If you are visiting Mt. Hiei in Shiga Prefecture, you can stop by Hiyoshi Taisha (日吉大社). The shrine is particularly stunning in fall. Also, if you are a fan of ‘Rurouni Kenshin’, you will want to visit the shrine as parts of the filming was taken place there!
The shrine is the head shrine for around 3,800 branch shrines across the country. Its precinct has a couple of National Treasures and Important National Cultural Properties.
Hiyoshi Taisha was established more than 2,100 years ago. In its large precinct of a size of 400,000 meters square, the area once housed as many as 108 sub-shrines. Although the number of sub-shrines has now largely decreased, there is still a total of 40 shrines on its ground, including the shrines in the Hachiōjiyama (八王子山).
If you have read our article on Mt. Hiei, you might remember the part where we mentioned the gate separating our world from the world of demons in the direction of the northeast. Situated at the northeast foot of Mt. Hiei, Hiyoshi Taisha has been the shrine that protects Kyoto from the evasion of demons since the Heian period (when Kyoto became the capital of Japan). Enryakuji then shared this role after its establishment.
After Saichō (最澄) founded Enryakuji, the god of Hiyoshi Taisha was then known as the guardian god of the Tendai sect.
Different from many other shrines in Japan, Hiyoshi Taisha has two main worship halls: the Nishi Hongū (西本宮) and the Higashi Hongū (東本宮). Each has its own main gods (Ōnamuchi no Kami (大己貴神) and Ōyamakui no Kami (大山咋神) respectively).
The Three Bridge of Hiyoshi (日吉三橋)
If you enter the shrine from the west reception, what you will encounter first is the Ōmiya Bridge (大宮橋). Together with Hashirii Bridge (走井橋) and Ninomiya Bridge (二宮橋), they are known as The Three Bridges of Hiyoshi (日吉三橋). All three bridges were designated as Important National Cultural Property.
The Ōmiya Bridge and Hashirii Bridge would be the ultimate pilgrimage spots for you if you enjoyed the movie ‘Rurouni Kenshin’. It is where the scene of Kenshin getting his first reverse-blade sword was filmed.
If you visit the shrine in November, the area may be flooded with visitors. However, the crowd will eventually clear out if you are patient enough.
The bridge on the right parallel to Ōmiya Bridge is called Hashirii Bridge. This wooden bridge was built in the late 16th century by Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
Why was it named Hashirii? Because the fresh stream of water flowing close to the bridge is also called Hashirii.
Ninomiya Bridge is located further downstream next to the approach leading to Higashi Hongū. Like Hashirii Bridge, it was also built using Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s donation. It was later rebuilt as a stone bridge in 1669.
Sannō Torii Gate (山王鳥居)
Not too far from Ōmiya Bridge, you will find the red torii gate of Hiyoshi Taisha. This type of torii gate is known as Sannō Torii, only found in shrines with the god, Sannō, enshrined.
Other shrines in Japan that were influenced by Buddhism also have a black cover at the top of the gate. However, this one has a triangular roof, representing a syncretism of Shintoism and Buddhism’s Womb Realm and Diamond Realm.
Who is Sannō and Sannō Worship
Before the founding of Enryakuji, all the gods enshrined at Hiyoshi Taisha were collectively known as Hiyoshi Daijin (日吉大神).
When Hiyoshi Taisha became the guardian shrine of Enryakuji, Hiyoshi Daijin was given the name Sannō Gongen (山王権現). That is because the Tandai sect that Saichō founded originated from China’s Mt. Tendai, which already had a guardian deity called Sannō Genhitsuhinkun (山王元弼真君). Influenced by Tendai Buddhism, a new name/rank was later given to Hiyoshi Daijin.
The Tower Gate of Nishi Hongū
The splendid gate of Nishi Hongū is the biggest tower gate in Hiyoshi Taisha. The two-story tower gate that was designated as an Important Cultural Property was built around 1586. And it has something unique that sets them apart from other tower gates in Japanese shrines!
Check out the four corners of the gate under the roof. You will find a Masaru (monkey) posing differently at each corner!
The monkeys are called Munamochi Saru (棟持ち猿), and it plays a critical role in defending the shrine from demons that may come out from these four directions.
Nishi Hongū and Higashi Hongū
The buildings of Nishi Hongū and Higashi Hongū were built in Hiyoshi-zukuri Style (日吉造). Whilst many more shrines were constructed in the same style initially, after reconstruction, the styles were altered.
Nowadays, the only three buildings in Japan that are in Hiyoshi-zukuri Style are all in Hiyoshi Taisha. And yes, the style’s name was derived from the shrine’s name.
The main characteristics of this style are the main entrance being paralleled to the roof’s ridge. Also, the worship hall isn’t directly attached to the ground. In the hollow space, there used to be a room with a Buddha statue placed inside until a decree separating Buddhism from Shintoism was issued during the Meiji period (1868 – 1912).
Nishi Hongu was firstly built by Emperor Tenji (天智天皇). In the Sengoku period (1467 – 1615), it was once destroyed when Oda Nobunaga attacked Mt. Hiei. The buildings were later restored in 1586 and then renovated in 1597. In 1961, together with Higashi Hongu, Nishi Hongu was designated as a National Treasure.
Compared to Nishi Hongū, the Higashi Hongū is slightly different in many ways. Finding the differences between the two buildings can be interesting if you are passionate about architecture (^_-)-☆.
The Main Gods Enshrined at Hiyoshi Taisha
The god of Higashi Hongu – Ōyamakui no Kami (大山咋神) has been the local guardian deity since ancient times. It is said that worshipping him comes with many benefits. From keeping your family members safe, protecting your property, granting you healthy relationships, and bringing prosperity to your descendants.
Ōnamuchi no Kami (大己貴神), the god of Nishi Hongu, was invited from Nara’s Mt. Miwa (三輪山) by Emperor Tenji in the late 7th century to protect the capital. As for pilgrims, it was said that the god would look after the prosperity of their family and grant them a smoother and happier life.
From the successive emperors, military commanders, down to ordinary people, the two gods of Hiyoshi Taisha have been deeply revered by the Japanese.
Monkey, the Messenger of God
Throughout the precinct of Hioyshi Shrine, you will see many monkey decorations. There is even a small zoo for monkeys in the shrine.
Just like the deer in Nara, monkeys are regarded as god’s messengers in Hiyoshi Taisha. They are named “Masaru (神猿)” in the shrine.
Close to Higashi Hongū, there is a rock that has a rope wrapped around it with white strips attached. The rock that looks like a monkey crouching down is treated as an object of worship. It is known as Saru no Reiseki (猿の霊石), which means a miraculous monkey rock. At Hiyoshi Shrine, it is a symbol of the messenger of god and a charm against evil spirits.
Using the rock as a model, some charms sold at the shrine are also monkey-shaped!
How Long Does It Take to Stroll Around Hiyoshi Taisha
- The shrine’s main area will usually take around 30 – 40 minutes to explore
- During the autumn foliage season in November, it may take up to 90 minutes to explore as it is likely to be crowded
- If you are heading to Hachiōjiyama/rear shrine, the one-way trip on a 1 km mountain trail may take around 30 minutes
- Hiking shoes or sneakers are recommended
The Cherry Blossom and the Fall Foliage Season at Hiyoshi Taisha
Although Hioyshi Taisha isn’t particularly known for cherry blossoms, there are still around 150 cherry trees from the great stone torii gate close to Keihan Sakamoto Station to the entrance of Hiyoshi Taisha.
The flowers usually reach full bloom around early April.
From early November, around 3,000 maple trees will start changing their color. The best time to observe the autumn foliage is from mid to late November.
The Connection with the Hie Shrines (日枝神社), Sannō Shrine (山王神社), and Hiyoshi Shrines in Japan
As mentioned earlier, Hiyoshi Taisha has as many as 3,800 branches across the country. Since Hiyoshi Taisha became the guardian shrine of Kyoto and the Tendai sect, a branch shrine was usually established when a Tendai sect’s temple was founded.
Additionally, during the Edo period, many feudal lords around the country had a Hiyoshi or Hie Shrine built to protect and overlook their province.
Sannō Festival (山王祭)
The Sannō Festival, which has a history of more than 1,300 years, is considered one of the three biggest festivals in Shiga Prefecture. The big event at Hiyoshi Taisha lasts 1.5 months from the 1st of March each year, with many people praying for a prosperous year during the event.
In April, when the cherry blossom season reaches an end, it is when the festival reaches its peak from the 12th to the 14th of April.
On the night of the 12th, the festival floats with the god of Higashi Hongu – Ōyamakui will be transported to Higashi Hongū from the rear shrine in Mt. Ushio (牛尾山).
After the god has arrived at Higashi Hongū, a ritual that reproduces the scene of the wedding ceremony for Ōyamakui and his wife Kamotama Yori him no Kami (鴨玉依姫神) is to take place.
The ritual taking place during the day on the 13th is the most gorgeous part of the entire event. It involves five-year-old boys dressing up in traditional armor and offering flowers to celebrate the birth of the god’s child that is scheduled to be delivered at night.
At night, a ritual symbolizing the scene of the goddess giving birth takes place at the four festival floats. The floats are then shaken, producing a loud sound representing labor pain. The boats are then dropped from a meter high to the ground, which indicates the announcement of the birth of a child.
After the ritual, the four floats are moved to Nishi Hongū, which will be stored with the other three floats of the shrine.
On the last day of the festival, the most solemn ritual in the entire festival is performed with the head of the Tendai sect coming down to Hiyoshi Shrine to offer his regards, his five colored coins, and chanting the Heart Sutra (般若心経).
The last ritual of the festival is held in the afternoon on the 14th of April. As the god of Nishi Jingū was invited from Nara by crossing Lake Biwa, all seven floats are paraded through town from noon. If you happen to be there, it might be the one time in your life that you will see Japanese festival floats crossing a lake!
The events that we described above can be summarized in this official video.
Hiyoshi Taisha’s Opening Hours, Admission Fee, and Access Information
- The opening hours of Hiyoshi Taisha are from 9 am to 4:30 pm
- The admission fee is
- 300 yen for adults
- 150 yen for children
- From JR Hieizan-Sakamoto Station (比叡山坂本駅), it is a 20-minute walk
- If you think a 20-minute walk is too long, you can take a bus from bus stop no. 2 in front of the station. However, please be aware that there is only 1 service available per hour
- Refer to HERE for the service’s timetable
- Page 1 and 2 are for weekdays and page 3 is for weekends and public holidays
- From Keihan Sakamoto-hieizanguchi Station (坂本比叡山口駅), it is a 10-minute walk
Discover Sakamoto, The Town that Thrived at the Foot of Mt. Hiei
Wondering where else to go in Sakamoto? The Former Chikurin-in isn’t the only temple in town that is worth your time. There are a couple more shrines and temples that have unique and interesting histories and architectures awaiting you to check them out!
For more information, please refer to our article on Sakamoto (=ﾟωﾟ)ﾉ.