Along with Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples number in the hundreds of thousands in Japan. Every town has at least one temple while Kyoto alone boasts having more than 2,000 temples and shrines. Many of these historic religious buildings, some built over 1200 years ago, are designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites or Japanese National Treasures.
The Hachijuhakkasho-meguri (The 88 Temple Pilgrimage) is Japan’s most famous pilgrimage route around the island of Shikoku. Today, an estimated 100,000 people annually, make the pilgrimage either by tour bus or on foot.
Although it is impossible to detail each and every temple in Japan, here is just a small sampling to give you a preview of what lies in store.
Kyoto, located in the central part of Honshu Island served as Japan’s capital and the emperor’s residence from 794 until 1868. It is now the country’s seventh largest city with a population of 1.5 million people and the capital of the Kyoto Prefecture.
Over the centuries, Kyoto was destroyed by many wars and fires, but due to its historic value, the city was spared from air raids during World War II. Countless temples, shrines and other historically priceless structures survive in the city today as a result.
Ginkakuji Temple (Silver Pavilion) is located in the Sakyo ward of Kyoto City. Originally initiated as a retirement villa and gardens in 1460 for 8th shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, it was converted into a Zen temple after his death. The temple was nicknamed the Silver Pavilion as it was Yoshimasa’s intention to cover the structure in a silver-foil overlay. However, since the construction was halted during the Onin War, these plans were delayed indefinitely. The current appearance of the temple in its “unfinished” state is said to be the way Yoshimasa himself last saw it.
Yoshimasa became a Zen Buddhist monk in 1485. After his death in 1490 the complex was renamed Jishoji after Yoshimasa’s Buddhist name and converted to a Buddhist temple.
Today, visitors can tour the Silver Pavilion along with half a dozen other temple buildings, a beautiful moss garden and a unique dry sand garden (Ginshadan: Sea of Silver Sand).
Kinkakuji Temple (Gold Pavilion) officially named Rokuonji dates back to 1397. Originally purchased as a mountain villa by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu it was transformed into a temple after his death according to his wishes.
All of the temple buildings with the exception of the pavilion were burned down during the Onin War. Rebuilt, the temple was burned down again in 1950 by a 22-year old monk trying to commit suicide. He survived and was sentenced to seven years in prison but was released due to mental illness.
The present structure dates back to 1955, when it was rebuilt yet again. The reconstruction is said to be a copy close to the original, although some doubt such an extensive gold-leaf coating was ever used on the original structure.
Established in 798 in the eastern part of Kyoto City is the Kiyomizu Temple. The temple takes its name from the Otowa waterfall located within the complex. Kiyomizu means “clear or pure water” in Japanese.
Since its foundation, the temple has burned down countless times. A majority of the buildings you see today were rebuilt during the early Edo period (1600s). The temple’s Main Hall was registered as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 1994. The Main Hall has a large veranda, supported by tall pillars that extend out over the hillside, which offers remarkable views of the city. Visitors to the temple find it beautifully dressed with cherry blossoms in the spring and stunning changing momiji leaves in the autumn months. The site is particularly popular during festivals when booths selling traditional holiday foods and souvenirs fill the grounds.
In 2007, the temple was selected as one of the 21 finalists for the New Seven Wonders of the World designation although it failed to be designated.
Ninnaji Temple which was also known as the Omuro Imperial Palace, is another UNESCO World Heritage site located in Kyoto. The temple was founded in 888 by the reigning emperor at the time and over the many centuries, a member of the Imperial Family always served as the temple’s head priest. This tradition ended in the late Edo period.
Due to the many fires that ravaged Kyoto, none of the temple’s original buildings survived. The oldest buildings in the complex only date back to the beginning of the Edo Period. The highlight of the complex is the Goten, the former residence of the head priest. Its palatial buildings are connected by covered corridors and surrounded by lovely rock gardens and ponds. Ninnaji is also famous for its late blooming cherry trees called Omuro Sakura. When Kyoto’s other cherry trees are nearing the end of their blooming season around mid-April, visitors can still enjoy the beautiful fragrant blossoms of the cherry trees at Ninnaji.
Ryoanji Temple (The Temple of the Dragon at Peace) is located in northwest Kyoto and is yet another UNESCO World Heritage site. The temple houses Japan’s most famous rock garden and attracts hundreds of visitors every day. Originally an aristocrat’s villa, it was converted into a Zen temple in 1450. The temple grounds also include a spacious park area with a pond, located below the temple’s main buildings. The pond dates back to the time when the site still served as an aristocrat’s villa and features a small shrine on one of its three small islands that can be accessed over a bridge. In addition to wonderful walking trails, the park also offers a restaurant which specializes in Yudofu (Blocks of tofu simmered in hot water along with vegetables, consumed with ponzu and yuzu kosho). The food is served in attractive tatami rooms that look out onto a traditional Japanese garden.
The temple is also the final resting place for the late Hosokawa emperors. Their tombs are grouped together in what is referred to as the “Seven Imperial Tombs.”
Sanjusangendo, a temple located in the Higashiyama District of Kyoto was completed under the order of Emperor Go-Shirakawa in 1164. The temple complex was destroyed by a fire in 1249 and only the main hall was reconstructed in 1266.
The main deity of the temple is Sahasrabhuja-arya-avalokiteśvara or the Thousand Armed Kannon, the goddess of mercy. The main statue of the goddess, listed as a National Treasure of Japan, was created by the famous Kamakura sculptor Tankei (1173 – 1256). Arranged on both sides of the statue are one thousand life-size statues of Kannon ordered in 10 rows and 50 columns. Of these one thousand statues, 124 are from the original temple, rescued from the fire of 1249, while the remaining 876 statues were constructed in the 13th century.
Nara, located in the Kansai region of Japan is the capital city of the Nara Prefecture and the former capital of Japan from 710 to 784. Bordering the Kyoto Prefecture, the city is home to eight temples, shrines and ruins designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site under the collective name of “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara.” These structures include, Todaiji, Saidaiji, Kōfukuji, the Kasuga Shrine, Gangoji, Yakushiji, Toshodaiji, and the Heijo Palace.
Toshodaiji Temple, located in what seems today to be the outskirts of Nara, was founded in 759 by a Chinese priest named, Ganjin. The temple was the former residence of Prince Shin-no, the son of Emperor Tenmu. Ganjin was invited to Japan by the emperor and had a monumental impact on Buddhism in that country.
There are a number of small trails on the temple grounds that cut through thick overhanging foliage. Ganjin’s grave is located at the end of one of these trails, and the surrounding flora gives the area an ambience of serenity. The temple also has a large bell from the Heian period, a chapel, sleeping quarters once used by monks in training, and a small house used for collecting the entrance fees to the facility.
Todaiji Temple (Great Eastern Temple) located in Nara Park dates back to 728 and is famous for housing the world’s largest bronze statue of Buddha (Daibutsu). It is said that the 52-foot statue was constructed with the help of more than 2,600,000 people and required eight castings over three years to complete. The hall where the statue is stored, called the Daibutsuden, was destroyed by fire and rebuilt twice. The current structure finished is 1709 is actually 30% smaller than its predecessor. The original complex also contained two 320-foot pagodas which were destroyed by an earthquake.
Today, visitors can see deer, regarded as messengers of the gods in the Shinto religion, freely roaming the temple grounds. The temple sells special “ shika senbe” or crackers to feed the deer for around 150 yen.
The Kofukuji Temple established in the same year that Nara became the capital of Japan in 710, served as the family temple of the Fujiwara clan, the most powerful family during the Nara and Heian Periods. At the height of the Fujiwara clan’s power, the temple complex consisted of 150 buildings. Today only a few buildings of great historic value remain, including a five story pagoda which stands at 160 feet, making it Japan’s second largest pagoda.
For a fee, visitors can access the Kofukuji’s National Treasure Museum and the Eastern Golden Hall. The museum exhibits the temple’s great art collection including one of the most prized Buddhist statues in Japan, the three-faced, six-armed Ashura.
Nagano City originated as a small town in the Kamiminochi District built around a 7th century hilltop temple, the largest wooden building in eastern Japan. Today the city is the capital of the Nagano Prefecture and the 1998 host of the Winter Olympic Games.
The city is home to the historic battlegrounds of Kawanakajima and Matsushiro Castle. Nagano retains a historical atmosphere, preserving many old samurai residences, temples, and gardens of the feudal period.
Zenkoji Temple has been revered for over 1400 years as Japan’s primary center of the Buddhist faith. Founded before Buddhism in Japan was split into several different sects, it currently belongs to both the Tendai and Jodoshu schools of Buddhism, and is co-managed by twenty-five priests from the former school, and fourteen from the latter.
The temple houses the first Buddhist statue to come to Japan, the hibutsu (secret Buddha). The commandments of the temple require the absolute secrecy of the statue, prohibiting it to be shown to anyone, including the chief priest of the temple. However, a replica of the statue (Maedachi Honzon) is displayed publicly once every six years in spring, during the Gokaicho ceremony.
Zenkoji draws 6 million visitors annually and is one of the last few remaining pilgrimage sites in Japan.
Iwakuni City is a castle town shaped by two eras of military presence, the samurai and the U.S. Marine Corps. The city, located in the southeastern part of the Yamaguchi Prefecture is a small city consisting of only 150,000 people. During the Edo Period, Iwakuni used to be one of the feudal domains of Japan. Its former mountain-top castle was reconstructed in the 1960s and counts as the city’s other tourist attraction. The city is best known for its structurally unique Kintai-kyo Bridge. The bridge is beautiful year-round but attracts the most visitors during the cherry blossom season, in early April.
Youkouji Temple was a sizeable complex constructed in the year 1309. In 1600, Hiroie Yoshikawa drastically reduced the temple’s land by erecting numerous samurai houses in the area. Historically, the temple has been shrouded in mystery with not many facts being made known to the public.
These days, visitors can enjoy the changing of the leaves in autumn of the countless momiji (Japanese maple trees) that have been planted around the temple.
Photo credits: Rocky Andoh