Culture Outdoors The Arts

Kotosanzan Temples Offer a Glimpse of Medieval Japan

June 27, 2014


Kotosanzan Temples Offer a Glimpse of Medieval Japan

Despite being known as the rainy season, June is often a great time to be outside in Shiga. The summer heat hasn’t taken over yet, and the foliage is as green as it gets. We found the perfect excuse to get some fresh air last Tuesday, when we arranged a visit to three of the oldest Temples in Shiga, collectively known as Kotosanzan (湖東三山 – or 3 mountains east of the lake). We were also lucky enough to meet with the head monks of the temples who gave us plenty of interesting backstory to put all of this ancient beauty into a fascinating narrative context. My wife, and our defacto Be Wa translator, was a big help during the visit since my Japanese skills are sorely lacking in topics like ancient history or religious philosophy, but the Temples do have English brochures as well, so don’t worry if you don’t have a translator for your visit.

Overall this was a great day trip that I’d recommend to anyone, but getting there by public transportation may be an initial hurdle. The nearest train station is Amago (尼子駅) a few kilometers west on the local Ohmi line, and from here your options are taxi, a 30+ minute walk, or possibly bike rentals (not sure about bikes though, we’ll update or comment if we find out more). There is also a sort of taxi-bus system catering to these temples that run from nearby stations or between the temples, but routes are somewhat limited and reservation (Japanese only) is required an hour in advance.

Before getting into our visit, I’ll do my best at a brief historical overview for some context, so you history buffs can either skip ahead, or tell me all the facts I’m getting wrong.

Let’s start back around 794 AD, when the Japanese capitol moved from Nara to Kyoto. This was also just after the Tendai sect of Buddhism had been founded, and it was headquartered at the Enryakuji Monastery on Otsu’s Mt. Hiei, which sits on the Shiga-Kyoto border. At that time, Tendai Buddhism flourished under patronage from the imperial family and local nobility. From this point forward, Tendai heavily influenced many if not all philosophers and sects of Japanese Buddhism that would grow over the following centuries.

Not unlike the power of the Catholic church in medieval Europe, some Buddhist Monasteries were being built and run more like castles

Jumping ahead to the Sengoku period of warring clans, Oda Nobunaga famously began unifying Japan and paving the way for the stability that would come in the Edo period. But unification also involved the messy business of dealing with opposing clans. The Tendai sect was not only aligned with the opposing Azai clan, but the sect had also grown to the point of influencing local governments, controlling economies, and more importantly becoming militarized. Not unlike the power of the Catholic church in medieval Europe, some Buddhist Monasteries were being built and run more like castles than temples.

So the end result, and the point I’m getting to with all of this, was that Nobunaga finally burned down many of the Tendai temples including the Enryakuji Monastery and most of the Kotosanzan temples. The main halls at two of the three Kotosanzan temples survived and those halls date back to the Kamakura period, but the oldest and biggest temple complex, Hyakusaiji, was almost entirely destroyed.

There are plenty more stories about Tendai, Nobunaga, warrior monks, etc but you’ll have to google them for yourself; we still have the temples to get to, so let’s get to our trip:

Saimyoji Temple – 西明寺

Stepping out of the car, we’re immediately drawn in by the massive old-growth cedar trees overhead and the mossy landscape beneath. All three of these temples have carefully arranged rock and flower gardens, but the entirety of the surrounding temple grounds is also beautifully maintained. Compared to tourist areas like Kyoto or Nara, these local temples offer a much better environment to relax and connect with nature uninterrupted. In autumn, the changing leaves of the Japanese maples attract a lot of visitors here, but this season is perfect for a quiet getaway.

Amazingly the entire hall and 3 story pagoda are constructed entirely of wood, without any nails.

Once we made our way up to the main hall, we met the head monk who was happy to answer any questions. He pointed out some of the details of the Kamakura period architecture, such as the kaerumata curved support beams so called for their frog-like shapes and the overall level of craftsmanship that went into many details such as the latticed ceiling. Amazingly, the entire hall and adjacent 3 story pagoda are constructed entirely of wood, without any nails. This sort of construction lasts surprisingly well as it allows the joints and interlocking pieces to move with each other over time as the wood changes shape, and it helps withstand earthquakes by allowing the structure to flex and move in response to tremors. The main halls of all 3 temples have ornately decorated altars surrounded by numerous statues, religious artifacts, etc. But each of the temples has a different primary deity at the focal point of the altar. At Saimyoji, this honor is given to Yakushi Nyorai (薬師如来, the buddha of healing and medicine). There is a corridor circling around the back of the altar where we could see even more artifacts, many of which are designated as national treasures.

After visiting the garden once more, we made our way back to the car and prepared for temple number 2.

Kongorinji Temple – 金剛輪寺

After a few short minutes by car, we arrived at Kongorinji. Like Saimyoji, Kongorinji also has a garden, original Kamakura period main hall and 3 story pagoda, but one unique attraction here is the 2000 “Jizo” statues that line the path through the woods toward the main hall. The Jizo bodhisattva is an important figure, but is particularly prevalent here in Shiga. We’ll probably have to tackle Jizo in more detail when Jizo Obon season rolls around. These small statues led the way for our 500 meter hike up to the main hall, each stone statue cared for by local residents, most clothed in red and holding decorative pinwheels; it was defintely a bit of a workout, but the scenery along the way was well worth it. And like Saimyoji, this entirely nailless wooden Kamakura period hall houses many relics and treasures, but the main figure for worship here is Kannon ( 観音菩薩, or goddess of mercy). The design and construction of the Saimyoji’s main hall may have been a bit higher quality (I’m no expert of course), but this one seemed more integrated into the surrounding mountain landscape. The temple grounds here also includes a small udon & soba shop which we hit just in time for a much needed meal and break before our final stop.

Hyakusaiji Temple – 百済寺

Hyakusaiji was a little further, but still withn a few kilometers, tucked away on a small mountain. This is the oldest of Kotosanzan temples, originally established in 609 by Prince Shotoku (聖徳太子), who is credited for Japan’s first major constitution and was also a strong advocate for Buddhism in Japan.

The kanji for the name Hyakusai (百済) are also pronounced “kudara,” which is the Japanese word for the ancient Korean peninsula. There was apparently some immigrant population from Kudara here in Shiga, and the head monk explained to us that there was originally a sister temple back it Korea. Hyakusaiji’s main hall faces west toward the Korean peninsula, and the sister temple faced east toward Shiga, but that sister temple was destroyed by fire and never rebuilt.

By the time Nobunaga arrived in the 16th Century, this temple had grown into an entire community with hundreds of buildings. As it grew, Hyakusaiji had also become militarized and fortified for protection. The head monk pointed out that much of the fortifying was more castle-like than temple. So much so that the temple now attracts attention from castle scholars.

The central deity, a 3-meter-tall statue of the 11 faced Kannon, survived Nobunaga’s fires and is enshrined in the current Edo-period main hall. I should mention that all of these temples, like many temples around Japan, keep the central deity of worship closed in an altar box, only to be opened on rare or special occasions. It was closed during our visit, but there were numerous other artifacts and national treasures on display. This was the only Kotosanzan temple at which the monk allowed us to take photos inside the main hall, so a couple of these treasures are shown in the photos above. Note – the rule of thumb is no photos in Japanese temples, so be sure to get permission!

So that about does it for our trip! Despite dropping a lot of history and religion here, during the actual visit we were mostly just enjoying the scenery. But it’s a great place for enjoying both, and as I’m quickly discovering, that goes for much of Shiga in general.


梅雨の季節として知られる6月です。この時期にあえてどこかへ出掛けるのも良いものです。夏の熱気はまだ感じられないし、山の緑が一層鮮やか。先週の火曜日、新鮮な空気を求めるという名目で、湖東三山として知られる滋賀県の3つの古寺を訪れました。それぞれのお寺のご住職からお聞きした様々な興味深いお話を知識のバックグラウンドに、これら古寺に息づく悠久の美を壮大なストーリーとして感じてきました。 歴史や宗教哲学に関する私の日本語の語彙が乏しいこともあり、私の妻、もといBeWaの通訳担当がいたことは大きな助けでしたが、英語のパンフレットもおいてあるので通訳してくれる人と一緒でなくても心配はないでしょう。湖東三山への旅はとても素晴らしく強くおすすめしたいところですが、唯一、公共交通機関が問題でお寺にたどり着くのがまず最初の難関かもしれません。一番近い鉄道の駅が数キロ離れた尼子駅になり、そこからはタクシー、もしくは30分以上の徒歩、そしてレンタサイクルなどで行くことができます。(レンタサイクルのことについて詳しい事はまた追々お知らせする事にいたしましょう)それ以外でもバスとタクシーが一緒になったようなシステムが、最寄りの駅からお寺まで、及びお寺間を走っていますが、ルートが少し限定されており、又それを利用するには1時間前までに予約する必要が有ります(日本語対応のみ)。







Saimyoji Temple – 西明寺





Kongorinji Temple – 金剛輪寺


Hyakusaiji Temple – 百済寺




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