with Danilo and Yumiko, two friends that created together Viaggiappone, a popular Italian website on Japan: we knew each other on-line, but I met them in person just a few hours earlier, at the station, and yet I feel they are longtime friends. The plan is to visit together the three temples called Konan sanzan, near Lake Biwa, but finding food here has turned out to be tricky. You can skip lunch when you travel, but I love eating in Japan so much that it would have been a shame to waste an opportunity.
These, however, are not places where foreign tourists frequently come, restaurants are few and can be only reached by car. And when we asked for directions to Ramen Fuji, which Yumiko had read about on the internet, several people tried to discourage us: “It’s closed”, they told us in Japanese or “it changed, ramen there is not so good anymore”.
Changed? Nothing has changed here for decades, I think as I watch the lady preparing our ramen with gestures repeated countless times. Evidently those who tried to mislead us considered the place too rustic or modest for Westerners.
The strangest thing, seldom seen in the fancy ramen restaurants in Tokyo, is that the cook wears rubber boots, a seemingly absurd look, since it isn’t raining, but the reason soon appears clear: she drains the noodles dripping broth directly on the floor, with very quick and strong gestures. The bowl that eventually she serves us perhaps hasn’t the grace of Michelin-starred ramen but it’s a sincere, honest bowl, brimming with broth, ramen and toppings. It’s an intense flavor that I won’t easily forget.
A Fuji Ramen ad
Konan Sanzan: a day trip Kyoto
In Japanese Konan means, so I am told, south of the lake (Biwa). Konan Sanzan are the three lakeside temples (Konan Sanzan, 湖南 三 山), indicated with an ideogram that means ‘mountain’ to stress their importance. They belong to the Tendai sect and were founded in the eighth century. They are close to each other, but to visit them without a car from Kyoto requires a full day and the use of different means of transport: bus, trains and… a lot of walking!
When we get off the train we take the bus that will take us to the Joraku-ji temple, the first of the day. The driver is surprised by the presence of foreigners and exchanges a few words with Yumiko. Even the students in uniform who go to school for the exams held in this period (february) seem curious, they greet us and then giggle. In Kyoto and Nara it never happens now, foreigners are part of the landscape. Not here.
The visit to this temple must be booked in advance by telephone (and Yumiko took care of it). Founded in 708 by order of the emperor, the Jorakuji burned in 1360 and was rebuilt (a rather common thing, unfortunately: few temples have never been reduced to ashes).
It consists of a main hall, Hondo, and a three-story pagoda, both declared a National treasure. The abbot receives us in a rather hurried way since he is also waiting for a group visit, but we do not need too many explanations. The dark wooden buildings are wonderful and contain some Buddha and Bodhisattva statues that are a thousand years old and older. But the most beautiful thing about the complex is the peaceful atmosphere. The building is surrounded by maples that turn red in autumn (and presumably in that period the number of visitors increases). While the group, which has meanwhile arrived, swarms into the temple, we climb up the hillside and enjoy a priceless view from above.
How to get to Jorakuji:
- from Ishibe station (Kusatsu line), take a bus (ask) until the Nishitera stop. Info and visit reservation: +81-748-77-3089
- Information on the Shiga Tourism website.
We travel to the Choju-ji, which is no more than a twenty minutes walk away. It’s a bright day in February and walking is a pleasure. But the walk is immediately interrupted by a bus that stops. It’s the driver who brought us to the previous temple: he recognized us and offers us a ride!
Choju-ji, as sometimes happens, is adjacent to a Shinto shrine: there are two separate entrances. It’s a beautiful temple but we can’t really visit it freely as the big group from the previous temple has preceded us and occupies the whole main hall.
How to get to Chojuji:
- You can get there by bus (stop Chojuji) or on foot from Jorakuji (see the map). In theory, so it says Shiga Tourism, a reservation is required, but when we arrived there was a regular ticket office (which also offered us a tea at the exit). Maybe it was so because they were waiting for the group.
- Telephone: 0748-77-3813
After lunch at Fuji Ramen we take the train from Ishibe, headed for Kosei station. We have to take the circle line bus. But in the station square we see only what looks like a funny school bus. But it’s our bus! It’s a cat-bus that seems to have just come out of a Miyazaki Hayao movie. Japan is unique.
We get off the cat-bus at the Iwane stop and from there it takes ten minutes on foot to get to the Zensuiji, the temple of good water, nestled in the forest, on the edge of a sleepy town. Along the way, several students greet us or giggle as we pass by. It is possible that some of them has never seen a foreigner in person.
We arrive at the temple together with the tour group. The dark wooden structure is encompassed by woods and surrounded by rivulets and ponds to which it owes its name (temple of good water, Yumiko tells us).
But the real treasure of the temple are the numerous wooden statues of Buddha. Some of them are over 1200 years old. Once the group has left and the abbot has finished giving us some explanation (in Japanese), silence fills the place, as if it were a liquid; if we pay attention we can just hear the flow of water, the rustle of the branches of Japanese cedars moved by the light wind.
Here I recognize the Japan that I loved the first time I came, in Ohara. Sometimes I think it was an illusion, something that was only in my head. It was not, and it’s nice to find it again every time.
How to get to Zensuiji:
- The temple can be reached by bus from the Kosei station. Get off at the Iwane stop
More info on Konan Sanzan
This day trip in Shiga represents can be a challenge for a traveler without a car and who doesn’t speak Japanese. But it is obviously far from impossible if you are prepared to walk and ask for information (the name of the temples and of train stations should be enough).
How to get there
The trains are simple enough to take: from Kyoto station to Ishibe the journey takes about forty minutes, with change at Kusatsu. The most complicated part are obviously the buses, but with the indications of this post, a smartphone and maybe a phrase book or a google translate app it can be completed. Just remember that English won’t help you much
- The same day as told on Viaggiappone (in Italian)
Where to eat in Ishibe
This is the map to reach Fuji Ramen from Ishibe station in 9 minutes on foot, complete with address:
ラ ー メ ン 藤 石 部 店, Japan, 20520-3113 Shiga-ken, Konan-shi, Ishibekita, 5 Chome-4-11
More day trips from Kyoto
My name is Patrick Colgan, and I am an Italian blogger – my blog in Italian is Orizzonti – All photos published with creative commons (attribution-non commercial and can be used with the same licence)