Shimyoin temple a source of both water, monsters

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Shinkokutsu cave, from which the mountain’s water flows into the Kamogawa river, in Kita Ward, Kyoto

The Yomiuri ShimbunKYOTO — Shimyoin temple is hidden away in the mountains of Kita Ward, Kyoto, at an elevation of about 530 meters, surrounded by centuries-old cedar and Japanese cypress trees that stretch high overhead. The ancient temple is also home to the source of the 23-kilometer Kamogawa river, which flows south from here and through the city of Kyoto.

I wanted to see the starting point of the river for myself. It’s about 40 minutes northwest of the city center by car.

The temple is said to have been built by Kukai, also called Kobo Daishi, in 829, early in the Heian period (from the late eighth century to the late 12th century), after an imperial order from Emperor Junna. It is said each time an emperor succeeded to the throne, an envoy from the Imperial court visited the temple to pray for world peace.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Goma no Iwaya cave, where it is believed that Kukai and other monks secluded themselves for ascetic practices

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    A drawing depicts an actor playing monk Narukami Shonin, drawn by Utagawa Toyokuni III, an ukiyo-e artist of the late Edo period. It is owned by Waseda University’s Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

“The temple was probably respected as a sacred place at which to bless the capital, Kyoto, with water,” said Shincho Tanaka, 78, chief priest of the temple.

Near the main hall of the temple, there are the Hiryu no Taki small waterfalls and a cave called Goma no Iwaya, where Kukai and other monks are believed to have secluded themselves for ascetic practices.

The area is also known as the setting of “Narukami,” one of the Kabuki Juhachiban (18 Best Kabuki Plays). In the play, Narukami Shonin, a high-ranking monk at Shimyoin temple, becomes angry at the Imperial court for not accepting a request from him, so he locks the dragon god behind a waterfall and thus inflicts a drought on Kyoto.

Some kabuki actors visit the temple to pray, and also to see places related to the play, Tanaka said.

After managing to climb the mountain, I finally arrived at the place said to be the source of the river — a cave in a massive rock called Shinkokutsu. Since ropes are set up to protect the sacred area, I could not actually venture into the cave. However, if I carefully listened, I could hear the sounds of water drops falling. I could also see the glimmer of water droplets seeping from the rocks. It was both a breathtaking and mysterious scene.

Author Ryotaro Shiba wrote an essay about a strange experience he had when he stayed at the temple. At that time, he was in his 20s and worked as a staff writer for a newspaper company. In his essay, titled “Shakunage Yowa,” he wrote he had visited the temple to confirm a rumor that yokai monsters appeared there. At midnight, the shoji paper doors made noises, and he heard sounds like someone stamping their feet on the roof.

“I thought they were quite straightforward and cheerful yokai monters who did not confine themselves inside,” Shiba wrote in the essay.

We do not know whether yokai monsters really appeared, but the temple and its surroundings certainly cater to those who wish to believe in them.

“I want to continue to protect such sacred nature,” Tanaka said.

I could only whole-heartedly agree with him.


To reach Shimyoin temple, take a share-ride taxi called Moku Moku Go, which runs twice a day, from the bus stop in front of Kitaoji Station of the Kyoto municipal subway, and get off at Kumogahata Iwayabashi. From there, it takes about 30 minutes on foot to the temple. Visitors can pray at the temple from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Photography is usually prohibited inside the temple grounds. For details, call the temple at (075) 406-2061. The Moku Moku Go taxi service is operated by Yasaka Group at (075) 491-0251.

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