At the foot of Mt. Sawa (佐和山), not too far away from Hikone Station, there are three temples that have a deep connection with the Ii clan, which is in charge of the Hikone Domain. Because of their history, these temples are popular tourist destinations after visiting Hikone Castle. If you have more than half a day in Hikone, how about hiking up to the temples and admiring the Japanese gardens and traditional architecture?
We have ordered the three temples below according to their level of connections with the Ii clan.
Ryōtan-ji Temple (龍潭寺)
Ryōtan-ji Temple (龍潭寺) at the foot of Mt. Sawa belongs to the Rinzai sect (臨済宗) and is the family temple of the lord of the Hikone Domain.
The Ii clan originated in Hamamatsu City in Shizuoka Prefecture. In 1600, after the Battle of Sekigahara (関ヶ原の戦い), as one of the four senior vassals of the Tokugawa clan, Ii Naomasa (井伊直政) was rewarded with the territory of Ishida Mitsunari (石田三成) and became the new lord of Sawayama Castle and the first lord of Hikone Domain.
As the Ii clan’s territory changed, another Ryōtan-ji was erected by Kōten Sōken (昊天宗建), a zen master of the time. This is why Japan has two Ryōtan-ji, one in Hamamatsu, founded by Gyōki (行基) in the Nara period, and one in Hikone.
But because of the gun wound from the battle, Naomasa passed away in 1602. According to his will, Kōten Sōken built a small Buddhist convent named Gōtoku-an (豪徳庵) and buried him there. In 1615, the grave was relocated to Ryōtan-ji upon completion.
Although Ryōtan-ji was built for the Ii clan, Ishida Mitsunari’s stele also stands on the temple’s ground. Once one passes away, whether he was an enemy or ally, praying for a peaceful afterlife for him is a part of the teaching of Buddha.
Because Mitsunari has a deep connection with the area, you will find many exhibits in the worship hall related to him.
What to Check Out at Ryōtan-ji
While the temple looks somewhat deserted, it used to have 150 apprentice monks taught by 10 senior monks at its peak!
The walls beyond the Sanmon Gate have some tricks in them. Tiles were embedded inside the wall, so if the temple was ever under attack, bullets couldn’t hit those on the other side of the wall.
This sort of design made us realize how good peace is. Back then, even temples had to have these sorts of defense mechanisms…
Inside the main worship hall (called Hōjō (方丈)), there are 56 sliding door paintings that are artworks of famous painters in the early Edo period.
The Gardens at Ryōtan-ji
Ryōtan-ji is also known as the Temple of Gardens. On the precinct, there are many gardens, large and small, designed by various monks. The tea house where the 13th lord of Hikone Domain enjoyed tea ceremonies was built utilizing the materials from Sawayama Castle’s gate.
At Hōjō’s south, the garden called Fudaraku (ふだらくの庭) is a dry garden designed by Kōten, mimicking where Mt. Potalaka (補怛洛伽山) is, Kannon Bodhisattva’s sacred sanctuary.
Around the garden, 48 stones are placed above light green moss areas representing the mountains in the area.
The island that represents Mt. Potalaka is in the middle. The stone standing in the middle is Kannon Bodhisattva. On the island’s right, a boat-like stone represents the boat that carries us to the world of Buddha.
The white sands surrounding the islands express an ocean view.
East of the complex called Shoin (書院), the garden is called Hōrai Chisen Garden (蓬莱池泉庭).
It is a strolling garden designed for visitors to admire the water feature in the middle. The large rock imitates Mt. Sawa, where the temple is located.
This garden was designed by Kobori Enshū (小堀遠州), a famous tea master and garden designer in the Edo period.
When you get there, see if you can find a rock island resembling a turtle in the pond. If you find the turtle-shaped island, try to find a set of rocks placed on a small hill to form a crane. As a hint, it is opposite the island in the shape of a turtle. We have to say; it is pretty hard to picture a crane out of those rocks when we were told the answer (´▽｀*).
Ryōtan-ji is also the first landscaping college in Japan. Apart from the two gardens mentioned above, the rest were the work of apprentice monks.
Tip: You will get better lighting for photography in the morning.
The Daruma Dolls at Ryōtan-ji
Ryōtan-ji is also known as a temple of Daruma dolls. When you visit Ryōtan-ji, you will find a gigantic Daruma doll in a worship hall, almost touching the ceiling with its head.
On the 1st and the 2nd of April, the Daruma Festival (だるま祭) involves rituals held in the worship hall that is covered by around three thousand Daruma dolls to pray for the fulfillment of the pilgrims’ wishes.
And from mid to late April, it is a great time to adore the splendid weeping cherry blossoms that bloom in the mossy garden and the beauty of 50 Yoshino cherry trees in other parts of the precinct.
From the mountain trail at the left of the main worship hall, you can also hike your way up to Sawayama Castle Ruins (佐和山城). However, please be aware that the trailhead isn’t accessible outside Ryōtan-ji’s opening hours.
Ryōtan-ji’s Opening Hours, Admission Fee, and Access Information
- The opening hours of the temple are from 9 am to 4:30 pm.
- The admission fee is:
- 500 yen for adults
- 200 yen for elementary and junior high school students
- The temple is around a 20 to 25-minute walk from JR Hikone Station (彦根駅).
- If you are taking a bus, please get off at Ryōtan-ji (龍潭寺).
- The approximate time required here is around 30 minutes.
Seiryō-ji Temple (清凉寺)
Seiryō-ji is another temple for the Ii clan. It was founded by Ii Naotaka (井伊直孝), the third lord of Hikone Domain. The Sōtō sect (曹洞宗) temple was erected to commemorate his father.
The main image is the Gautama Buddha (釈迦牟尼). At the time, eminent monks around Japan were invited to the temple, making it a well-known Buddhism training ground. At its peak, there were more than 200 monks gathered at Seiryō-ji.
Nowadays, Seiryō-ji is open as a Zen training ground. So please keep in mind that it is not a temple for tourism during your visit.
While not normally open to the public, many temple treasures are stored in the pagoda at the back of the main hall, including paintings of the successive feudal of the Hikone Domain.
Tip: If you are interested in seeing the paintings, the staff might show you. There is no guarantee, though.
Apart from the tombstones of the members of the Ii clan, the temple also holds services for those who passed away in the Battle of Sekigahara (関ケ原の戦い).
As a precious cemetery of the feudal lords from the Edo period, in 2008, the temple was designated as a National Historic Site.
The Seven Mysteries of Seiryō-ji
Where Seiryō-ji is located used to be the residence of Shima Sakon (島左近), a vassal of Ishida Mitsunari. Due to this fact, it is said that there are seven mysteries in the temple’s precinct.
- The main gate of the temple was called Unari-mon (唸り門). It was the gate from Shima Sakon’s residence. Before the gate was burnt down in the late Edo period, on New Year’s Eve, it is said the gate would produce some scary howling sounds.
- The Nandina tree, which is more than 500 years old in front of the worship hall, is said to be taken care of by Shima Sakon. It is said that if you touch it, you will get a stomach ache.
- Of course, please don’t touch it (whether you will really get a stomach ache or not).
- Another large tree in front of the worship hall is a Japanese bay tree. With an age of more than 750 years old, this tree is even older than the Nandina tree. The tree’s name is ‘Kimusume’ (木娘). It is said that in the Edo period, the tree transformed into the shape of a young lady every night, which scared the visitors.
- The living quarters of the head monk were built using the building materials from Shima Sakon’s residence. It is said that there is a wall that no matter how many times it is repainted, a mark in moon shape appears.
- Also, there is a well on the high ground in the precinct. Shima Sakon used the well when he enjoyed tea ceremonies. It is said that if you soak dirty clothes in the water from that well, the clothes will become clean overnight.
- On one side of the cemetery, there is a pond called “Chi no Ike (血の池)”, meaning a Pond of Blood. When Sawa Castle was taken down, the blood that was shredded flew down from the castle into this pond. Since then, if you look into the pond, the face of a bloody woman will be reflected.
- Lastly, but not particularly related to the temple. After the Battle of Sekigahara (関が原の戦い), when the vassal of the Ii clan was celebrating, it is said that the loot was taken away by a sudden strong wind created by some black clouds covering the sky above Mt. Sawa.
How to Get to Seiryō-ji
- From JR Hikone Station (彦根駅), it is less than a 15-minute walk.
- If you are taking a bus, please get off at Ryōtan-ji (龍潭寺).
- The approximate time required here is between 10 – 15 minutes.
Ōhora Benzaiten (大洞弁財天)
At the northeast of Hikone Castle, Ōhora Benzaiten is a temple established to protect the castle from evil spirits. Formally known as Chōju-in (長寿院), the temple situated on the hillside of Mt. Ōhora (大洞山) is a training ground for the Shingon Daigo school (真言宗醍醐派).
The temple is a popular place to visit among those who want to pray for a thriving business. Because rather than a Buddha statue, a Benzaiten (goddess of music, eloquence, wealth, and water) statue is enshrined in the main worship hall, people refer to the temple as Ōhora Benzaiten instead of the temple’s formal name. Because of the statue’s size, the Benzaiten here is known as one of Japan’s Three Biggest Benzaiten (日本三大弁財天).
Climbing up a set of long, steep staircases, you will be overlooking Hikone Castle from the Sanmon Gate. The scenery is just like a painting when the weather and lighting are ideal.
A Brief History of Ōhora Benzaiten
Another nickname for Ōhora Benzaiten is Hikone’s Nikkō. While Tokugawa Ieyasu isn’t enshrined here, the carpenters from Hikone who completed Nikkō Tōshōgū Shrine (日光東照宮) were hired to build the main worship hall. So although already weathered, it isn’t hard to tell the transoms were once extremely colorful and intricate.
Ōhora Benzaiten was established in 1695 by donations collected from all citizens of the Hikone Domain by the 4th Lord of Hikone Domain, Ii Naooki (井伊直興). A list of 259,526 donors was created at the time and is now one of Hikone Castle Museum‘s collections. Some said that building Chōju-in had led to Naooki’s inauguration as a Tairō (chief minister) in 1697.
Moreover, underneath the stone pavements, sands from 100 temples with Kannon Bodhisattva enshrined and 281 sacred sanctuaries around the country are placed. So, it is said that walking past the pavement between the main hall and the Amida-dō hall will give you the same benefit as visiting all 381 temples.
Ōhora Benzaiten’s Inner Shrine
At the back of the temple, there is an Inner Shrine (奥の院). The shrine’s legend suggests that the shrine was erected as a sign of appreciation to a god named Uga (宇賀).
In the 1770s, Hikone Castle suffered from a fire hazard. With the fire fastly reaching the castle keep, the senior vassals of the domain prayed to the god. Miraculously, the fire started waning, and further damage to the castle was avoided.
So a shrine was erected, and pilgrims come here to pray for anything they truly desire.
But that probably won’t be the reason for your visit. It is perhaps the trailhead of the hiking course to Sawayama Castle Ruins (佐和山) that you are after. It is also possible to head to the summit of Sawayama, but please be advised that the road can be really slippery. Furthermore, make sure you are back down by 4 pm. There are no street lights set up in the mountain.
How to Get to Ōhora Benzaiten
- The precinct is open 24/7.
- The temple is a 30-minute walk from JR Hikone Station (彦根駅).
Discover Where Else to Visit in Hikone
Want to find out more attractions close by that you might be interested in? Check out our article on Hikone!
In the article, you will be introduced to some delicious Japanese and Western sweets shops, interesting temples and shrines, and many more historical destinations you might not know!