Takahata Fudoson was built about 794 by Jigaku Daishi Ennin by the order of Emperor Seiwa as a sacred ground in the eastern mountains of the realm. Following the destruction of the temple by a storm in 1335, Gikai Shōnin I rebuilt the Fudō-dō Hall on the current site in 1342. This Important Cultural Property was followed by another, the Niōmon Gate.
Most of the original temple buildings were destroyed by fire in 1779. Reconstruction occurred slowly and continued until 1975. Okuden Hall, just behind Fudō-dō Hall, enshrines the repaired 1,100kg statue of Jōroku Fudōsanson.
In addition to the rich history and many important cultural artifacts, the temple grounds are open every year for the ajisai (hydrangea) festival.
The temple grounds also feature a pilgrimage route inspired by the Shikoku region’s pilgrimage to the 88 temples. The route features large number of hydrangea in June and cluster amaryllis in September, as well as momiji, famous for their fall colors.
Koyasan in Wakayama Prefecture, home to Shingon Buddhism, boasts more than 50 temples offering shukubo, an overnight stay featuring onsen baths and a traditional vegetarian meal. Fukuchiin, one such temple, lies just a few steps from some of Koyasan’s more famous temple complexes and just a 15-minute walk from Garan, the central temple complex.
Amenities include wifi, onsen baths and private dining rooms, and alcohol is available upon request. The temple includes many artistic treasures. An overnight stay includes an invitation to join the 6 a.m. prayer service.
Myouhouji was originally a temple of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, but it converted to the Nichiren sect during the Genna Era (1615-1624). Since 1699, it has housed the spiritual images of Nichiren saints, and the temple has been famous since for warding off disasters and bad luck of all kinds.
This iron gate, completed in 1878, is an important cultural asset. It was designed by Josiah Condor and melds Eastern and Western influences.
Sensō-ji, also known as Asakusa for the neighborhood it dominates (and whose kanji it shares), is Tokyo’s oldest and most famous temple as well as one of the most popular temples to visit at the New Year’s holiday. The temple was founded in 645 to house a statue of bodhisattva Kannon (Avalokiteshvara) which legend has it was discovered in nearby Sumida River by two fishermen, the brothers Hinokuma Hamanari and Hinokuma Takenari, in 628. The temple and its various structures have been destroyed several times by fire and most recently by Allied bombing during World War II, and the current structures mostly date from the 1960s.
Kaminarimon, the Thunder Gate
Visitors flock to see the impressive Kaminarimon gate — 11.7m tall and originally erected by the military commander Taira no Kinmasa in 941, and moved to its current location in 1635 — with its statues of Fujin, god of wind, and Raijin, god of thunder, as well as the 4m tall paper lantern hanging in the center of the gate bearing the characters 雷門 (Kaminarimon).
The reverse side of the gate features status of the god Tenryū and the goddess Kinryū, carved by master sculptor Hirakushi Denchū when he was 106 years old.
Shopping for Japanese kitsch in Nakamise-dōri
Nakamise-dōri, stretching 250m from the Kaminarimon to the inner Hōzōmon (Treasure House Gate), is home to about 90 shops offering lacquerware, painted fans, yukata and kimono (in various degrees of authenticity) and assorted Japanese bric-à-brac and kitsch such as Godzilla toys and maneki-neko figurines. The crowds are often at their thickest here, and it’s not unusual to encounter foreigners in rented kimono.
Hōzōmon, the Treasure House Gate
Hōzōmon, the inner gate at 22.7m tall, was first built by Taira no Kinmasa in 942. It houses two enormous Nio deities and a pair of giant sandals. Because the gate in its current incarnation is built of fire-resistant materials, the second story is used to house the temple’s treasures, including a sutra that is designated a National Treasure.
To one side of Hōzōmon stands a five-story pagoda, and to the other are statues of two bodhisattva, including Kannon (Avalokiteshvara), the enshrined deity of Sensō-ji.
Sensō-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple
After Hōzōmon we come at last to Sensō-ji itself, a high-peaked structure dedicated to bodhisattva Kannon.
Priests inside the temple chant as clouds of incense rise among fabulous gilt decorations. Outside, visitors line up the steps to the portico to toss in their five-yen coins and offer their prayers. The large inner foyer, topped by faded and peeling murals, offers ample opportunities to purchase o-mikuji.
Bujouji is a platform-style temple suspended from a cliff, similar to the larger and more famous Kiyomizudera in nearby Kyoto. The temple was founded by Kankou Seinen in 1154 by order of Emperor Toba.
Construction of the platform is interlocking wooden posts and beams, without the use of nails. The platform’s thick posts rest atop the stones of the cliff. They are not sunk into a foundation but are held in place only by the weight of the structure.
Entry to the temple is via the Niomon Gate, constructed in 1350. Visitors must then climb 410 steps up the side of the mountain to reach the temple and enjoy the vista of cedar and pine trees. Photography is prohibited: visitors are required to leave all cameras, phones and other electronic devices with the attendant at the entrance before ascending to the temple.
The temple is home to many important cultural artifacts, including wooden Buddha statues dating from the foundation of the temple in 1154. These are on display only three days out of the year: May 3, Sept. 17, Nov. 3.
Three-trunked cedar tree 花脊の三本杉
A 15-minute walk from the temple entrance is the ancient three-trunked cedar tree, estimated to be 1,200 years old. The Eastern Trunk is the tallest cedar in Japan at 62.3m. The Northwestern Trunk is 60.7m, and the Western Trunk 57.2m.
The circumference of the tree trunks where they join at the base is 1.36m.
Aizu Sazaedo is a three-story wooden pagoda constructed in 1796 to house 33 statues of Kannon and featuring double-spiral internal wooden ramps which wind around from the entrance to the top of the 16.5m structure and back down again. Visitors who reach the top, cross the taiko bridge inside and return down the opposite ramp are said to have completed the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage to 33 Buddhist temples.
The signature double-spiral ramp structure about a central core gives the structure its name (“Sazae” is a horned turban sea snail) and causes many to wonder if the design was influenced by Leonardo da Vinci’s Château de Chambord in France, but there is no evidence this is the case.
Sazaedo, an Important Cultural Property, can be found on the flank of Iimoriyama, famed burial ground of the Byakkotai.
According to tradition, a traveler was seeking shelter for the night when Monju Bosatsu (bodhisattva Manjushri) appeared in the form of a deer and led him to this ancient hot spring. Hence the name Kakeyu (鹿教湯), “deer guide hot spring.” Now, centuries later, the village has adopted the deer as its mascot. Unfortunately, while visitors can spot the deer motif in multiple locations throughout the area, they’re unlikely to see any actual deer.
The village and its resort spas are separated from Monju Temple by the Uchimura River. Visitors cross via the covered wooden Godai Bridge adjacent to Monju no Yu, the original hot spring which has been in use for 1,200 years. From there it’s a brief climb through a dense wood to the temple.
The temple itself, a prefectural treasure, is reached via a stone stairway leading between two enormous keyaki trees, and sits in a clearing. Although in a state of disrepair — when we visited, the roof of an outbuilding had fallen in on the two Nio guardian statues inside — the temple holds many surprises, including the dragon painting that spans the ceiling of the portico.
Separated from the main temple by a rushing mountain stream is a serried rank of jizo topped by statues of Bosatsu Monju and Buddha.
The village’s other attractions include a small shrine housing Ebisu and Daikoku, guardians of the spa. Although remote, Kakeyu Onsen is a worthwhile adventure for travelers seeking a peaceful spa experience with access to the nearby Ueda and Matsumoto castles.
Kameido Tenjin was built in 1646 to enshrine Sugawara no Michizane, a 9th Century scholar and politician who served Emperor Uda. Despite his service ending in disgrace, with accusations of plotting against the throne, a number of shrines to his memory sprang up from the 10th Century to appease his spirit when several years of catastrophes followed his death.
Kameido is a favorite spot of students studying for examinations. The students will visit the shrine and write their prayers on a wooden ema, which they tie to a stand just outside the shrine’s main entrance. Students who are successful may return with a gift: a live turtle to leave in the shrine’s central pond. While it’s uncertain when this tradition started, it’s undoubtedly a reflection of the shrine’s name: 亀 (kame) means “turtle” or “tortoise.” Even the temizuya reflects this theme. (The name comes from the village where the shrine sits.)
The shrine has several festivals throughout the year: plum in February, wisteria in April and May, and the Chrysanthemum Festival from late October through November. In addition, once every four years, the shrine hosts the Reitaisai. In this festival, a bull pulls a horen (portable shrine) through the neighborhood. But of all these, Kameido is probably most famous for the wisteria festival.
藤まつり — Fuji (wisteria) Festival
Kameido Tenjin is home to about 200 wisteria trees. These have all been planted since the end of the Pacific War, as the temple was destroyed. When the trees blossom in late April and early May, crowds throng to this modest shrine. News broadcasts feature images of blossoms, which adds to the popularity.
As the wisteria are spread throughout the shrine grounds, they may not all bloom at the same time owing to differing amounts of sunlight received. But don’t wait too long in an effort to avoid the crowds: the blossoms may wither quickly in May if the weather turns hot.
Right amidst the wisteria in the center of the shrine grounds, a greenish pond is home to numerous turtles, enormous koi, and at least one heron. As mentioned, students will leave live turtles as a way of saying thanks for a successful exam, with the unfortunate result that cheap and readily available Mississippi turtles now outnumber the domestic variety.
The shrine’s final attraction is its large red taiko bridges, unusual (if not unique) in Tokyo. The Men’s Bridge, representing the past, greets visitors just inside the entrance torii, while the Women’s Bridge, representing the future, brings them to the steps of the shine itself. (The current bridges are concrete reproductions as the originals were destroyed during the war, along with the rest of the shrine. See a 1911 photo of one of the original bridges here.)
Saishouji is a Buddhist temple in Yamakita, Kanagawa, whose grounds include the ribbon-like Shasui Falls. The temple is home to a taiko school, and hosts a drumming contest on the fourth Sunday of each July to celebrate the falls.
The temple is fronted with rows of hundreds of jizo which are decorated with pinwheels. (Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find any explanation for this colorful phenomenon.)