Vegetarian's Japan Guide

Ishiyama-dera – The Stunning Kannon and Literature Sanctuary

Traveling further south from Seta no Karahashi Bridge (a bridge that appeared in many historical events) in Ōtsu City in Shiga Prefecture, you will find Ishiyama-dera (石山寺). It is a temple with a long history constructed under the order of Emperor Shōmu (聖武天皇) in 761. The temple, established by a revered monk called Ryōben Sōjō (良弁僧正), is one of the three Kannon sanctuaries in the Heian period (the other two are Kyoto‘s Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺) and Nara‘s Hase-dera (長谷寺)). Another title earned by the temple is the 13th temple of the 33 Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage.

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Furthermore, the temple is filled with gorgeous seasonal flowers and cultural assets.

In particular, the Tōdaimon Gate (東大門) facing the Seta River was gifted by Minamoto no Yoritomo (源頼朝), the founder of the Kamakura shogunate. It is now an Important National Cultural Property.

Ishiyama-dera’s History

The story goes all the way back to the time when the big Buddha statue in Tōdai-ji (東大寺) in Nara was being curved. At the time, to complete the statue, gold was required. And Ryōben’s job was to find the gold. Having trouble finding it, he went to pray to the Zaō Gongen (蔵王権現) in Mt. Yoshino (吉野山).

The oracle he received from Zaō Gongen was as follows: at the south of Lake Biwa, there is a mountain where the Kannon Bodhisattva appears. If you pray there, your problem will be resolved.

Following what was told, he built a hut and enshrined Emperor Shōmu’s Cintāmaṇicakra (如意輪観音) and prayed. Soon after, gold was mined from Mutsu Province (陸奥国), the current Fukushima Prefecture.

Hearing the news, Emperor Shōmu wanted his Cintāmaṇicakra statue to be returned to Nara. However, the statue seemed to have its own will. Because no matter how hard they tried, they just couldn’t move it!

With the statue so determined to stay where it is, a proper temple was built to enshrine it. This is the origin of Ishiyama-dera.

Cintāmaṇicakra (如意輪観音) is a transformation of the Kannon Bodhisattva.

Why Is the Temple Called Ishiyama?

On the precinct of Ishiyama-dera, there is gigantic wollastonite. In fact, the main worship hall and pagoda are built above this wollastonite.

The stone that was designated as a Natural Monument (天然記念物) is so big that it seems like a mountain. This is why the temple is called Ishiyama, which means ‘stone mountain’.

There is something special about wollastonite. With the rock containing different water levels, the level of darkness changes accordingly! Whilst it usually has a grey color, on a rainy day or even when the air is humid, the color will turn black.

Ⓒ びわ湖大津観光協会

Tōdaimon Gate (東大門)

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Tōdaimon is the mountain gate of Ishiyama-dera. First completed in the 12th century, the gate later underwent a major renovation by Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s second wife – Yodo-dono (淀君), between 1596 and 1612. The two wooden Nio Statues (仁王像) stationed at the two sides of the gate are said to be the work of Tankei (湛慶), who was a famous sculptor in the Kamakura period (1192 – 1333).

The approach stretching from the gate has Kirishima azaleas lined that color the approach vividly in late April each year.

The temple, known for its cherry blossom scenery, also has gorgeous pink flowers decorating the surrounding of the gate in early April.

Ishiyama-dera’s Hondō Hall (本堂)

The main worship hall, Hondō, rebuilt in 1096, is the oldest wooden architecture in Shiga Prefecture. It is currently a National Treasure of Japan. It is where the Kannon Bodhisattva statue that we mentioned before is enshrined. The 5-meter tall statue is now an Important National Cultural Property that is only shown to the public once every 33 years or during important occasions, such as Emperor’s coronation.

So the Cintāmaṇicakra (如意輪観音) statue that you most likely will meet is the statue called Omaedachi-sama (御前立様).

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This worship hall is actually a compound building. The Sōdō Hall (正堂) was built in the 8th century. But half of it was burnt down in 1078, which was then restored in 1096. Then in 1600, a major reparation commenced. Two years later, with a donation from Yodo-dono (淀君), the worship hall was expanded to have a Raidō Hall (礼堂) attached to it.

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Also, the famous literature – The Tale of Genji (源氏物語) was born in this worship hall! Inside the hall, there is a room called Genshi no Ma (源氏の間). It is said that this is where Murasaki Shikibu (紫式部) began writing the masterpiece, representing classical literature in the Heian period (794 – 1185).

In commemoration, Genji no Ma features a life-size figure of Lady Murasaki and her maids.

Tahōtō Pagoda (多宝塔)

The pagoda of Ishiyama-dera was also gifted by Minamoto no Yoritomo in 1194. It is currently the oldest wooden pagoda in Japan and is a National Treasure. Inside the pagoda, a Vairocana statue (大日如来) is enshrined.

Instead of having all the stories in the same shape, this Tahōtō is considered Japan’s most beautiful pagoda. It has its first floor in a square shape, and the level above it is round.

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The Magical Kuguri-iwa Rock (くぐり岩)

At the right of the purification fountain, there is a marble that has a large hole in its middle. It is said that if you go through this hole, your wishes will come true!

Leaving whether it really has the power or not, it might just be fun to follow suit (´▽`*).

The Eight Views of Ōmi and Tsukimi-tei

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If you ask what inspired Murasaki Shikibu to write the Tale of Genji, it is said that it has something to do with the Eight Views of Ōmi (近江八景).

One of the eight views is the Autumn Full Moon at Ishiyama (Ishiyama no shūgetsu 石山秋月). It is the night-time scenery from the Tsukimi-tei (月見亭) located on the top of a hill in Ishiyama-dera’s precinct.

The current pavilion was reconstructed in 1687.

Other Worship Halls and Gardens in Ishiyama-dera

On the vast precinct of the temple, many more worship halls and pagodas are worth checking out. The temple is also known for flowers blooming throughout the year. So, flowers might be blossoming on the side of the approach during your visit!

You can refer to the map on the 3rd page of Ishiyama-dera’s sightseeing brochure HERE.

The Flower Calendar at Ishiyama-dera

  • Plum blossom: mid-February
    • Around 400 plum trees will be blooming across the three plum gardens
  • Cherry blossom: late March to early April
  • Peony: April to early May
  • Kirishima azaleas: late April to early May
  • Wisteria: late April to May
  • Iris: May to June
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Ⓒ びわ湖大津観光協会
  • Hydrangea: June to July
  • Lotus: July to August
  • Autumn foliage: mid-November to early December
    • When the 2,000 or so trees have their leaves turned red, a light-up event will take place, usually from mid to late November
  • Camellia: December to January

Ishiyama-dera’s Opening Hours, Admission Fees, and Access Information

  • The temple is open from 8 am to 4:30 pm.
    • The last admission is at 4 pm.
  • The admission fee is
    • 600 yen for adults
    • 250 yen for elementary school students
  • To enter the Honjin in Hondō, the additional cost is
    • 500 yen for adults
    • 250 yen for elementary school students
  • In spring and autumn, a special Murasaki Shikibu exhibition will be on. The cost of the exhibition is
    • 300 yen for adults
    • 150 yen for elementary school students
  • The special exhibition is held from 10 am to 4 pm. The last admission is taken at 3:45 pm.
  • To enjoy a tea session in the Japanese garden, it will cost you 500 yen.
  • The temple is a 10-minute walk from Keihan’s Ishiyama-dera Station (石山寺駅).
  • If you are taking a JR train, get off at JR Ishiyama Station (石山駅), then change for a bus bound for Ishiyama Danchi (石山団地), Ōishi (大石), or Shinhama (新浜), and get off at Ishiyama-dera Sanmon-mae (石山寺山門前).

Discover Other Attractions in Ōtsu City

Click the photo to find out more about this stunning spot!

Ōtsu, the capital of Shiga Prefecture, is filled with rich cultural and historical elements. Although it only lasted for five years, we are sure after you admire the scenery of Japan’s biggest lake – Lake Biwa, it won’t be hard to understand why Emperor Tenji (天智天皇) wanted to stay close to it!

For more information, please refer to our article on Ōtsu City (=゚ω゚)ノ.

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