The smell of incense wafts through the air in the dimly lit hall, as an elderly women with long hair, pulled back in a purple ribbon, bends over to insert the incense stick into the bowl, she rises, stands upright with her eyes closed and prays for her loved ones in front of the golden, cypress, leafed kannon (the Buddhist goddess of mercy.)
The Kannon rises above us, sitting on a lotus leaf with its legs crossed, its arms, not one, not two but 40 arms entwine around one another, holding a variety of tools to remove pain from people and to bring joy to them. The Kannon is flanked on either side by 500 smaller Kannons lined neatly in a row.
An elderly Japanese couple blurt out “dekai” (gigantic) on their first sighting,the Kannon stands at 11 ft tall The kannons are housed in the Sanjusan gendo temple, the largest wooden building in japan, that stretches 118 metres in length.
The original temple was built in 1164 at the request of the retired Emperor Go-shirakawa, after it was burnt to the ground in 1249, it was rebuilt in 1266. The temples name refers to the 33 (sanjusan) bays between the pillars of this long, narrow building.
A famous Japanese sculptor, Taro, who was 82 at the time carved the Kannons along with his trusty apprentices who carved the smaller ones. “Mama,Mamma, look,look it’s papa,it’s pappa”shrieked a little girl, pointing to a round, faced golden statue, causing her mother to laugh, Japanese like to point out the kannons that resemble family members or friends, you often can hear the laughter of when someone can spot a resemblance.
The temple is also famous for the Toshiya festival, held on January 15th, when archers shoot arrows the length of the hall.
The ceremony dates back to the Edo period when an annual contest was held to see how many arrows could be shot from the southern end to the northern end in 24 hours. The all time record was set in 1686, when an archer successfully landed over 8000 arrows . The participates now are girls dressed elegantly in kimono celebrating their coming of age day.
The temple also comes to life in January for the event known as the Rite of Willow, worshippers are touched on the head with a willow that contains the pain-killer salicin, as well as holy water which has been prayed over for seven days and then is poured over pilgrims, drawing out evil and curing illness.
One important event happened nearby this temple, the great samurai warrior Musahshi and Yoshioka Denshichiro leader of the Yoshioaka-ryo dueled outside the grounds in 1604, Musashi arrived late, which angered Denshichiro but that day would be Denshichiro’s last
HIs brother was then appointed leader and he too challenged Musashi for a revenge match, again Musashi arrived late and again the same result for the Yoshioka clan. Yoshioka clan were then led by the yougest son, a 12 year old boy this time Musashi did not arrive late, he arrived early and killed the entire clan including the 12 year old boy.
Sanjugendo temple information
The temple is open from 8am to 5pm (1st April-15th November) and 9am-4pm (16th November -31st March)
The temple is a 15 minute walk along shiokoji dori, which is the street outside JR Kyoto station. You can also take bus NO 206 or 208 and get off at Sanjusangendo mae stop.
Kyoto National museum is also opposite the temple and the Kawaii Kanjiro memorial Hall is just up the road