Don’t Visit Kyoto Without Seeing This Temple

Niō or Kongōrikishi
Niō (仁王) or Kongōrikishi (金剛力士), Guarding the 1001 Buddhas in Sanjusangendo Temple

If you were to hop on the Shinkansen, also known as the bullet train in Japan, and travel 365 kilometres southwest of Tokyo, you will reach the heart of traditional Japanese culture, the city of Kyoto. Kyoto, renowned for its legion of sacred shrines, several ancient temples and its enchanting rural scenery surrounding the city, still today is one of the most popular historical attractions in the entire world and is a destination favourite for wanderlust excursionists. Famous for its gamet of some 1600 temples and shrines, Kyoto is nonetheless a spiritual stomping ground and an epicentre for its several schools of Buddhism.

One of the more notable temples on the east side of Kyoto is the Sanjusangendo-do temple, officially known as Rengeo-in, a sacred Tendai Buddhist temple founded in the 12th century, 1164 CE, and built for the purpose of being a retirement facility for the then reigning Emperor, Go-Shirakawa, and today the Sanjusangendo temple has aged well becoming an official Japanese National Treasure. The original construction of the temple was built by the well-known warlord Taira No Kiyomori. The building has only one floor but is a whopping 120 metres in length and 16.5 metres wide. The name Sanjusangendo-do when translated means “a hall with thirty-three ken, in which ken represents a traditional Japanese unit for measuring length. The number 33 is also a sacred symbol to the Kannon because it is believed the bodhisattva had 33 manifestations. The temple can be accessed through any of the four entrances, each side having its own entrance.

Some of the 1001 Statues of Kannon (the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy) inside the temple
Some of the 1001 Statues of Kannon (the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy) inside the temple

When you first step foot into the main hall of Sanjusangendo, it is nearly impossible not to be awestruck by the immensity and vastness of the lofty architecture, and rows among rows of human-sized statues made of cypress wood and covered in gold leaf, called Kannons, which occupy both sides of the hall running directly through the middle of the temple. There are exactly 1,001 Kannons that stand in the temple and is what makes this particular temple so impressive to see and visit in person, especially as photography is forbidden inside. What the Japanese refer to as a Kannon is their version of the Chinese, Guanyin, which means the Goddess of mercy and compassion. But there are others who will tell you that the Kannon represents the bodhisattva, the one who has awakened but has chosen to wait for his or her own eternal enlightenment to help those still suffering in the material form of this world. Anong the 1,001 Kannon’s housed in the temple today, only 124 are originals and the other remaining 876 are reproductions, as a result from a fire that broke out in the 13th century, just one century after it was built. All of the reproduced imitations of the

Kannon statues were created over a period of 16 years by three groups of Buddhist sculptors named Inpa, Enpa, and Keiha. Alongside the fleet of Kannon’s, Sanjusangendo also accommodates 28 guardian deities that stem from Hinduism mythology but have infused their way into contemporary Buddhism and are said to be protectors of the Kannons. The Japanese god of wind, Fūjin, and Japanese god of thunder and lightning and storms, Raijin, also cohabit the temple as statue representations of their own. And last, but most definitely not the least, is the statue of Sahasrabhuja-arya-avalokiteśvara, also referred to as the “Thousand-Armed Kannon”, and is the bodhisattva said to represent the Buddhist story of Padmapani who was said to have made a promise to never to rest under all sentient beings were freed from their suffering, or what is called saṃsāra.

The Guardian Statues Stand in Front of the 1001 Kannon
The Guardian Statues Stand in Front of the 1001 Kannon

Every year on January 15th an archery competition is held on the west side of the temple, called Tōshiya, which began during the age of samurai in the Edo period, a period in Japanese history where art and culture were important staples of Japanese society and when the economy flourished and the Japanese people vowed for “no more wars”. The archery contest was popularized and was brought attention to in the year 1606 and has since become an annual tradition because that year a very famous warrior by the name of, Asaoka Heibei, successfully shot 51 arrows from the southern end of the temple to the north end where the target was positioned, over the distance of the hall (120 metres). And ever since then, young Japanese men have tried their luck at the archery contest attempting to hit the target as many times as possible in a 12-hour span. Records of the archery contest of each year are displayed inside the hall and are made from wood, each record lists the champions name, their age, and how many of the arrows successfully hit the target. Still today at the northern end of the hall, you can see all the markings and gouges in the wall from arrows that missed over the years. And in 1827, an eleven-year-old competitor by the name of Kokura Gishichi hit the target a staggering 995 times out of 1,000 shots…pretty impressive for someone who is eleven years old. It is also widely believed that the famous duel between Miyamoto Mushashi, a celebrated Japanese warrior, and Yoshioka Denshichiro, the leader of a school of swordsman called Yoshioka-ryū, was said to happen just outside of the Sanjusangendo temple in the year 1604, as Yoshioka-ryū’s wanted to avenge his brother who was critically injured by Mushashi.

Surrounding the outside of the temple are several willow trees with low hanging branches, and the branches of these willow trees are used ceremoniously as a ritualistic means of purifying those who visit the temple to worship and pray. The temple also sells onamori, called “zutsū fūji”, which are little Japanese amulets which are said to serve and protect or bring good luck to those who carry them close. These little charms can fit right into the palm of your hand and have within them tiny fragments of the willow tree branches, and are said to help alleviate the onset of a headache.

Sanjusangendo temple is most definitely a location worth the visit and if visiting Japan it should be jotted down in the itinerary. If interested in visiting the Sanjusangendo temple, it is open between the hours of 8:00 am to 4:30 pm from April 1st through until November 15th, and 9:00 am to 4:00 pm from November 16th through until March 31st, according to the temples website. General admission is 600 yen, 400 zen for junior high and high school students, and 300 yen for primary students. The temple is also conveniently located right across the street from the Kyoto National Museum which would also be worth a visit.

About the author