Originally established in 836, the Linji Buddhist temple of Rokudō Chin’nōji is known for its association with the underworld.
The neighborhood it is located in was once known as Toribeno, one of the three major open-air cremation sites in the ancient Heian capital. Considered to be the border between the living world and the realm of the dead, the area was commonly referred to as Rokudō-no-Tsuji, or the Crossroads of the Six Realms. In Buddhist cosmology, the six realms of reincarnation and existence consist of hell, heaven, the worlds of humans, beasts, demons, and hungry ghosts.
For centuries, Rokudō Chin’nōji Temple has been a sanctuary of and funerary of mourning, respect, and remembrance. There are dozens of Ksitigarbha statues dedicated to the souls of the unborn, as well as a bronze bell called Mukae-gane, which is rung during the annual Obon festival to welcome the spirits of the deceased to this world once again.
The temple is also home to a pair of water wells that are said to be portals to the underworld, one for entering it and the other for returning from it. Local legend has it that, back in the early 9th century, famed aristocrat-scholar Ono no Takamura led a bizarre double life: while he served the imperial court during the day, he used the wells to go to the netherworld at night to assist King Enma of Hell in the judgment of the dead.
The infamous well used by Ono to enter hell can be found in the temple’s back garden, only shown to the public on special occasions. The “well of returning,” on the other hand, was only recently discovered by accident in 2011 in the neighboring private property that once belonged to Rokudō Chin’nōji.
Know Before You Go
Visitors can take a glimpse at the "well of returning" all year round, although entrance to the back garden is prohibited. To see it, climb the short steps on the right hand of the main hall and peek into the garden (don't forget to take off your shoes when doing so).