Ishiyama-dera Temple: Shiga’s Most Beautiful Temple

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.

Statue of Lady Murasaki at Ishiyama-dera
Statue of Lady Murasaki at 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.

Temple Grounds

Temple gate of Ishiyama-dera temple in Shiga
Temple Gate: donated by Miamoto no Yoritomo, in the late 12th century

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.

Moguri-iwa: Wollanstinite is formed when limestone are subjected high temperature such as magma. Here, you can go through the hole in this large wollastonite stone.

Renyo-do at ishiyama-dera
Renyo-do: Houses some of the belongings of Rennyo, the founder of Hongan-ji Temple
Pisamondo
Bell: Donated by Minamoto no Yorimoto.

Hondo

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.

Hondo: Built in the 11th century, Ishiyama’s hondo is the oldest building in the entire prefecture.
Even the hondo stands on wollastonite.
Tickets for special viewing of the Kannon statue. The next viewing wont be until 2049!

*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!

Tahoto

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).

Tahoto of Ishiyama-dera
Tahoto: Built in 1194, donated by Minamoto no Yoritomo.

Information: Ishiyama-dera Temple

Address

Ishiyamadera 1-1-1, Otsu City, Shiga Prefecture

Access

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.

Hours

8:30~16:00

Admission Fee

600 yen

Notes

 

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