Vegetarian's Japan Guide

Saikyō-ji – One of the Best Temples for Fall Foliage Hunting

Saikyō-ji (西教寺), at the foot of southeastern Mt. Hiei, is the headquarter of the Tendai Shinsei sect (天台真盛宗), which has more than 450 branches across Japan. The temple also gets more attention when fall foliage brightens up the scenery.

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The temple was founded by Emperor Tenji (天智天皇) when he was still a prince in the early 7th century. Although it was in ruins for a long time since the 11th century, it was revived by Shinsei Shōnin (真盛上人) in 1486 after he trained at Enryakuji for 20 years.

Shinsei transformed the temple into a training ground for chanting the name of Buddha (称名念仏). Because of his effort, the practice of chanting the Buddha’s name for wellbeing was widespread from the imperial court down to the commoners.

Even until the present day, the Amida Buddha’s name has been chanted continuously without missing a day at Saikyō-ji. Maybe this is why Shinsei was able to live until the age of 107!

The current main gate of the temple was actually the castle gate of Sakamoto Castle. The bell tower and the bell were only relocated to the temple in 1987 when their mission of providing military signals/notifications came to an end.

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The Story of Shinsei Shōnin and the White-Handed Monkey

Back in 1493, there was an incident that involved a monkey with white hands. At the time, Shinsei was mistaken as the leader of the unrest that happened in Sakamoto. So armed soldiers were sent to Saikyō-ji to arrest him.

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When the soldiers broke into the temple, they couldn’t find anyone. All they could hear was the sound of a gong coming from the main hall. Much to their surprise, they found a monkey with white hands hitting the gong. The monkey was later said to be the messenger of the god of Hiyoshi Taisha. After seeing and hearing Shinsei chant day in and day out, the monkey was indoctrinated and learned how to hit the gong himself. Monkey see… Monkey Do.

Upon witnessing this scene, the soldiers left at once. They realized that the temple was the true training ground of Buddhism instead of a venue where those who were up to no good gathered.

Saikyō-ji and Akechi Mitsuhide

Just like most of the temples in the area, Saikyō-ji was also largely destroyed when Oda Nobunaga attacked Enryakuji in 1571. Fortunately, when Akechi Mitsuhide became the lord of Sakamoto Castle, which was built straight after the attack, he put a lot of effort into reconstructing the temple.

This is why on its precinct, you will find the tombstones of the Akechi family, the stone memorial towers for Mitsuhide’s wife’s family – the Tsumakishi clan- and those who lost their lives in the battles to ambush Akechi Mitsuhide after the Honnō-ji Incident.

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The Descendant of Oda Nobunaga and Akechi Mitsuhide

The great news is, after more than 400 years, the descendant of Oda Nobunaga and Akechi Mitsuhide finally made peace in 2017 at Ayataka’s unveiling event (Ayataka is a tea brand in Japan)!

It was the first time that the two descendants met each other. Through the power of tea, it seems like the beginning of a great friendship was formed at the end of the event (*´ω`).

Saikyō-ji’s Main and Guest Halls

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One of the highlights of Saikyō-ji is the painting on the sliding doors in the guest hall. It is another place in Sakamoto where you can adore the drawing of the Kanō school (狩野派).

The hall was a part of the buildings from Fushimi Castle (伏見城), and the paintings were donated to the temple in 1598. The statue of the Healing Buddha (Yakushi Nyorai, 薬師如来) was from Kyoto’s Hōshō-ji Temple (法勝寺).

Also, inside the main hall that was reconstructed in 1739, there are quite a few statues and paintings that have been designated as Important National Cultural Properties. The main image of Amida Buddha’s statue is one of them.

Saikyō-ji’s Gorgeous Gardens

Saikyō-ji has a total of four gardens. Each of them is unique. For example, one of the gardens has a pond made in the shape of a lute, imitating the Lake Biwa that can be seen from the temple.

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At the back of Shoin, a garden was built to commemorate the 500th memorial service for Shinsei in 1989. The highlight of this garden is the dry waterfall formed by a couple of large rocks. It might be hard to tell as well, but the darker rock that is sandwiched between the two rocks represents the water of a waterfall. There is even a stone underneath it representing the waterfall basin.

Another one is in the Karesansui-style (枯山水), in other words, a Japanese dry garden. It has a large 2-meter rock standing in the middle with countless thousands of stones placed around it. If you are an amateur gardener, you will be impressed by the illusion created by tiny white pebbles and large black rocks designed to look like a stream flowing through the mountain and around the guest hall.

Saikyō-ji’s Autumn Light-up Event

As one of the most popular autumn color destinations in Sakamoto, the autumn light-up event in Saikyō-ji usually lasts for more than a month from November when the color of the leaves has turned red all the way until the leaves form a red carpet on the ground.

The autumn foliage season usually peaks from mid to late November to early December.

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

  • The temple is open from 9 am to 4:30 pm
  • The admission fee is
    • 500 yen for adults
    • 300 yen for junior high school students
    • 200 yen for elementary school students
  • From Keihan’s Sakamoto-hieizanguchi Station (坂本比叡山口駅), it is a 20-minute walk
  • From JR Hieizan-Sakamoto Station (比叡山坂本駅), it is a 30-minute walk
  • You can also take a bus from either station and get off at Saikyo-ji (西教寺), but note the number of services is limited
    • HERE is the timetable for the service (in Japanese only)
    • The first two pages are for weekdays and the third page is for weekends and public holidays

Discover Sakamoto, The Town that Thrived at the Foot of Mt. Hiei

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Click the photo to find out where you can get this awesome photo yourself!

Wondering where else to go in Sakamoto? The Former Chikurin-in isn’t the only temple in town that is worth your time. There are a couple more shrines and temples that have unique and interesting histories and architectures awaiting you to check them out!

For more information, please refer to our article on Sakamoto (=゚ω゚)ノ.

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