Inside the dimly lit Main Hall, 1000 shining gold statues of the Thousand-Armed Kannon goddess stand in orderly rows. The mystical atmosphere makes this temple a popular hit among international visitors.
The temple is full of highlights, housing many national treasures such as the Main Hall and seated and standing statues of Thousand-Armed Kannon. It is also easy to get to, just a 10-minute bus ride from Kyoto Station or a mere 15 minutes on foot.
This article will introduce the best features of Sanjusangen-do Temple along with attractions in the surrounding area.
Sanjusangen-do: Japan's Longest Wooden Structure
Sanjusangen-do Temple's official name is Rengeo-in Temple. The key to the mystery of the origin of its alias "Sanjusangen-do" lies in the temple's Main Hall, erected in 1164 by Taira no Kiyomori.
The long hall, the longest in Japan at 120 meters in length, has 33 spaces in-between its pillars, and that is said to be how the hall got its name, "Sanjusan," meaning "33".
The number 33 is also said to come from the 33 forms Kannon possesses. This Buddhist teaching is represented in the construction of the Main Hall. The original hall was later destroyed in a fire, and the current building was reconstructed in 1266.
The long Main Hall is also famous for long-range archery. Since the Momoyama period (the latter half of the 16th century), archery competitions were being held to see who could accurately shoot the most arrows over 120 meters from the southern tip of the west edge of the hall. Today, on the Sunday closest to January 15, an archery competition is held in honor of the Edo period long-range archery. In particular, seeing newly come-of-age young people dressed in fine clothing as they shoot is spectacular. This archery competition has become an indispensable and representative part of bringing in the New Year in Kyoto.
Thousand-Armed Kannon Statues Surround the Stunning Central Image
Inside the hall, the temple's principal image, a seated Thousand-Armed Kannon statue (a national treasure), is flanked by 500 standing Kannons on each side, for a total of 1000 enshrined statues (all national treasures).
Beginning with the "Dai-isson" statue on the highest level on the left, to the "Kigoku-son" statue in the bottom right corner, each of the 1000 statues have names. Each Kannon also has a different expression, and it is said that there's always a statue that looks like yourself or your loved one, so try looking for them.
In front of the standing Kannon statues are Nijuhachibushu (28 Legions, protecting the Kannon deity) and Fujin and Raijin (the gods of wind and thunder) statues as well. Every one of the hall's statues are masterpieces of Kamakura period sculpture and designated national treasures, and the realistic artwork is stunning. This army of Buddhist statues that seem like they could come alive at any moment is a must-see spectacle.
The "Rite of the Willow" ("Yanagi no Okaji"), which takes place on the same day as the archery competition and has its roots in India, is the most important ritual at Sanjusangen-do Temple. During the ritual, a branch of a sacred willow tree is used to sprinkle blessed water onto attendees' heads, which is said to ward off illness and prevent headaches in particular.
The temple is said to have been built in prayer of recovery from the chronic headaches Emperor Go-Shirakawa suffered. The temple is also known by the nickname "Zutsu-zan Heiyu-ji" ("headache mountain temple of recovery"), and there are omamori charms sold to cure and protect against headaches as well.
On the day of the Rite of the Willow, entry to the temple grounds is free, and the statues of the Main Hall can be viewed for free. The temple is exceptionally crowded and lively on that day between all those coming to receive a blessing and those who watch or participate in the archery contest.
The Shuntoue Festival is Packed with Celebratory Activities and Events
Based on the significance of the number three in Sanjusengen-do Temple's name, on March 3 (3/3), the Shuntoue festival is held. During this festival, also known as "Momonohoue," there are many celebratory events, including floral offerings and exhibitions of the Ikebono school of flower arrangement, howa (religious teachings) and rakugo (comic story) tellings, and more.
On this day only, a special platform is set up on the pathway of the Main Hall to get a bird's eye view of the Thousand-Armed Kannon statues, which brings in many visitors hoping to view the statues from a unique angle and a sweeping view of the entire hall.
In honor of the traditional "Momo no Sekku" ("Peach Festival") on March 3, peach omamori (500 yen) are sold, available only to women and girls. Like the day of the Rite of the Willow, entry to the temple is free on this day, so there is always a lively crowd.
Many More Sights to See in the Higashi-Nanajo Area
The Higashi-Nanajo area where Sanjusangen-do Temple is located has many great spots for sightseeing. Hojujidono Temple, where cloistered Emperor Go-Shirakawa resided, was once located here. Today there are several shrines and temples related to Hojujidono Temple, including Hoju-ji Temple, Imahie-jingu Shrine, and Myoho-in Temple.
There are also many spots related to the historic figure Toyotomi Hideyoshi, including Toyokuni Shrine, which commemorates Toyotomi, and Hodai-ji Temple, home to the Great Buddha Hall built by him. The Kyoto National Museum across from Sanjusangen-do Temple is also an attraction you won't want to miss.
Aside from exhibits, the museum also features many interesting places to check out, such as the main gate constructed in the Meiji era, Meiji Kotokan Hall, and a large garden. Shichijo-oohashi Bridge crossing the Kamo-gawa River was completed in 1913 and, in 2018, registered as a national tangible cultural property. Try taking a tour around the Higashiyama-Nanajo area to see its many highlights.
Etiquette When Visiting Sanjusangen-do Temple
Photography is forbidden inside the Sanjusangen-do Main Hall, and you may not photograph any of the statues. Shoes are also forbidden in the Main Hall. The Main Hall path is narrow, so if you want to stop and look at a statue, you must take care not to block the path.
*Main photo: Myoho-in Temple
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