A religious spot you have to visit when you are in Kusatsu Onsen is Kōsenji Temple (光泉寺). Even if you aren’t interested in visiting a temple, you can get a wide view of Kusatsu Onsen’s township from the temple’s gate atop the staircases behind the communal bathhouse, Shirahata no Yu (白旗の湯)!
In addition, together with Arima Onsen’s Onsenji in Kobe and Yamanaka Onsen’s Iōji in Ishikawa Prefecture, they are known as Japan’s Top Three Hot Spring Healing Buddha Temples (日本三大温泉薬師). Also, Kōsenji was erected in 721 by Gyōki (行基), the highly-regarded monk in the Nara period who contributed greatly to Nara‘s Todaiji’s Great Buddha!
Tip: Before COVID-19, an event called Yubatake Candle Yume no Akari (湯畑キャンドル 夢の灯り) might be held at Kōsenji at night on the 2nd and the 4th Saturday of each month and long weekends. Around 1,500 candles are placed on the staircases leading to the temple when the event is on, creating a fantastic atmosphere.
Kōsenji Temple’s History
When Gyōki established Kōsenji, it was named Yakushidō (薬師堂). The temple’s name was changed to Kōsenji when Minamoto no Yoritomo (源頼朝) bathed at Kusatsu Onsen in 1193.
But the temple underwent a period of desolation. Fortunately, n 1200, there was a restructuring of Shirane Shrine (白根神社) ordered by the Yumoto clan (湯本氏), who governed Kusatsu Onsen. As a part of the reconstruction, Kōsenji was renovated and became the guardian temple of Shirane Shrine.
When the Samurais ruled Japan, Kōsenji owned monk soldiers and participated in a couple of civil wars. In the Nanboku-chō period (南北朝時代), Kōsenji once belonged to the Southern Court, so the famous warriors of the Southern Court are enshrined in the temple.
In 1481, because a nobleman, Konoe Dōkō (近衛道興), who became a monk, resided at Kōsenji, the temple was once an imperial temple. So it became where many noblemen at the time stayed when they visited Kusatsu Onsen.
Unfortunately, most of the splendid buildings of Kōsenji were burnt to ashes in the Edo period due to two fire hazards (once in 1710 and the other in 1756). So the current main worship hall Shakadō, restored in 1703, only has around 300 years of history.
The Late Blooming Buddha at Kōsenji
Since long ago, it has been said that the Gautama Buddha at Kōsenji’s Shakadō (釈迦堂) was made in the late 17th century by Kōkei (公慶上人), who contributed greatly to Todaiji’s reconstruction. And the wood used to make the statue was curved from the Great Buddha when a space inside the statue was created.
But this part of the history remained unconfirmed for around 300 years until an investigation was completed in 2005. So the locals nicknamed this Gautama Buddha the Late Blooming Buddha, and have been worshipped by those who still wished to be successful after they passed middle age.
There is even a late-blooming amulet (遅咲きおみくじ) that you can purchase!
Memorial Tower for Bathing Deceased (入浴逝者供養塔)
While it is certain that Kusatsu’s hot spring can help people recover from diseases, it isn’t possible to heal anything. So over the years, some still passed away from their illness at Kusatsu Onsen.
Thus, in 1905, a pagoda was erected in Kōsenji to pray for their afterlife.
The Bathing Benzaiten (湯浴み弁財天)
When Gyōki visited Kusatsu, he prayed for the people suffering from illness. Soon after his prayer, he discovered the hot spring with great medical benefits. So he erected Kōsenji and enshrined a healing Buddha hoping those who were ill could get back to good health.
Since then, the hot spring has been treated as a spring of mercy that heals people’s illnesses, which is the foundation of today’s Kusatsu Onsen Town.
The pond in Kōsenji is therefore named “Fountain of Compassion (慈悲の泉)”, and a Benzaiten is enshrined.
Why enshrine a Benzaiten? It is an expression of appreciation of the hot spring that, after bathing in it, people’s minds and bodies are purified.
Tip: If you want to see the Benzaiten, visit Kōsenji on the 7th and the 8th of May, the 16th of August, or the 8th of October.
Other Buddhas and Guardian Deities Enshrined in Kōsenji
There are many other Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Guardian Deities enshrined in Kōsenji.
On the stairs to the temple’s main worship hall, Shakadō, there is a small hall called Tōzendō (湯善堂), enshrining the guardian deity of the hot spring.
On Kōsenji’s ground, there is also a Hot Spring Kannon Bodhisattva (温泉観音).
And, of course, there are many Jizō Bodhisattva in the temple. But unlike many temples in Japan, many of the ones at Kōsenji have facial expressions, all different from each other. So if you aren’t in a hurry, how about finding your favorite Jizō Bodhisattva?
Kōsenji’s Opening Hours and Access Information
- Kōsenji is open from 8 am to 6 pm.
- Kōsenji is just a 1-minute walk from Kusatsu Onsen Bus Terminal.