If you are lucky enough to read your map properly, you will approach Chion-in by a long and grand stretch of wide steps leading to an impressive building which fronts this complex of temples. If you're like me, you'll stumble in to the complex's back lot after wending your way through paths in a park on a rainy afternoon. Either way, this temple welcomes you.
The Buddhist temple gate at the main entrance is the largest temple gate in Japan, while the temple bell, cast in the 17th century, is also the largest in the country. Chion-in is said to be the most popular pilgrimage temple in Kyoto, but on my rainy afternoon, few visitors were around, which meant that I could engage in quiet Zen meditation before a lovely bronze Buddha in a side temple. I also got to listen in on a few special rituals requested by devotees, complete with a monk chanting, and ringing bells and drums and clappers.
Much of the main hall was off-limits, covered with sheathing while undergoing major renovations, but in a another side temple, I struck up a conversation with a young monk in halting bits of English, Japanese, and pantomime. When he discovered that I lived in Seattle, he excitedly said Ichiro--a Japanese baseball player who used to be on the Seattle Mariners team. I swung an imaginary bat and said "beisbol." When I let him know that I was a student of Zen, he moved aside the wooden gate blocking the altar and invited me in to toss some incense into the fire.
Founded in the early 13th century, Chion-in belongs to the Pure Land version of Buddhism which long ago Honen, a famous monk and teacher, promulgated as an approach to Buddhism, replacing the need for scholarly study and ritual with a simple profession of faith. For me, it was a simple surrender to the faith that those winding paths in a rainy park would take me to my destination.
To reach the temple's main approach, take bus 206 from Kyoto Station and get off at the Chion-in-mae stop. Or wander in through Maruyama Park.
Seattle travelers must begin with flights to Kyoto, Osaka, or Tokyo. Check the Internet for the best airline fares.