Visitors to the Kōenji temple pass through the majestic sanmon (main gate), an important threshold along the approach to the temple.
Maple trees arch over the smooth stone path that leads to the hondō (main hall) of the Kōenji temple. The edge of the wide pathway is marked by a simple low bamboo fence, which separates the walkway from the adjacent landscaped garden spaces on the right and left. These gardens vary in width, as the temple islocated in an urban residential area, and the approach fills the interstitial spaces. Beds of raked gravel expand and contract according to the size of the space. The gravel beds are interspersed with low flowing “island” mounds cloaked with lush green ground cover. Large rocks anchor the islands and provide focal points along the path, while shrubs and trees add height and visual interest. A closely cropped hedge at the outer boundary of the garden creates a separation between the spaces of the sandō and the neighboring houses. The line of hedges breaks only to allow narrow offshoots of the stone path to slip through to the back entrances of the houses.
A sandō typically runs on axis from south to north toward the most important sacred space of the religious precinct—the hondō. The hondō is the place where the principle deity of the faith is located and where visitors come to offer their prayers. The interior space of the hondō creates an atmosphere of calm that helps to bring forth our humanity and aid us in resolving our self-doubts. Shunmyo Masuno points to the important role of such places. He understands that these kinds of spaces also can be found in nature and that the sandō can be a designed series of natural spaces encompassing these same strengths.
Adorned with carvings of the temple’s crest, the heavy wood doors of the sanmon (main gate) open to the view back to the city.
The wide stone-paved approach crosses a neighborhood street before reaching the main gate and the enclosed garden beyond.
Ripples of raked pea gravel around softly weathered rocks set in beds of thick ground cover create an atmosphere of serenity.
The Kōenji sandō starts from a typical residential street in Tokyo, the entrance marked by a gateway—a tall wall constructed in the traditional Japanese manner with panels of white plaster within an exposed timber frame and capped with a ceramic tile roof. The sandō is designed as a series of thresholds, which allow the visitor to leave behind the cares of daily life and enter into a mindset appropriate for a visit to a sacred place. Passing through the gate from the street into the space of the sandō, the approach stretches about half a block and then crosses a narrower street to a gate that marks the entrance to the second, more sacred part of the sandō. The room-like gate is an important threshold. Three steps lead up to the platform of the gate, where the slightly rough texture of the granite used in the path and steps beneath one’s feet changes to a highly polished surface. This space provides a moment of pause and self- reflection before the stone texture changes back as the steps lead down the other side and the path continues toward the hondō.
For the Kōenji sandō, Masuno builds on the ability of natural spaces to calm and purify the spirit and the idea of the sandō as a series of thresholds leading to a sacred space. His concept behind the approach to Kōenji was to create a space that allows visitors to sense the purification of their spirits and clarification of their thoughts as they draw closer to the main hall of the temple.
Masuno felt that the sandō should not be too strong or too assertive, as it is not the most important space in the temple precinct, but it should create an environment separate from the surroundings. Because the sandō is the approach and not the main temple garden, Masuno chose not to call attention to it by naming it but simply to call it “sandō.” The Kōenji sandō is a distinct environment in a contained yet continuous space. Masuno’s design succeeds in slowing the visitor’s pace to emphasize self-reflection while enjoying the healing power and calming strength of the surrounding nature.
The approach to the temple starts from the south, with a wide stone-paved passage crossing a neighborhood street and passing through the sanmon (main gate) before narrowing and moving through the enclosed approach garden.
An opening in the highly crafted wall, with a low hedge in front of its tall stone foundation, marks the start of the approach to the Kōenji temple.
The view from the temple toward the main gate shows the introspective quality of the tranquil approach garden.
Tall hedges and trees in the background, along with trees trained to arch over the path, shield the view of the nearby residences.