This has been my secret retreat for many years, but I'm finally writing about it. Secret because I believe that certain places should be protected from Lonely Planet hordes; finally writing about it because it has so many visitors in autumn that a few more lost tourists won't make any difference.
It gets so crowded in autumn that I almost – almost – stayed away, but if you go very early, this is what greets you:
Heirin-ji (平林寺) in Saitama is one of the best spots for autumn leaves near Tokyo, but it seems to be relatively unknown amongst foreigners. Why would that be? Too far? Not commercial enough? Not sure why, but if it's good enough for the emperor of Japan (link), it's good enough for me.
Heirin-ji is a high-ranking temple that belongs to the Myōshin-ji branch of the Rinzai Zen school. It was founded in the town of Kanashige (now Iwatsuki) in Saitama in 1375 by Sekishitsu Zenkyō (石室善玖), the abbot of Kenchō-ji in Kamakura, but it was destroyed in 1590 during Toyotomi Hideyoshi's campaign against Iwatsuki Castle.
It was rebuilt in 1603 by Tokugawa Ieyasu.
|The outer gate at Heirin-ji is called Sōmon.|
|The main gate is called Sanmon.|
|Same gate, Sanmon, in autumn|
The long history between the Tokugawa family and local Matsudaira family undoubtedly played a major role in this decision. Matsudaira Nobutsuna, Lord of Kawagoe, was one of Ieyasu's leading administrators; as a matter of fact, he was responsible for Edo's water supply, since he oversaw the construction of the Tamagawa Canal. (Read more about it here.) His compensation for this massive task was the permission to construct the Nobidome Canal and to divert 30% of the Tamagawa Canal for his own fiefdom in Saitama.
The Nobidome Canal still runs past Heirin-ji, and there are dozens of Matsudaira family graves in the temple complex.
The complex covers 68 hectares, and most of it is naturally preserved woodland, making it one of the few remaining unspoiled areas of the old Musashino Plain. The forest has been designated a Natural Monument (天然記念物 tennen kinenbutsu), and some of the buildings are counted as a Tangible Cultural Property (有形文化財 yūkei bunkazai) in Saitama.
It's an active training temple. Entry is forbidden to most of the buildings, you won't see a single vending machine, the temple doesn't sell any trinkets or good luck charms and doesn't host any festivals. It's the least commercial major temple I've visited in Japan, and what a joy that is!
|A Buddhist monk, probably a trainee, brushing leaves. I had to aim over|
a locked gate to get this photo.
Most visitors flock around the main gate (山門 Sanmon) and temple bell, which was the inspiration for Yoshida Toshi's woodblock print, but the real treasure is the forest that lies behind the temple buildings. It's indescribably beautiful in all seasons, especially in spring, when you can see young maple leaves, and in autumn, when the trees burn in impossible colours. Summer is quiet and very, very green; also very, very noisy thanks to squintillions of cicada. I've never been there in winter, but it would be stunning if it snowed.
|Sanmon seen from the other side|
|Kasamatsu Shiro's woodblock print of Sanmon|
(hat tip to Tall Gary)
|The temple bell in autumn|
|The temple bell in spring|
|The temple bell in autumn|
|Yoshida Toshi's woodblock print of the temple bell|
It's a big complex and you'll need at least two hours to explore it properly. A few hints if you do go:
You can take a bus to the temple, but it's better to go on foot. You can follow a remarkably clear suburban canal to the Nobidome Canal, and then walk along the Nobidome Canal to the temple. It takes about 45 minutes on foot, but it's a beautiful walk.
The entrance fee is ¥500. It's on the high end, but is well worth it.
Go early if you go in spring or autumn leaves season. If you arrive at 9, you'll have approximately an hour before the temple resembles a senior convention. It gets unpleasantly crowded and most visitors are at least 90 years old. I've seen ancients tottering around with oxygen carts.
|Queue in front of the toilet at the main gate in peak season.|
Please observe average age.
If you need to go to a toilet, forget about the toilets at the main gate. They're squat toilets, crowded and slightly smelly. Keep left towards the main graveyard and Momiji Hill, and use those toilets: western, clean, quiet. They're also unisex and the glass doors are opaque, but what the heck, I don't think a guy with an oxygen cart poses any danger.
Spend time in the cemeteries. They're beautiful.
Go alone. Stand in the forest and listen to the birdsong. Accept that Saitama is a great prefecture, and that individuals who crack jokes about Dasaitama have no idea what they're talking about. (Dasai is a Japanese word for unsophisticated or unfashionable.)
How to get there
Take the Keihin-Tōhoku Line to Minami-Urawa and change to the Musashino Line. Get off at Niiza Station and walk to the temple. It takes about 45 minutes by train, plus a further 30 minutes (short route) or 45 minutes (scenic route) on foot. I've added a photo of the route below, and you can see a map here.
A special note for Kaori
Kaori, I'm writing about the "grand finale" before I write about Kamakura, but don't worry, Kamakura will follow. You don't really expect me to do things sequentially and properly, do you?
|You walk along this canal towards the temple.|
|The entrance to Hondō|
|This building is not open to the public: it's an active dōjō where monks study.|
|A sub-temple called Hansōbō in spring|
|Seasons at Heirin-ji: spring|
|Autumn at its peak|
|Route from station to temple|
|Map of temple complex|