Vegetarian's Japan Guide

Kōnan Sanzan – The Three Most Scenic Temples South of Lake Biwa

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 ‘Kōnan Sanzan (湖南三山)’ since 2005. But nowadays, instead of the national treasures, what attracts most tourists is the scenery in autumn. Read on, and you will find out why!

Getting to Kōnan Sanzan by Public Transportation

The three Kōnan Sanzan temples aren’t close to a train station. For Chōju-ji and Jōraku-ji, get off the train at JR Ishibe Station (石部駅). From there, change for Kōnan City Community Bus’s (湖南市コミュニティバス) Ishibe Loop Line (石部循環線).

As the number of services is limited, please refer to the below timetable to plan. Because only the Japanese version is available, please use the Japanese bus stop name to read. As to which bus stop to get off, please refer to the access information of each of the temples.

  • HERE is the timetable for weekdays
  • HERE is the timetable for weekends and public holiday
  • If a particular service is marked “通過”, it means it won’t stop at the specific stop

For Zensui-ji, get off the train at JR Kōsei Station (甲西駅). From there, change for Kōnan City Community Bus’s (湖南市コミュニティバス) Shimoda Line (下田線). Please refer to HERE for the service’s timetable.

The Cherry Blossom and Fall Foliage Season at Chōju-ji

  • The cherry trees at Chōju-ji usually bloom from early to mid-April
  • The 1,500 azaleas at Jōraku-ji will blossom from mid-April to mid-May
  • The autumn foliage season at Chōju-ji usually peaks from mid-November to early December
  • One of the most popular photography spots in Chōju-ji is the 200-meter approach that red fallen leaves will cover in late November
  • In 2021, the Kōnan Sanzan Autumn Festival (湖南三山紅葉めぐり) was held from the 10th to the 30th of November.

Chōju-ji Temple (長寿寺)

Ⓒ びわこビジターズビューロー

In the Ishibe region of Kōnan City, Chōju-ji is a temple with breathtaking scenery.

It is also referred to as Higashi-dera (東寺) because it is the temple east of Jōraku-ji, one of the other Kōnan Sanzan temples.

Chōju-ji Temple’s History

In 724, when Emperor Shōmu (聖武天皇) succeeded the throne, he didn’t have any children. So Rōben (良弁), the monk who established the Tōdai-ji in Nara, performed a praying ritual at Mt. Aposhi’s (阿星山) waterfall. Soon after the ritual, the emperor was gifted with a princess.

A temple was then erected to pray for the longevity of the princess by Rōben at the emperor’s request in the earth 8th century. This is the origin of Chōju-ji and why the temple was named “Chōju”, meaning longevity.

Another role that Chōju-ji played is guarding the Shigaraki Palace (紫香楽宮) from the attack of the demons and evil spirits coming from the northeast. In ancient Japan, it was believed that the gate that separated the human and demon realms was situated in the northeast direction.

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In fact, the purpose of Rōben’s ritual wasn’t just to pray for an heir for the emperor. At the time, the country suffered from severe natural disasters and epidemics. Although wanting to improve the situation, he didn’t know what could be done to save his people. So Emperor Shōmu decided to seek help from Buddha. Miraculously, after the ritual was completed, the situation got better.

Pleased by the effect of the Buddhist ritual, Emperor Shōmu requested dozens of temples to be established northeast of the Shigaraki Palace, and Chōju-ji was one of them.

In the Heian period (794 – 1185), Chōju-ji thrived as one of the biggest Tendai sect’s training grounds, with more than 5,000 sub-temples built around it to accommodate the disciples learning at Chōju-ji. Furthermore, the temple has been the prayer place for the Kamakura and Muromachi Shogunate.

The Capital of Japan in the Early 8th Century

As mentioned previously, Japan suffered from several natural disasters and epidemics under Emperor Shōmu’s reign. With so many unfortunate events happening simultaneously, the emperor thought it must be because the capital, Nara, was cursed. So, let’s move the capital and see if the situation will improve!

Based on this thought, the country’s capital was moved four times in just a couple of years. And here is the sequence.

  • From the Heijō-kyō (平城京) in Nara to the Kuni-kyō (恭仁京) in Kyoto
  • Then from Kyoto’s Kuni-kyō to Shiga’s Shigaraki no Miya (紫香楽宮)
  • From Shigaraki no Miya in Shiga to Naniwa-kyō (難波京) in Osaka
  • Lastly, and ironically, from Osaka’s Naniwa-kyō back to Nara’s Heijō-kyō

Since it became obvious that relocating the capital wasn’t helping the situation, he approached Rōben.

The 120-meter Approach, Continued from the Sanmon Gate

Beyond the Sanmon Gate in the photo, the road splits. On the left, it is the approach to Chōju-ji’s guardian shrine Hakusan Jinja (白山神社).

Ⓒ 長寿寺

Walking on the approach to the worship halls of Chōju-ji, you might notice many animal decorations placed under the trees at the side of the approach (refer to the Instagram post). They are all Shigaraki ware made from the Shigaraki Town closed by.

Chōju-ji is also known for its power to grant child-related prayers. The first big worship hall, Naibutsu-dō (内佛堂), that you will encounter at the side of the approach is where you can make such prayers. Closer to Naibutsu-dō, there are a couple of small stone lanterns called Kodakara Tōrō (子宝灯籠). You can also pray to them for safe delivery or child conception.

The National Treasure, Hondō (本堂)

At the end of the approach, you will see the main worship hall – Hondō. The National Treasure with a cypress bark roof is the oldest architecture among all buildings in the three temples in Kōnan Sanzan. Many statues were designated as Important National Cultural Properties inside the worship hall, which are worth checking out!

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The Koyasu Jizō Bodhisattva (子安地蔵菩薩), which is the Bodhisattva in charge of child-related matters, is also enshrined in the main worship hall. This statue was carved by Gyōki (行基), a highly regarded monk in Japan.

Keep in mind that the Koyasu Jizō Bodhisattva is a hidden image and is only exhibited once every 50 years. The next time you get to meet him will be in 2062.

Benten-dō hall (弁天堂) and Hakusan Shrine

Other than the main worship hall, Chōju-ji also has many important national cultural properties in its precinct, including the Benten-dō hall (弁天堂) next to the main worship hall.

In the small pond of the temple, the Benten-dō hall is quietly sticking out of the pond. The small but elegant hall was built in 1550 and is another photogenic spot in the temple.

The Ruins of the Three-story Pagoda (三重塔跡)

Although Chōju-ji prospered as the center of Buddhism since its establishment, the scale of the temple was largely reduced after Oda Nobunaga relocated some of the most important buildings in the second half of the 16th century.

On the hill at the left of the Haiden Hall (拝殿) of Shirayama Shrine, there used to be a Three-story Pagoda standing. After Oda Nobunaga moved it to the Sōken-ji Temple (摠見寺) in Azuchi Castle ruins in Ōmi Hachiman City (近江八幡市), there are only a few foundation stones left on the ground now.

So if you want to see the pagoda, you have to travel north to Sōken-ji…

Furthermore, the tower gate was moved to the Rendai-ji (蓮台寺) in Ritto City (栗東市). As a result, the past glory was lost.

Shiun Falls (紫雲の滝)

If you have ever wondered where the magical waterfall where Rōben performed the ritual is, it is the Shiun Falls, close to the foot of Mt. Aposhi. From Chōju-ji, it is around a meter hike toward the summit.

It is said that when Rōben was here, some beautiful purple smoke rose from the waterfall, which is where the 3-meter waterfall got its name from.

Ⓒ 滋賀県

Chōju-ji’s Opening Hours, Admission Fees, and Access Information

  • If you are taking the Kōnan City Community Buses, get off at Chōju-ji (長寿寺)
    • The bus trip will take around 15 minutes
  • The temple is open from 9 am to 4 pm
    • The last admission is at 3:30 pm
    • For trip planning, allow 1 – 2 hours at Chōju-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 from January to March, you will need to make a reservation to explore the temple. To do so, please give them a call at +81-748-77-3813 between 9 am and 4 pm. Or, you can submit a web form inquiry HERE.

You can translate the webpage with Google Chrome’s translation function at the right of the address bar.

Jōraku-ji Temple (常楽寺)

Jōraku-ji was established a bit earlier than Chōju-ji, between 708 – 715, at the request of Emperor Genmei (元明天皇). The same as Chōju-ji, it was also erected by Rōben to protect the northeast side of Shigaraki Palace. Among the three temples of Kōnan Sanzan, it is located in the west. So people also refer to it as Nishi-dera (西寺).

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 also 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).

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 expression of each of the deities can be quite an interesting thing to do.

Tip: If you want to see the thousand-armed Kannon, the next time it will be shown to the public is scheduled in 2036 (once every 33 years).

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.

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 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. 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 instead of a wooden or a 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 Fees, and Access Information

  • If you are taking the Kōnan City Community Buses, get off at Nishi-dera (西寺)
    • The bus trip will take around 20 minutes
  • 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 fall foliage season, you will need to make a reservation to explore the temple. To do so, please give them a call at +81-748-77-3089 between 9 am and 4 pm.

Zensui-ji Temple (善水寺)

The same as Jōraku-ji, Zensui-ji was also established between 708 – 715 at the request of Emperor Genmei (元明天皇). The primary purpose of the temple’s erection was to pray for the country’s well-being and prosperity.

If you love to examine old Buddha statues, your time at Zensui-ji will be heavenly.

Zensui-ji Wasn’t Called Zensui-ji Initially?

When the temple was erected, it was named Wadō-ji (和銅寺), derived from the name of the era at the time. So why was the name changed? It has everything to do with Saichō (最澄) and Enryaku-ji.

Enryaku-ji in Mt. Hiei was founded in 788. Two years later, Saichō was seeking building materials (i.e. wood) to build more worship halls. But at the time, transporting wood from other mountains close by was hard work, as you can imagine. The easiest way to complete the task is to utilize the Yasu River (野洲川). However, there was a problem: the water flowing down the river wasn’t enough due to the continued good weather.

As a monk with some spiritual power, the obstacle wasn’t as challenging.

Saichō decided to perform a ritual of praying for rain to increase the water levels in the Yasu River. While looking for a suitable venue to perform the ritual, he saw a ray of light shine from the mountains of Iwane. Seeking the light source, he ended up at the Momotsutai Pond (百伝池) in Zensui-ji. And the object that was glowing was a Healing Buddha statue.

So Saichō performed the ritual in front of the statue for seven days. Upon completion, the Buddha granted Saichō’s prayer, and the region received adequate rainfall, which enabled the wood to be transported to Mt. Hiei.

Because of this event, Zensui-ji was converted into a Tendai sect temple with the Healing Buddha as the main image. Furthermore, Momotsutai Pond’s water is said to have the power of healing after the Healing Buddha emerged from it during the ritual. In fact, when Emperor Kanmu (桓武天皇) fell ill, Saichō presented the water after some prayers. The emperor recovered soon after he drank the water.

So, to show his appreciation, Emperor Kanmu gave the temple the name Zensui, describing the fine water of the temple.

Unfortunately, except for the main worship hall, all buildings in the precinct were destroyed when Oda Nobunaga took down Enryaku-ji.

Ganzan Daishi-dō (元三大師堂)

Soon after you pass the ticket booth, you will encounter a bell tower built in 1663 at the side of the road. The worship hall opposite it is called Ganzan Daishi-dō (元三大師堂), restored in 1713.

Ganzan Daishi is the 18th head of the Tendai sect Jie Daishi (慈恵大師). Some also referred to him as Ryōgen (良源). Inside the worship hall, there is a life-size statue of Jie Daishi.

If you are curious about where Jie Daishi got his nickname (Ganzan Daishi) from, please refer to our Mt. Hiei article.

The National Treasure – Hondō

Not too far away from Ganzan Daishi-dō, the cypress bark roofed main worship hall was designated as a National Treasure in 1954.

The worship hall’s reconstruction was completed in 1366. More than 30 Buddha statues are enshrined inside the worship hall on the Shumi-dan altar (須弥壇)! Inside the miniature shrine, the main image of Healing Buddha is enshrined.

The hidden Healing Buddha is surrounded by two of the kings of heaven in Hindu mythology (梵天立像・帝釈天立像), the Four Heavingly Kings (四天王), and the Twelve Divine Generals (十二神将) who protect Healing Buddha’s Dharma.

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Even in Kyoto, you can hardly find a temple with as many Buddhas enshrined under one roof. Plus, you won’t be pushed around at Zensui-ji!

Because photography isn’t allowed in the worship hall, you can check out some statues’ photos in advance on the official website HERE.

As a side note, many of the statues in Hondō were designated as important national cultural properties.

Zensui-ji’s Garden

The garden is where the magical Momotsute Pond is located. It was transformed into a strolling garden designed for visitors to adore the pond in 2012.

In the small worship hall on the small island in the pond, the Benzaiten is enshrined.

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On the bank of Momotsute Pond, there is a fountain where you can source the sacred water that cured Emperor Kanmu’s illness with a water container. If you don’t have one with you, you can get one from the shrine’s office with a donation.

Other Worship Halls at Zensui-ji

There are a couple more worship halls in the temple’s precinct with different Buddhas and deities enshrined.

Just above the water fountain, there is a Rokusho Gongen-sha (六所権現社). It is the guardian shrine of Zensui-ji and has the god of Ise (伊勢), Kasuga (春日), Hachiman (八幡), Kamō (賀茂), Atsuta (熱田), and Kashima (鹿島) enshrined.

Beyond Rokusho Gongen-sha, at the highest point of Zensui-ji, there is a Gyōja-dō (行者堂). In ancient times, the area used to have many practitioners of Shugendō (修験道) who performed mountain worship.

Close to Zensui-ji, there is also a Jizō-dō (地蔵堂) for Jizō Bodhisattva and a Kannon-dō (観音堂) for Kannon Bodhisattva. The Kannon-dō, established in 1696, has a sitting Kannon statue made in the Heian period.

Walking further away from the temple, close to a bamboo grove, this was where some of the 26 sub-temples were located. Back then, the temple thrived as a large Tendai school training ground with more than 100 disciples.

If you want to know more about what Shugendo is, refer to our article on Mt. Yoshino.

Zensui-ji’s Opening Hours, Admission Fees, and Access Information

  • From JR Kōsei Station (甲西駅), If you are taking the Kōnan City Community Bus, get off at Iwane (岩根)
    • From the bus stop, it is around a 15 to 20-minute walk
  • The temple is open from 9 am to 5 pm
    • From November to February, the temple closes early at 4 pm
  • For trip planning, allow 30 – 40 minutes at Zensui-ji
  • The admission fee is
    • 600 yen for adults
    • 300 yen for high school students
    • Free for elementary school students and below

Important: The second half of the road to Zensui-ji is an earthen road. So it would be best to visit the temple with comfortable footwear.

Tip: If you understand Japanese, check with the temple to see if the monk has time to give you a brief tour around Zensui-ji.

Discover the Fascinating Attractions in Kōka City

Torii-Gate-in-Benten-ike-at-Daichi-ji-Koka-Shiga-Japan
Click the photo to find out more about this breathtaking scenery!

Kōka City close to the Kōnan Sanzan is known for its ninja-themed attractions and is the hometown of one of the Six Ancient Kilns in Japan.

Furthermore, there are a couple of hidden gems for cherry blossom and fall foliage hunting. So check out our article on Kōka City and start planning your next trip (=゚ω゚)ノ.

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