Fukuchiin — stay in a Buddhist temple

Decorative dragon panel

福智院

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.

Entrance to Fukuchiin

Rock garden
Rock garden

Shojin ryori
Shojin ryori

Fukuchiin「福智院」

Myouhouji

Karahafu gable of Myouhouji

妙法寺

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.

Myouhouji
Myouhouji

Dragon font
Dragon font

More dragons under the karahafu
More dragons under the karahafu

Tetsumon

Tetsumon by Josiah Condor
Tetsumon by Josiah Condor

This iron gate, completed in 1878, is an important cultural asset. It was designed by Josiah Condor and melds Eastern and Western influences.

Myouhouji「妙法寺」

Sensō-ji (Asakusa)

Hōzōmon with pagoda in background

金龍山浅草寺

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).

Kaminarimon -- entrance to Sensoji
Kaminarimon — entrance to Sensoji

Kaminarimon paper lantern
Kaminarimon paper lantern

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.

Tenryū, by Hirakushi DenchūKinryū, by Hirakushi Denchū
Tenryū and Kinryū, by Hirakushi Denchū

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.

Shop decorations, Nakamise-dōri
Shop decorations, Nakamise-dōri

Shop decoration, Nakamise-dōri
Shop decoration, Nakamise-dōri

Maneki-neko "beckoning cat" figurines
Maneki-neko “beckoning cat” figurines

New Year's shop decoration
New Year’s shop decoration

Uchiwa -- Japanese fans
Uchiwa — Japanese fans

Happy Year of the Boar!
Happy Year of the Boar!

Eaves of Nakamise-dōri shop building
Eaves of Nakamise-dōri shop building

Tengu, fox and other masks
Tengu, fox and other masks

Visitors often dress in kimono
Visitors often dress in 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.

Hōzōmon with pagoda in background
Hōzōmon with pagoda in background

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.

Bodhisattva Seshi and Avalokiteshvara
Bodhisattva Seshi and Avalokiteshvara

Approach to Hōzōmon
Approach to Hōzōmon

Detail of Hōzōmon
Detail of Hōzōmon

Jinrikisha guide points out Hōzōmon
Jinrikisha guide points out Hōzōmon

Sensō-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple

After Hōzōmon we come at last to Sensō-ji itself, a high-peaked structure dedicated to bodhisattva Kannon.

Sensō-ji, Tokyo's oldest temple
Sensō-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple

Ceiling mural in Sensō-ji
Ceiling mural in Sensō-ji

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.

Sensō-ji with Tokyo Skytree and crescent moon
Sensō-ji with Tokyo Skytree and crescent moon

Daihizan Bujouji

Niomon Gate of Bujouji

大悲山峰定寺

Bujouji
Bujouji (sourced from Google Images)

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.

Niomon Gate of Bujouji
Niomon Gate of Bujouji

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.

Daihizan Bujouji「大悲山峰定寺」

Three-trunked cedar tree 花脊の三本杉

Hanase no 3-bon sugi
Hanase no 3-bon sugi

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.

Hanase no 3-bon sugi「花脊の三本杉」

Sazaedo

Façade of Sazaedo

会津さざえ堂

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.

Sazaedo
Sazaedo

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.

Aizu Sazaedo

Sanada Shrine

Sanada clan noren at Sanada Shrine

真田神社

Sanada Shine was built in 1879 by Maruyama Heihachiro as Matsudaira Shrine and located on the grounds of Ueda Castle.

Sanada Well and Sanada Shrine
Sanada Well and Sanada Shrine

In 1953, the Sanada and Sengoku clans were enshrined together, and the name was changed to Ueda Shrine. Finally, in 1963 the name was changed to Sanada Shrine.

Sanada Shrine

Kakeyu Onsen and Monjudo Temple

Stream flowing by Godai Bridge

鹿教湯温泉、文殊堂

Kakeyu Onsen Mascot
Kakeyu Onsen Mascot

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.

Godai Bridge over Uchimura River
Godai Bridge over Uchimura River

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.

Monjudo Temple
Monjudo 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.

Bosatsu Monju and Buddha
Bosatsu Monju and Buddha

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.

Kakeyu Onsen and Monjudo Temple

Wisteriamania at Kameido Tenjin Shrine

Wisteria at Kameido Tenjin

亀戸天神社

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.

Ema prayer plaque
Ema prayer plaque featuring taiko bridge and wisteria

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.)

Kame temizuya at Kameido Tenjin
Kame temizuya at Kameido Tenjin

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

Wisteria at Kameido
Wisteria at Kameido

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.

Turtles and Heron
Turtles and Heron

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.

Taiko Bridge at Kameido Tenjin
Taiko Bridge at Kameido Tenjin

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.)

Kameido Tenjin「亀戸天神社」

Saishouji

Jizo with pinwheels

最勝寺

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.)

Jizo with pinwheels
Jizo with pinwheels

Entrance to Saishouji
Entrance to Saishouji

Saishouji 「最勝寺」

Onsenji

Onsenji hot spring temple

温泉寺

This small offshoot of Rinnoji Temple in Nikko, literally named “Hot Spring Temple,” was founded in 788 by priest Shodo. It sits at one end of Lake Yunoko — at an altitude of 1,475m on Mt. Nantai — in the Yumoto hot spring resort, opposite the Yutaki Falls.

Nyorai-zō (Tathagata), via rinnoji.or.jp
Nyorai-zō (Tathagata), via rinnoji.or.jp

The temple was destroyed in a landslide in 1966. Fortunately, the central Buddha statue was found unharmed, and the temple was rebuilt in its current location in 1973.

Visitors may enjoy a bath in the milky, sulfur-enriched spring water between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. for a charge of ¥500.

When to visit

The temple is open from mid-April to late November.

Onsenji「温泉寺」