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Vegetarian's Japan Guide

Mii-dera – A Temple with Rich History and Stunning Scenery

Just a 30-minute train ride away from Kyoto, Mii-dera Temple (三井寺), formally Nagarasan Onjō-ji (長等山園城寺), overlooks the gorgeous Lake Biwa, is the headquarters of the Tendaijimonshū sect (天台寺門宗). It has been a renowned temple since its establishment, which occurred during the five years when Ōtsu was the capital of Japan. In addition to its rich history, it is known for the temple that houses one of the Eight Views of Ōmi (近江八景) and the 14th temple of the 33 Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage. It is also a popular but not so crowded place during the spring and autumn seasons for cherry blossoms and bright autumn foliage.

The temple on the hillside of Mt. Nagara (長等山) has a vast precinct. With many attractions scattered throughout the temple’s grounds, you will want to spend an hour at least, if not two, looking at this beautiful temple.

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The Temple of the Phoenix

Mii-dera Temple was founded in the late mid-7th century by the son of Emperor Kōbun (弘文天皇), who later died in the Jinshin War (壬申の乱). The temple’s formal name ‘Onjō-ji’ was given by Emperor Tenmu (天武天皇), who won the civil war.

In the mid-9th century, Mii-dera was revived by Chishō Daishi Enchin (智証大師円珍) as a branch temple of the Tendai sect. However, after Enchin’s passing, the monks of the Tendai sect split into two groups. One followed the teaching of Ennin (円仁) of Enryakuji (the 3rd head of the Tendai sect), and the other supported Enchin (the 5th head of the Tendai sect).

In 993, those who supported Enchin left Enryakuji and moved to Mii-dera. The Tendai sect had split into two schools, with Mii-dera following the Tendaijimonshū sect.

Ⓒ びわ湖大津観光協会

However, the conflicts didn’t end there. Mii-dera subsequently participated in various conflicts between the Tendai sects and Japan’s civil war until the Edo period (1603 – 1867). In particular, when Japan was under Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s control, the temple suffered from severe scrutiny known as Bunroku no Kessho (文禄の闕所). Many of the buildings were destroyed, and Mii-dera was on the brink of falling into ruins. The reason remains unknown to this day.

Fortunately, the day before Hideyoshi’s death, he left a will to revive Mii-dera to his second wife, Kita no Mandokoro (北政所). Following his wishes, the temple was later restored by Kita no Mandokoro, his son – Toyotomi Hideyori (豊臣秀頼), Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康), and Mōri Terumoto (毛利輝元).

Both the Mii-dera and the Tendaijimonshū sect still exist today. The temples are now known as The Temple of the Phoenix (不死鳥の寺).

Where Did the Name of Mii Come from?

Nagarasan Onjō-ji temple is more commonly known as Mii-dera. Why? Because the water scooped out of the temple’s well-like fountain was used when Emperor Tenji (天智天皇), Emperor Tenmu (天武天皇), and Empress Jitō (持統天皇) were born. The temple was therefore called Mii no Tera (御井の寺).

The well is now covered by a small worship hall called Akaiya (閼伽井屋). The building itself is an Important Cultural Property and is located at the back of Kondō (the main worship hall). Although you can’t see the spring source, you might be able to hear the sound of the water flowing!

When Enchin was at the temple, the water was also used during part of the ritual called Sanbu Kanjō (三部潅頂), which involves pouring the water over a Buddha statue. Whilst the pronunciation stays the same, the characters were changed from “御井” to “三井”.

When you get to Akaiya, pay attention to the dragon carving above the gate. It is said that the dragon used to rampage at Lake Biwa. The famous artist in the early Edo period, Hidari Jingorō (左甚五郎), defeated the dragon by hammering a nail into the dragon’s eye. Nowadays, this dragon is quietly guarding Mii-dera at Akaiya.

Mii-dera, the Temple Filled with Cultural Treasures

If you love to explore Japan’s cultural properties, you will definitely fall in love with Mii-dera. On its precinct, there are 10 National Treasures and as many as 42 Important Cultural Properties.

Amongst all the buildings that were reconstructed in 1599 – 1602, Kondō (金堂), Kangakuin Kaykuden (勧学院客殿), Kōjōin Kyakuden (光浄院客殿) are designated National Treasures.

If you would like an introduction to all the buildings on the ground of Mii-dera, please refer to their website HERE.

Most of the other National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties are only shown to pilgrims staying overnight at the temple. So whilst it is pricey, if you are keen to see them, make a booking through HERE. As the webpage is in Japanese, translate it to English using Google Chrome’s translation function at the right of the address bar.

The shokubō experience (staying overnight at a temple) involves morning chanting, a private zen session, and a tour to see the cultural treasures. You will also have the entire hall to yourself when you stay at Mii-dera. For more photos, please refer to HERE.

Niōmon Gate (仁王門)

The Niōmon Gate (仁王門), which you will first encounter when you arrive at the temple, is another fabulous building. Constructed in 1452, the roof of the two-story gate is covered by cypress bark (Hiwadabuki, 檜皮葺き).

Interestingly, the gate wasn’t located in Mii-dera originally. Ordered by Tokugawa Ieyasu, it was relocated during the beginning of the 17th century from Kaga Province’s Jōraku-ji Temple (常楽寺).

Ⓒ びわ湖大津観光協会

One of the Eight Views of Ōmi (近江八景): Mii no Banshō

Mii-dera’s temple bell close to the main hall, Kondō (金堂), is famous. The evening view of this bell is known as Mii no Banshō 三井晩鐘. It is one of the Eight Views of Ōmi Province (近江八景)

Ⓒ びわこビジターズビューロー

The bell itself is one of the “Three Bells of Japan”. The other two bells are both in Kyoto, one at Byōdō-in (平等院) in Uji and another one at Jingoji (神護寺). The bell was restored in 1602.

With a 300 yen donation, you can ring this bell!

What is so special about this bell is probably its urban legend. Once upon a time, a snake was bullied by children at the lakeshore of Lake Biwa. The snake was actually the daughter of the dragon king of the lake.

The snake was saved by a young man who happened to appear at the scene. To thank the young man, the snake transformed into a beautiful woman. They fell in love and eventually had a baby. Villagers later learned the fact that the woman was immortal. To save her child, she left her eyeballs behind and went back to Lake Biwa. Without vision, the monks at Mii-dera continuously signaled to her that her son was still doing well by ringing the bell every day. On New Year’s Eve, the bell is rung not just 108 times but as many times as possible to let her know that a year has passed. A rice cake called Medama Mochi (目玉餅) was also offered to her.

The Mii-dera Bell Fortune Slip (三井寺鐘みくじ)

Besides the bell, there is a water fountain with a rack that has numerous fortune slips tied to it. The water fountain isn’t for purification but for the water fortune slip.

If you are interested, head to the souvenir shop close to the water fountain. You will find a jar filled with the water fortune slip. After paying 200 yen, you can pick a slip from the jar. Head to the water fountain and let the fortune slip float on the water (refer to the 4th photo in the IG post). A number will soon show up. Show the slip to the staff at the souvenir shop, and she will give you your slip corresponding to that number. In addition, you will receive a small card (refer to the last photo in the IG post).

What is the card for? The board above the fortune slip jar has 100 paintings of various parts of Mii-dera (refer to the 2nd photo in the IG post). The number that will show up on the slip when it is wet also corresponds to one of these paintings. So not only can you know your fortune by drawing a slip at Mii-dera, but you can also bring a souvenir card home!

Kondō (金堂) and the Hidden Buddha Statues at Mii-dera

In Mii-dera’s main worship hall, Kondō (金堂), the main image, Maitreya Bodhisattva (弥勒菩薩), sits quietly behind the doors. Unlike many temples in Japan that open up their gates for pilgrims to admire their hidden Buddha statues, the Maitreya Bodhisattva has not been shown to the public until today.

This Maitreya Bodhisattva is said to be Emperor Tenji’s (天智天皇) possession. Although it is impossible to see it, we thought it is worthwhile to mention its size. Its height is only 9.7 cm tall, making it convenient for the Emperor to carry it around.

There are six other Maitreya Bodhisattva statues that are a tribute from Empress Suiko (推古天皇), Emperor Shōmu (聖武天皇), Emperor Yōzei (陽成天皇), Fujiwara no Kamatari (藤原鎌足), Fujiwara no Michinaga (藤原道長), and the revered monk Gyōki (行基). Buddha statues and cultural treasures related to Enchin are also securely stored in the temple.

Fujiwara no Kamatari is the founder of the Fujiwara clan, founded in the Asuka period (538 – 710). The clan later became Japan’s most powerful aristocratic family during the Nara and Heian periods (710 – 794 and 794 – 1185, respectively). Fujiwara no Michinaga was the most powerful chief adviser to the Japanese Emperor during the mid-Heian period.

Benkei no Hikizuri Kane (弁慶の引き摺り鐘)

It is said that the dragon god of Lake Biwa gifted this bell to a guy named Tawara after he defeated a centipede monster in the early 10th century. Tawara then later donated the bell to Mii-dera.

During one of the conflicts between Enryakuji and Mii-dera, the bell was brought back to Enryakuji by a monk called Benkei. However, when he rang the bell in Enryakuji, the sound produced by the bell was indifferent and expressed that it wanted to return to its original spot.

This angered Benkei, and as a result, he threw the bell down into a valley. So when you check out this bell during your visit to Mii-dera, you will find dents and imperfections on the bell, which are thought to be the damage caused by Benkei.

Another mythical thing about the bell is that it seems to have the ability to predict the future. When something bad is going to happen to Mii-dera, the bell will ‘sweat’ and will not be able to produce as much sound when rung. On the other hand, if something good is going to happen, it produces a nice, loud and vibrant sound when rung.

Issai Kyōzō (一切経蔵)

From Benkei no Hikizuri Kane, the next building is called Issai Kyōzō. The typical Zen architectural style temple is a comprehensive archive of Buddhist sutras.

What is housed by Issai Kyōzō is a Korean version of the complete Buddhist scriptures. The rotary
octagon bookshelf in the middle is called Hakkaku Rinzō (八角輪蔵). Although we weren’t allowed to rotate this cultural property, it was amazing to see the huge archive.

You can refer to the last photo in the Instagram for how the Hakkaku Rinzō (八角輪蔵) looks like.

The building was from the early Muromachi period. Originally, it was in Yamaguchi Prefecture’s Kokushōji Temple (国清寺). The famous feudal lord, Mōri Terumoto (毛利輝元), relocated it to Mii-dera in 1602. Even now, the cornerstone is still preserved at the precinct of the now Tōshunji Temple (洞春寺).

The Most Sacred Area of Mii-dera: Tōin (唐院)

The complex next to Issai Kyōzō is called Tōin. You will enter it from the side where the three-story pagoda is. The first photo in the Instagram post is the complex’s gate.

After Enchin completed his studies in China, the complex he established at Mii-dera was called Tōin. Tō represents the Tang Dynasty in China. All the sutras he brought back are stored in this complex, and the Daishidō is his mausoleum.

The complex consists of four buildings: the Chōjitsu Gomadō (長日護摩堂) in the fourth photo, the Kanjōdō (潅頂堂) in the second photo, the Daishidō (大師堂), and the three-story pagoda, the Sanjū no Tō (三重塔).

With a height of 25 meters, Sanjū no Tō is particularly magnificent. On the first floor, there is an alter with Gautama Buddha (釈迦如来) placed in the middle and two other Buddhas located at his side.

Due to its vast precinct filled with traditional buildings, Mii-dera is also a popular movie and drama filming location. One of them is Rurouni Kenshi’s first movie.

The scene where Kenshin first met Jinbee and saved Kaoru from Jinbee was shot in front of the building of Issaikyōzō and the bridge between the archive and the three-story pagoda.

Mii-dera’s Cafe: Honju-in (本寿院)

After coming out from Tōin, you would have walked for a while. The perfect spot for a break is Honju-in. The gorgeous traditional building is Mii-dera’s cafe. Because tatami mats cover the house’s flooring, leave your shoes on the shoe rack at the entrance.

The cafe’s internal is just like a high-end ryokan. The decorations and the flower arrangements are splendid. And the tea sets and dessert plates used were also stylish. Even the tea served here is one of Japan’s Top Five Tea, called Asamiya (朝宮茶).

When we were there, two dessert sets were on the menu: a Kuzumochi Set and a Cheesecake Set. To enjoy what Japan can offer as much as possible, we ordered the traditional Kuzumochi Set. It came with a mochi rice cake filled with matcha-infused red bean paste.

What comes with the tea is instruction on how to brew delicious Asamiya Tea. We highly recommend following the steps so your tea is delicious.

Besides the astonishing interior, Honju-in also has a small traditional garden. The maple tree’s vivid color made our tea time more unforgettable. From late spring to early summer, you might even spot a couple of green frogs around the pond!

Bimyō-ji Hondō (微妙寺本堂) and Mii-dera Cultural Property Storehouse (三井寺文化財収蔵庫)

From Honju-in, let’s head back to the main approach. The next two attractions are Bimyō-ji and Mii-dera Cultural Property Storehouse.

The temple is one of the five separated temples that belong to Mii-dera, known as the Miidera Gobessho (三井寺五別所). These five temples were built in the Heian period. The other four are Suikanji, Konjōji, Bizōji and Jōzaiji.

Bimyōji was originally erected in Nagara Park Mountain in 994 but was moved to its current location in 1979. The main image is an Eleven-faced Kannon Bodhisattva (十一面観音). Although it may be plain looking, it is from the early Heian period and has a high historical value. It is also an Important Cultural Property.

If you love Japanese-style paintings, ensure you visit the Mii-dera Cultural Property Storehouse. The old paintings stored here are just amazing to see. As photography of these cultural properties isn’t allowed, we took a photo of the TV screen instead.

You can refer to the second and the third photo in the Instagram post.

The last photo in the Instagram post is the statue of the Tendai Daishi, placed next to Bimyōji. He is the founder of the Tendai sect.

Mochi Rice Cake at Honke Chikaraken (本家力軒)

Next to Bimyōji is a traditional mochi maker, Honke Chikaraken. The rice cake here is so delicious that we bought three boxes as souvenirs after finishing the matcha-flavored mochi skewers.

So, instead of heading straight to the next attraction, Kannondō, stop by Honke Chikaraken for Ōtsu’s specialty Chikara Mochi.

The rice cake is referred to as Benkei Chikara Mochi. It has a deep connection with the bell in Mii-dera called Benkei no Hikizuri Kane (弁慶の引き摺り鐘).

This traditional mochi dessert was named after the incident in the mid-17th century by a mochi maker who sold mochi in Mii-dera. The small stall established in 1810 later turned into the proper confectionary shop you see today. You can enjoy your rice cake with a cup of tea as you gaze at the beautiful cherry blossom or the fall foliage scenery in front of you (^_-)-☆. If you want more tea, refill your cup by pouring more tea from the stainless steel thermos in the last photo in the Instagram post!

The rice cake sold here is a kind of Warabi mochi that is softer and not as chewy as Dango mochi. Due to its light texture, you can easily finish the two skewers and still not feel satisfied (´▽`*).

  • Honke Chikaraken is open from 10 am to 5 pm.
    • The last order is at 4:30 pm.

The Maple Tunnel at Mii-dera

The best place to be during the autumn foliage season is between Bimyō-ji Hondō (微妙寺本堂) and Kannondō (観音堂).

Ⓒ photo-ac.com

There are a couple more Buddha statues placed along the approach. Some of them are cute, whereas other ones are elegant, like the Kannon statue in the second photo in the Instagram post.

Kannondō (観音堂)

The Kannondō in Mii-dera is the 14th temple of The 33 Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage. The Cintāmaṇicakra (如意輪観音) inside Kannondō is another Important Cultural Property from the Heian period. However, it should be noted that this one is a hidden Buddha and is only shown to the public once every 33 years…

When you enter the worship hall, remember to look up for the old Ema plaques. It is just amazing to see how much effort was put into making the wooden wishing plaque in the past (refer to the 2nd to the 5th photo in the IG post)!

Moreover, if you climb up the stairs close to the purification fountain, you will reach an observation area. From there, you will get a panoramic view of Lake Biwa and the Kannondō complex (refer to the 7th and the 8th photo in the IG post).

There is also a bell tower in the complex. This time, you can knock the bell as many times as you want, free of charge! You can refer to the last two photos in the Instagram post for the bell tower and the bell.

The Cherry Blossom and the Autumn Foliage Season at Miini-dera

Ⓒ びわ湖大津観光協会
  • From late March to early April, more than 1,000 cherry trees will be blooming. The nighttime light-up event will also take place during that period.
  • The autumn color usually peaks from mid-November and lasts until early December.

Mii-dera’s Opening Hours, Admission Fee, and Access Information

  • Mii-dera Temple is open from 8 am to 5 pm.
    • The last admission is at 4:30 pm.
  • The admission fee is
    • 600 yen for adults
    • 300 yen for high school students
    • 200 yen for elementary school students
  • From Keihan’s Miidera Station (三井寺駅), it is around a 15-minute walk.
  • From JR’s Ōtsu Station (大津駅), it is around a 30-minute walk or a 10-minute drive.
    • It is recommended that you change to a Keihan train at Zeze Station (膳所駅).
    • You can also take Kōjaku Bus (江若バス) bound for Katata Station (堅田駅) and get off at Mihogasaki (三保ヶ崎). .From Mii-dera, it is a 10-minute walk from the bus stop.

Tips:
☛ Keep the admission ticket on you if you want to re-enter the temple on the same day.
☛ If you hold one of the valid Keihan’s Osaka and Kyoto One-Day sightseeing Ticket (京阪電車 大阪・京都1日観光チケット), show your ticket to get a discount for Mii-dera’s admission fee. Refer HERE for a list of other attractions that you can get a discount for and translate it to English with Google Chrome’s translation function at the right of the address bar.
☛ Check with the ticket office to see if Mii-dera’s admission ticket will still give you a discount for Lake Biwa’s cruise fare (or the other way around).

Important: We highly recommend wearing a pair of sneakers for your visit, as not all roads are paved. There are also some steep staircases that you will need to climb up.

Discover Other Attractions in Ōtsu City

Mangetsuji-Ukimido-Otsu-Shiga-Japan
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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