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 season 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.
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 decided to split into two groups. One that followed the teaching of Ennin (円仁) of Enryakuji (the 3rd head of the Tendai sect) and the other supporting 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.
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”.
Mii-dera, the Temple Filled with Cultural Treasures
If you love to explore Japan’s cultural properties generally, 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 now considered as National Treasures.
You can go in and explore with a 600 yen admission fee at each of the worship halls.
The Niōmon Gate (仁王門) that 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).
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 by 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.
One of the Eight Views of Ōmi (近江八景) – Mii no Banshō
The Evening Bell at Miidera (Mii no Banshō 三井晩鐘) is known as one of the Eight Views of Ōmi (近江八景). 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.
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 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.
As the bell is just next to Kondō (金堂), remember to check it out! You can ring this bell, too (with a 300 yen donation)!
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 6 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.
The Most Sacred Area of Mii-dera – Tōin (唐院)
After Enchin completed his study 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), the Kanjōdō (潅頂堂), the Daishidō (大師堂), and 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.
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). The Kannondō (観音堂) in Mii-dera is the 14th temple of the 33 Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage. From there, you will get a panoramic view of Lake Biwa.
The scenery is extra stunning, with the trees dyed in vivid colors during fall.
When you get to Bimyō-ji Hondō, remember to check out the Eleven-faced Kannon (十一面観音) statue. Although it may be plain looking, it is from the early Heian period that has a high historical value. It is also an Important Cultural Property.
Furthermore, 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…
Mochi Rice Cake at Honke Chikaraken (本家力軒)
If you aren’t too time conscious, instead of heading straight to Kannondō, stop by Honke Chikaraken on the way for Ōtsu’s specialty Chikara Mochi. The rice cake is referred to as Benkei Chikara Mochi, which 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 (rice cake) dessert was named after the incident in the mid-17th century by a mochi maker who sells mochi in Mii-dera. The small stall later turned into the proper confectionary shop you see today. You can enjoy your rice cake with a cup of matcha tea as you gaze at the beautiful cherry blossom or the fall foliage scenery in front of you (^_-)-☆.
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 Cherry Blossom and the Autumn Foliage Season at Miini-dera
- 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: A Popular Filming Location
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 of Kenshin saving Kaoru from Jinbei was shot in front of the building of Issaikyōzō (一切経蔵), where the Buddhist sutras are stored.
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.
☛ 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
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.