Lake Biwa is the gem of Shiga Prefecture. Scores of tourist come there throughout the year to enjoy fishing, boating, and jet skiing but it is important not to forget that the prefecture is full of historic sites and many Japanese National Treasures. One such place is Ishiyama-dera [石山寺], just south of Lake Biwa. This temple with its long rich history is one of the most famous temples in the country, and is one the most famous places in Shiga Prefecture.
The History of Ishiyama-dera
According to its own records, Ishiyama-dera dates back to 8th century when the monk Ryoben[良弁], was ordered to pray to find gold to make Emperor Shomu’s Daibutsu (the Daibutsu of Todai-ji Temple). First, Ryoben went to pray in Yoshino, where the god there told him to go to Ishiyama-dera, and to bring with him a statue of Kannon Bosatsu that once belonged to Prince Shotoku. When he arrived in Ishiyama-dera, Ryoben had a vision telling him to dig for gold in Tohoku. Ryoben sent word to the emperor, who sent his men to dig at the specified location, where they did indeed find gold. Later, when Ryoben went to move the Kannon statue, it refused to budge. So, he decided to enshrine it in Ishiyama-dera.
Along with Kiyomizu Temple and Hase-dera Temple, Ishiyama-dera has long been a very sacred place and was also very popular with a number of Japanese authors and aristocrats. Ishiyama-dera appears in many Japanese classics such as The Pillow Tales, The Sarashina Tales. During her stay at Ishiyama-dera, even Lady Murasaki, author of The Tales of Genji, found her inspiration for the “Exile to Suma” chapter, in which Genji was exiled from Kyoto to Akashi.
Upon entering the temple, you quickly notice the abundance and variety of rocks at the temple grounds. I guess the temple really lives up to its name (ishi [石] is Japanese for stone). The most eye-catching rocks in the temple are the big wollastonite stones on which much of the temple stands.
Ishiyama-dera’s hondo (main building) is quite large but unfortunately it is a bit hard to see the entire building, as it is in the corner of the temple. It enshrines a 3m tall Nyoirin Kannon statue, which sits cross-legged deep in thought. If you are able to get a glance at it you are in luck! The main statue is normal closed to the public, but once every 33 years*, the temple allows visitors to come and behold its precious idol.
*Feeling bummed about not being able to see the Kannon statue? You’re in luck! Though the rule is every 33 years, there is an exception if Japan crowns a new emperor– which they did this year (2019) !! This means that in 2020 Ishiyama-dera will open up the statue for viewing!
At the top of a short staircase just above the hondo is Ishiyama-dera’s tahoto.
Tahotos are a common sight at Shingon Buddhist temples throughout Japan and are easily distinguished by their square-shaped base and rounder second tier. Ishiyama-dera’s tahoto is particularly famous, as it is the oldest existing one in the country (the second is Kongo Sanmai-in in Koyasan).
Points of Interest
Since Ishiyama-dera is a popular tourist destination, there are plenty of restaurants nearby. Many of these restaurants offer a variety of local foods, available only near Lake Biwa. If you have time, be sure drop in and try some of these specialty dishes. Our recommendation is Koshu, which has plenty of local specials!
Ishiyama-dera is easily the most beautiful temple in Shiga and remains a personal favorite. The contrast of the lush temple grounds and jagged rock formations is very pleasing. During the spring when most of the gardens at the temple are in bloom, Ishiyama is truly a gem. Fall is also a very pretty time to visit the temple, as the colors of the leaves really make the rocks leap out. However, sadly this beauty does come at a price: lots, and I do mean lots of tourists. Crowds of people and amateur photographers make it difficult to not feel rushed and take away the quiet serenity that helped inspire Murasaki and other authors. I also feel that the most important part of Ishiyama-dera, its tahoto, is also not given the attention it deserves. I’ve seen a number of people walk right past it.
For the best possible experience do try to come during the off-season and take plenty of time to really explore the temple, you wont be disappointed.
Information: Ishiyama-dera Temple
Ishiyamadera 1-1-1, Otsu City, Shiga Prefecture
Take the JR Tokaido Line (either local or special rapid) and get off at the JR Ishiyama Station. From Ishiyama Station, you can take the Keihan Ishiyamazaka Line or a bus to reach the temple. From Ishiyama-dera Station, walk south along the Seta River for 10 minutes or so and you will be there.