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Sanjusangendo – One Million Mercies

Sanjusangendo.

Rengeo-in, the Hall of the Lotus King, is the formal name for Sanjusangendo, the 33-ken Hall, but neither of these names really conveys how special this temple really is. Founded more than 850 years ago, this National Treasure of Japan is home to 1001 golden statues of Kannon, and none of these look alike. Step inside this fantastic building and under the watchful eyes of the 1000-armed Goddess of Mercy.

History

Sanjusangendo was originally built in 1164 by Heian-era political leader Taira no Kiyomori. It wasn't meant for himself, however, but was a part of Hoju-ji, the retirement palace for Emperor Go-Shirakawa. This was an extensive palace with a large pond and temples and residences arranged in several subdivisions, but unfortunately, the entire palace burned to the ground in 1249, roughly 60 years after Go-Shirakawa's death. Only the Sanjusangendo was rebuilt by Emperor Go-Saga, and the new hall, reconstructed according to the original plans, was completed in 1266. Since then, Sanjusangendo itself and the many statues inside have only undergone minor renovations.

One of these was ordered by Hideyoshi at the end of the 16th century. Not only that, he also constructed another large Buddha hall just north of Sanjusangendo and enclosed the whole compound with an earthen wall.

In 1604, a famous event is said to have taken place at Sanjusangendo: The nightly duel between Minamoto Musashi and Yoshioka Denshichiro, head of a school of sword fighting in Kyoto. While the incident did happen (and Musashi's victory subsequently destroyed the Yoshioka school), whether it really happened here is not certain. It does make for a great story either way.

Taira no Kiyomori

In contrast, the Toshiya archery contests are documented to the last detail. Their origin lies in the Momoyama period around 1580, but they reached the peak of their popularity in the Edo period. The rules were simple: Stand on the southern end of the western verandah (i.e., outside the temple but underneath the eaves) and shoot an arrow to the northern end of Sanjusangendo. Most arrows reaching the goal win. There were different competitions: Most of 100 or 1000 shots to hit the target; or as many arrows as possible within 24 hours (12 hours for young boys). Easily one million arrows were shot over the years, and popular competitions – like those between samurai from the Owari and Kishu domains – attracted hundreds of archers and spectators. Sadly, the tradition came to an end in the late 19th century, but the Omato Taikai every January is its worthy successor.

Toshiya archery contest in the Edo period.

About the Temple and its Precincts

The 1000 standing Kannon at Sanjusangendo in an image from around 1880.

Upon entering Sanjusangendo, the standing statues of 1000-armed Kannon are the most striking sight. Each wooden statue is human-sized, and they are arranged in 50 columns and 10 successively raised rows to form almost a golden army. Of these 1000 statues, 124 are originals that survived the great fire, the remaining 876 were made by sculptors of three different wood carving traditions over a period of 15 years. Over 500 artists have been identified so far, and each of them gave his statue(s) a distinct face and different things to hold in her 42 arms. That means that every statue is unique, and each one of them even has an honorary name and is an important cultural property of Japan.

Flanked on both sides by 500 of these statues is the main image of worship: A seated Kannon that was carved in 1254 by famous Kamakura artist Tankei, who was 82 years at the time. This impressive statue has 11 faces (10 on top of the head) and 21 pairs of arms. One pair is folded in prayer before the statue's chest, the others hold various things to save the world, or rather: 50 worlds each. This is why these statues are usually referred to as 1000-armed Kannon. The Goddess of Mercy sits on top of an octogonal lotus flower and is one of Japan's National Treasures.

In front of the 1000 Kannon there are 30 more statues dating back to the Kamakura period. There are 28 Buddhist guardian deities acting as protectors of the Kannon; their origin in Hinduism is still apparent. Many of these statues on the northern half of Sanjusangendo are holding music instruments. At both ends of this row of guardians, there are the two Gods of Wind and Thunder. Those who know the famous 17th-century painting by Sotatsu will recognize them instantly.

Wind and Thunder God painting by Sotatsu.
Temple in full view.

Behind all the statues, there is a corridor that leads back to the entrance. It functions as a museum dedicated to the history of the temple. On display are, for example, the detailed records of the Toshiya competitions, complete with dates, names, and number and even type of arrows used. The rafters above the corridor bear votive tables of competitors, donated to the temple.

There is also information about the original Hoju-ji palace including maps and images. Research on the wood of Sanjusangendo suggests that it was once painted in bright colors that were thought representative of the Pure Land.

Finally, there is an interactive panel with which to take a close-up look of all the 1000 Kannon statues. A closer look is indeed warranted: Old beliefs state that there is a statue that resembles the person you want to meet...

The temple's precincts are relatively small and extend over the direct surroundings of the great hall only. Yet, circling the building is the only way to gauge its impressive size. Sanjusangendo means 33-ken Hall, and one ken is the distance between two supporting columns, roughly 3.64 meters. In modern terms, this means that the temple is 120 meters long, and thus the longest wooden building in the world. The number 33 is not chosen randomly, it represents the 33 earthly manifestations of Kannon.

The symmetry of the great hall.
The garden east of Sanjusangendo.

The beauty that lies in the symmetry of the seemingly endless building can best be admired from the western side, because it lacks the special verandah in front of the great Kannon statue. On the east side lie two strolling gardens with ponds that were completed in 2021. There is also a stone monument in memory of Emperor Go-Shirakawa made by Honen, the founder of the Jodo-Shu school of Buddhism and a contemporary of the emperor. The nearby well bears the interesting name Spring Crying in the Night, after the sound the gushing water made.

All this is accompanied by a vermilion corridor that offers benches from which to admire the gardens and the temple beyond. While this looks very pretty, it is a fairly recent building. Not so the earthen wall on the south side of the temple. This, as well as the adjacent South Gate just outside the precincts, is the very one created by Hideyoshi, reverently called Taikobei.

There are many interesting special events taking place at Sanjusangendo throughout the year. Have a look below, or check our main event calendar for current times and dates. Enjoy!

The south wall called Taikobei.

Annual Events at Sanjusangendo

Archery competition at Sanjusangendo.

The Willow service against headaches.

January

1, 10:00 Shusho-e New Year's prayers.

15, 9:00 Omato Taikai This archery contest at the western side of Sanjusangendo is a modern version of the traditional Toshiya. Some 2000 competitors from all over Japan compete each year. It is also a way for young people to celebrate their coming-of-age (Seijin-no-hi, the Coming-of-Age holiday is usually around this day) and you will see many young ladies competing in their best kimono.

15, 9:00 Yanagi no Okaji (*) At the same time as the archery contest outside, this event takes place inside the temple. In this ceremony, worshippers pray to Kannon and are blessed with holy water using a willow branch to remove various illnesses. It is said to be particularly effective to curing headaches. This ritual was introduced from India and in Japan has a history that dates back to the Heian period. There are special goshuin and amulets celebrating the occasion, only available on this day.

February

3, 10:00 Setsubun The ancient setsubun festival is celebrated here with prayers to Kannon and the traditional bean throwing.

11, 14:00 Hatsuuma-sai During this festival, goma sticks with prayers from worshippers are ritually burned outside the temple.

March

3, 9:00 Shunto-e Ritual (*) This is the celebration of Girl's Day or Hina Matsuri at Sanjusangendo. The Kannon statue is connected to the outside with a rope, so that worshippers touching the rope can get in direct contact with the Kannon. A special peach amulet for women is available only on this day.

21, 9:00 Higan-kai At the spring equinox, a special altar is set up in the temple where worshippers can ask for special prayer ceremonies for their deceased ancestors.

April

8, 9:00 Hana Matsuri This flower festival comes with offerings of sweet tea and a lottery.

May

3, 9:00 Kaizan-ki In this memorial for Emperor Go-Shirakawa, the temple celebrates its founding day. The service includes performances of traditional Buddhist music.

Jizo statues at the well of Sanjusangendo.

August

23, 9:00 Jizobon A popular festival for the protector of children.

September

23, 9:00 Higan-kai At the autumn equinox, a special altar is set up in the temple where worshippers can ask for special prayer ceremonies for their deceased ancestors.

November

19, 14:00 Ohitaki Fire Festival Goma prayer sticks are ritually burned in a sacred fire.

December

8, 10:00 Jodo-e Festival A prayer ceremony for the Kannon.

At events marked with a (*) above, entrance to the temple is free.

More Information

Sanjusangendo online: website (in Japanese), instagram (all in Japanese).

Address: 657 Sanjusangendomawari-cho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, 605-0941 (Google Maps)

Directions: take Kyoto City Bus 86, 88, 206, 208 to Hakubutsukan Sanjusangendo-mae.

Opening hours: daily 8:30 - 17:00; from November 16 to March 31: 9:00 - 16:00 (admission until 30 minutes before closing).

Admission: 600 yen (adults)

Photography: forbidden inside the temple

Wheelchair accessible: yes, both the temple itself and the gardens

Parking: limited car and bicycle parking; please consider public transport options

A goshuin stamp from Sanjusangendo.

Photos # 10, 11 courtesy of Sanjusangendo.