Located deep in the mountains of eastern Shimane Prefecture, Gakuen-ji is one of the most historic Buddhist temples in the region. Its roots go back to the beginning of Buddhism in Japan and is said to have been founded at the request of the first reigning empress in the country’s recorded history.
The current temple grounds are a stop on the Chugoku 33 Kannon Pilgrimage and Izumo Shinbutsu Pilgrimage among others. Gakuen-ji is also renowned for its surrounding natural beauty, particularly from mid to late November when numerous maple trees transform into shades of red and orange.
The Empress, the Priest and the Warrior Monk
Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the 6th century, and an instrumental figure in its spread was Empress Suiko, who in a break from tradition ascended the throne after her brother, the emperor, was murdered. A Buddhist herself, Empress Suiko supported the founding of temples throughout Japan, and Gakuen-ji was among these.
According to one version of the temple’s founding story, Empress Suiko was healed of eye disease when a monk named Chishun Shonin prayed for her recovery at Furo Waterfall. Grateful, Empress Suiko requested that a temple be built there.
Gakuen-ji was founded in 594—making it one of the oldest temples in Japan—and historical evidence suggests that by the 1100s it was famous as far away as Kyoto. Gakuen-ji also plays a role in the story of Benkei, a legendary 12th-century warrior monk. Allegedly, Benkei carried a temple bell nearly 100 kilometers from Daisen-ji Temple in Tottori Prefecture to Gakuen-ji in one night. A festival, which includes a reenactment of Benkei carrying the bell, is held on the last Sunday of October to commemorate this legend.
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