If you want to avoid the crowds at Kyoto‘s famous autumn foliage spots, consider visiting Jōraku-ji (常楽寺), the best place in southern Shiga Prefecture to adore the vivid fall colors from mid-November to early December. While there aren’t many bus services that stop close to the temple, the scenery here will amaze you! Among the three top temples in Konan City (known as Konan Sanzan), it is located in the west. So people also refer to it as Nishi-dera (西寺).
Table of Contents
- Jōraku-ji’s History
- The National Treasure – Hondō (本堂)
- The National Treasure – The Three-Story Pagoda
- The 33 Ōmi Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage (近江西国三十三所観音霊場)
- Jōraku-ji Temple’s Opening Hours, Admission Fee, and Access Information
Jōraku-ji was established between 708 and 715 as one of the monk’s dwellings of Asei-ji Temple (阿星寺) at the request of Emperor Genmei (元明天皇). The same as Chōju-ji Temple, it was also erected by Rōben and played a role to protect the northeast side of Shigaraki Palace. The legend has it that when Asei-ji was burnt down in a fire hazard, its main image, the Thousand Hands Kannon Bodhisattva (先手観音菩薩) flew to Jōraku-ji and became its main image.
In the second half of the Nara period (710 – 794), when Saichō (最澄) established the Enryaku-ji in Mt. Hiei, Jōraku-ji converted to the Tendai sect with it receiving aegis from Enryaku-ji.
As one of the temples protecting the Shigaraki Palace, the imperial court provided much support to the temple. In 1360, the main worship hall was rebuilt after it was damaged by thunder in the same year. In 1400, the three-story pagoda was also reconstructed.
Both buildings escaped the civil wars in 1571, so we can still admire the architecture with hundreds of years of history today. Based on their historical value, they were designated as National Treasure in 1899.
The National Treasure – Hondō (本堂)
Jōraku-ji’s main worship hall is a cypress bark roof building. Although it is a bit hard to read, the words on the worship hall’s plaque are Jōraku-dō (常楽堂). It is divided into 3 sections: Outer Sanctum (外陣), Inner Sanctum (内陣), and rear Sanctum (後陣).
While the national treasure isn’t the original Hondō but was restored in 1361 after a fire hazard, it is still a building with a long history.
The hidden Buddha statue here is a thousand-armed Kannon (千手観音). On the altar before the miniature shrine (containing the Kannon statue), there used to be 30 deities placed. But in 1981, three of them were stolen. The location of two of them remains unknown. Nonetheless, checking out the facial expressions of each of the deities can be quite an interesting thing to do.
Because the Kannon Bodhisattva escaped from Asei-ji Temple’s fire hazard, the locals pray to him for longevity and recovery from illness.
Tip: If you want to see the thousand-armed Kannon, the next time it will be shown to the public is scheduled for 2036 (once every 33 years).
Important: Please be mentally prepared for the many requests from the staff when you enter the worship hall. This includes but is not limited to holding your backpack at the front. You will also notice many CCTV installed in the precinct. These are the temple’s preventative measures for another theft.
The National Treasure – The Three-Story Pagoda
Tendai sect’s most crucial sutra, the Lotus Sutra (法華経), is placed inside the other national treasure in Jōraku-ji, the Three-story Pagoda. Along with the sutra, a statue of Gautama Buddha (釈迦如来) is enshrined. Unlike the main worship hall, the pagoda isn’t open to the public.
In autumn, hike up to the higher ground to admire the pagoda surrounded by vivid fall colors!
Tip: It is better to visit the temple in the morning for better lighting and possibly fewer tourists.
The 33 Ōmi Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage (近江西国三十三所観音霊場)
Another notable thing about the temple is it is the first temple of the 33 Ōmi Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage. Around the pagoda, there is a promenade with a stone Buddha statue from each of the 33 temples placed on the sides. So if you have 20 – 30 minutes to spare, take a stroll along the road and worship the 33 statues for Buddhas’ blessing from all 33 temples!
At the end of the promenade, there is a Yakushi-dō (薬師堂). This is where the Healing Buddha (薬師如来) is enshrined.
The unique thing about the statue is that instead of a wooden or bronze statue, it is a Shigaraki ware statue made in one of the Six Ancient Kilns of Japan!
Jōraku-ji Temple’s Opening Hours, Admission Fee, and Access Information
- If you plan to take the Kōnan City Community Buses, get off at Nishi-dera (西寺).
- The bus trip will take around 20 minutes.
- Refer to our Konan Sanzan article for information about how to get to the bus stop.
- You can also take a 20-minute walk from Chōju-ji.
- The temple is open from 10 am to 4 pm.
- The last admission is at 3:30 pm.
- During the fall foliage season, the temple opens early, at 9 am.
- For trip planning, allow 30 – 40 minutes at Jōraju-ji.
- The admission fee is
- 600 yen for adults
- 300 yen for high school students
- Free for elementary school students and below
Important: Please note apart from the 10th to the 30th of November, you will need to make a reservation to explore the temple. To do so, please call them at +81-748-77-3089 between 9 am and 4 pm.
Discover the Other Two Temples of Konan Sanzan
At the south of Japan’s largest lake, Lake Biwa, three temples were erected in the early 8th century. Each has a worship hall designated as a National Treasure in its precinct. Together, the three Tendai sect temples have been known as the Konan Sanzan.
Besides Jōraku-ji, which we have just introduced, the other two temples are also worth a visit.
For more information, refer to our Konan Sanzan article!