Religious sites are popular tourist destinations across the globe; Japan is no exception. It has long been true that people include famous or historical Buddhist temples in their sightseeing plans for Japan.
In 1689 Matsuo Basho, one of Japan’s most famous haiku poets and an early travel writer, set out on a journey around Japan’s Tohoku Region, which he referred to as the “deep north”, with an itinerary that ultimately included four renowned temples founded in the ninth century.
Today, these four temples: Zuiganji, Motsuji, Chusonji, and Yamadera, all founded by the same priest, Ennin (793-864), more than eleven centuries ago, remain popular tourist destinations, as much for their historical significance and beautiful natural settings as for the religious merit gained from visiting them. As to the latter, there is a special go-shuin (inscription) booklet visitors can get at any of these four and collect inscriptions at each temple to commemorate this mini-pilgrimage, popularly known as shiji kairo. Even Matsuo Basho probably didn’t get to do that!
Zuiganji, near the shores of Matsushima Bay, was founded in 828 as a Tendai sect Buddhist temple. Tendai is an ecumenical sect of Buddhism holding that all teachings of the Buddha comprise a perfect and comprehensive system of beliefs. Buddhism was still relatively new to Japan in the ninth century and Ennin, third abbot of Enryakuji on Mt Hiei near Kyoto, was charged by the emperor with carrying Buddhism to the Tohoku region which he did by founding a number of temples during his travels.
Early Buddhist monks often carved sutras and religious images into living rock while meditating and performing rites for the repose of souls. The work of such monks at Zuiganji can still be seen in the rockface in front of the temple.
By the beginning of the Tokugawa period (1603-1867), the temple was in serious disrepair. Local feudal lord, Date Masamune (1567-1636), arranged for the temple to be converted to Zen Buddhism and had it rebuilt, given the temple’s buildings their current arrangement.
Visitors are allowed to walk inside the temple, viewing its various rooms, arranged and decorated more like a palace than a temple. There’s even a room where the Emperor Meiji (1852-1912) stayed during his 1876 travels in the area.
The temple also has a “treasure house” containing the temple’s most valuable relics as well as Date family memorabilia.
Admission: 700 yen (adults); 400 yen (children)
Hours: Open from 8:30 a.m.; last entry 4:30 p.m. (3 p.m. or 3:30 p.m.during winter months)
Motsuji and Chusonji
Hiraizumi was well on its way to becoming one of Heian Japan’s greatest cities when Ennin visited in 850.
There is a legend that while Ennin was lost in foggy weather he saw a white deer that turned into a white-haired sage who told him to found a temple where he stood, and so Ennin founded Motsuji, which became a complex of splendid temples centered on a placid pond. The setting was so beautiful that it led to the creation of the Jodo (Pure Land) sect of Buddhism, which adhered to the belief that this world would always be corrupt and only by achieving enlightenment could one attain the perfection of the Pure Land.
Most of the various structures of Motsuji were destroyed upon the demise of the Fujiwara clan who ruled the area only a few centuries after the temple was founded, but the pond and gardens, as well as the foundation stones of many of the ancient structures, are still there to be enjoyed by visitors. Motsuji was already a ruin when Matsuo Basho visited, causing him to lament: “Are warriors' heroic deeds only dreams that pass?”
Admission: 700 yen (adults); 400 yen (high school students); 200 yen (children)
Hours: Open 8:30 a.m. - 5 p.m. (4:30 p.m. Nov-Mar)
Located atop a hill nearby, Chusonji is another temple complex founded by Ennin, but it has suffered less with the ravages of time. In fact, Ennin’s Chusonji was a modest affair and it was not until patronized by the Fujiwara clan in the early 12h century that it grew to be a substantial monastery complex.
The jewel in Chusonji’s Fujiwara crown was Konjiki-do, a small Amida hall built as a mausoleum for the most eminent of the Fujiwara lords. Konjiki-do was covered in gold leaf and its interior was decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay. Basho was inspired to poetry:
All June’s rainy days
Have left untouched the Hall of Light
In beauty still ablaze
Although a free-standing building, Konjiki-do was considered so precious that another building was constructed around it to protect it. Perhaps this is why when most of the complex was destroyed by fire in 1337 Konjiki-do survived. Now housed in a fire-proof building, it is the only 12th century structure extant at Chusonji and the first structure ever to receive National Treasure designation.
Was Basho prescient when he wrote: “It will probably stand for a long time as a memorial of a thousand years ago.”
More than 3,000 of Chusonji’s historical art treasures are kept in Sankozo, the temple’s must-see museum.
Admission: 800 yen (adults); 500 yen (high school students); 300 (junior high students), 200 yen (children)
Hours: Open 8:30 a.m. - 5 p.m. (4:30 p.m. Nov-Feb)
In 860, Ennin founded Risshaku-ji (lit. “temple of the standing stone) on the flanks of Mt Hoju, deep in the mountains of modern-day Yamagata Prefecture. Matsuo Basho wasn’t originally planning to visit, but “[m]any people told us we ought to see it, so we retraced our steps…” He was well advised.
More popularly known as Yamadera, Risshaku-ji is a complex of temples on a wooded mountainside. While Basho had to go somewhat out of his way to visit, these days the Yamadera train station sits at the foot of the mountain, making a visit a relatively simple matter. Visitors just have to be prepared to climb 1,000 steps to reach Daibutsuden, the top-most temple and home to a five meter gilded statue of Amida Nyorai.
This sounds much more daunting than it is, as the climb is not steep and can usually be completed in less than 30 minutes. Along the way, there are small statues and niches carved into the living rock of the mountain, as well as mysteriously eroded rock formations. In addition to receiving religious merit, visitors are compensated for their effort with heart-stopping views of the valley below.
In Basho’s words: “In the profound tranquility and beauty of the place, our hearts felt deeply purified.” He continues in verse:
In this hush profound,
Into the very rocks it seeps—
The cicada sound.
Konpon-chudo, the largest of the Yamadera temples, sits at the foot of the mountain and is said to house an eternal flame brought from Mt Hiei, emphasizing the connection between the two sacred mountains as well as Ennin’s history with Yamadera.
Whether visitors travel to all four of these ancient temples or only to one or two, they are amply rewarded by fascinating history, amazing structures, and great natural beauty.
Basho’s travelogue of his 1689 journey was published as "Oku no Hoso Michi" and is commonly known in English as "Narrow Road to the Deep North." It is still in print. Quotations used in this article are from the Dorothy Britton translation.
Admission: 300 yen (adults); 200 yen (junior high students); 100 yen (children)
Hours: Open 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Business hours, admission fees, etc, are as of June 28. Since there may be sudden changes, please check the latest information before visiting the temples.
Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.