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Enryaku-ji Temple 延暦寺

Daikodo, Enryaku-ji Temple, Kyoto (photo by 663highland - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)
Bell tower, Enryaku-ji Temple, Kyoto (photo by 663highland - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Dominating the upper reaches of Mount Hiei-zan (848m), the Enryaku-ji is an important monastery and the head temple of the Tendai school of Buddhism. It is divided in two main compounds: the Tō-tō (Eastern Pagoda) and Sai-tō (Western Pagoda). It is one of the 13 Buddhist temples around Kyōto on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The grounds contain 10 National Treasures and over 50 Important Cultural Properties.


Enryaku-ji started its existence in 788 when the 21-year old Buddhist monk Saichō (最澄 ; 767-822) built a retirement hut on Mount Hiei, and an adjoining temple dedicated to Yakushi Nyorai (薬師如来), more commonly known in English as the "Medicine Buddha".

In 804, Saichō travelled to China to further his knowledge of Buddhism. He came back a year later infused with the ideas of the Tiantai (or Lotus Sutra) school. Upon his return to Hiei-zan, he established a centre for the study and practice of what became the Japanese Tendai school. In 807, Saichō ordained a hundred disciples with the backing of Emperor Kammu.

The Tendai sect flourished under the patronage of the Japanese Imperial family and nobility, particularly the powerful Fujiwara clan, who influenced the political scene throughout the Heian period (794-1185).

Monks underwent a very strict apprenticeship which required them to study the scriptures and meditate in seclusion for twelve years. Other training involved trekking over 30 km per day along steep mountain paths, regardless of the weather, their physical condition, and under a strict vegetarian diet. In total the monks were expected to repeat this strenuous tramp for 1,000 days spread out over a seven year period. This feat of endurance earned them of nickname of "marathon monks". The most promising disciples stayed at the monastery, while the others were appointed at the court and government. In its heyday Enryaku-ji oversaw a complex of 3,000 sub-temples and commanded a substantial army of warrior monks, known as sōhei (僧兵).

Tendai practictioners went on to found five other major sects in the 12th and 13th centuries: the Pure Land school (founded by Hōnen), the True Pure Land school (founded by Shinran), the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism (founded by Eisai), the Sōtō school of Zen Buddhism (founded by Dōgen), and the Nichiren school (founded by Nichiren). Among the mainstream schools of Japanese Buddhism, only the Shingon school (founded by Kūkai in 804 - see Tō-ji) does not derive from Tendai.

Saichō is posthumously known as Dengyō Daishi (伝教大師).

The warrior monks of Hiei-zan were prone to sectarian disputes between the branches of the Tendai school or other Buddhist sects (notably Hossō school in Nara). They became feared by political leaders as they occasionally marched on the capital to enforce monastic demands. During the Warring States period, Oda Nobunaga, who was resolved to unify feudal Japan, understood the danger of such an army stationed just outside Kyōto. In 1571, when the sōhei sided with the opponents of Oda, the warlord reacted by setting siege to the Enryaku-ji with 30,000 troops, burning the monastery to the ground and slaughtering the monks. Between 3,000 and 4,000 men, women and children were killed in the process.Oda's successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, allowed the monks to rebuild the monastery.


The main compound is the Tō-tō (東塔). Coming from the Oku-Hiei Drive Way, you will first reach a car park in front of a tunnel. The Amida-dō Hall (阿弥陀堂) and an adjoining two-tiered pagoda stand on the left-hand-side. They are recent reconstructions from 1937. Cross over the park above the tunnel to get to the small Kaidan-in (戒壇院 ; Ordination Hall), dating from 1678. The next building is the Daikō-dō (大講堂 ; Great Lecture Hall), built in 1634. It serves as a gathering place for monks to discuss the Buddhist scriptures and doctrines. It contains life-size statues of the great names of Tendai Buddhism, including the five above-mentioned "deflectors" who founded rival sects.

At the core of the complex is the imposing Konpon-Chū-dō (根本中堂 ; Central Foundation Hall), encircled by a roofed, colonnaded gallery. This is where Saichō built his original temple. Not surprisingly it was designated a National Treasure. The wooden statue of the Medicine Buddha that Saichō carved by himself is said to be housed inside the hall, although it is hidden from visitors. The present hall was reconstructed in 1642, 70 years after Oda Nobunaga levelled the previous hall. Opposite the Konpon-Chū-dō and Daikō-dō is the Kokuhō-den (国宝殿 ; National Treasure Hall), a museum showcasing the monastery's oldest and most valuable possessions - chiefly medieval Buddhist statuary.

The second compound, Sai-tō (西塔), is located roughly 1200 metres (600 m as the crow flies) north of the Tō-tō. It is a winding uphill hike, so count about half an hour walk. First, return to the Amida Hall and follow the road until the footbridge leading to the small Sannō-in Temple. Walk past it along the path into the forest (due north) until the larger Jōdō-in Temple. There you will find Saichō's mausoleum.

10 minutes walk farther you will come across a pair of twin halls, the Jōgyō-dō (常行堂 ; Hall of Perpetual Practice) and the Hokke-dō (法華堂 ; Lotus Hall), commonly referred to as the Ninai-dō. Legend has it that Benkei, a 12th-century warrior-monk, lifted both halls on his shoulders. More prosaically the halls are reconstructions dating from 1595. The Ruri-do (Lapis Lazuli Hall) is the only building in Sai-tō that survived the events of 1571. A flight of steps will conduct you to the Shaka-dō (釈迦堂 ; Gautama Buddha's Hall), the main structure of the area. It supposedly contains an image of the historical Buddha made by Saichō, but just like the statue in the Konpon-Chū-dō, it is mysteriously kept out of everyone's sight.

Todo, Enryaku-ji Temple, Kyoto (photo by KENPEI - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)
Ninaido, Enryaku-ji Temple, Kyoto (photo by Oilstreet - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Opening Hours & Admission

Enryakuji is open all year round from 8:00-8:30 am to 4:00-4:30 pm. The main admission ticket costs ¥550, and an extra ¥450 is needed to visit the Kokuhō-den museum.

How to get there

The fastest way to reach Enryakuji is to take a direct bus from Kyōto Station (1 hour, ¥750).

The slower and costlier, but more scenic route is to take a cable car. There are actually two cable cars, one on either side of the mountain. On the eastern slope (facing Lake Biwa), the Sakamoto Cable takes 10 minutes to make the ascend (¥840 one-way). It can be reached by bus (¥220) from JR Hiei-zan Sakamoto Station (20min and ¥320 from Kyōto Station). The western Eizan Cable climbs to the top in 20 minutes (same fare). Access is via Yase-Hiei-zan-guchi Station on the private Eizan line. Once on top, it is a 700m walk from the eastern station and 1500m from the latter.

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