Mii-dera: Shiga’s Largest and Most Famous Temple

Mii-dera famous bell inside the Reishodo

Lake Biwa is the crowning jewel of Shiga Prefecture. As the largest lake in Japan, it attracts thousands of tourists from all over Japan every year. But there is more to Shiga than Lake Biwa. Specifically, on the border of Shiga and Kyoto are many interesting temples that were very influential throughout Japanese history. One such example is  Mii-dera in Otsu city. As part of the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage and easily the most famous temple in Shiga Prefecture.

 

History of Mii-dera

In 686, Prince Kadono built Onjyo-ji to commemorate his father, Prince Otomo [大友皇子]( aka Emperor Kobun), who died at the end of the Jinshin War. The temple’s name eventually changed to Mii-dera, which comes from three wells on the temple grounds. In fact water from these wells was used for the very first baths for three emperors; Tenji, Tenmu and Jito.

Mii-dera sacred well
Sacred well at Mii-dera

In the 9th century, a brilliant monk by the name Enchin [円珍] was hard at work in  Enryaku-ji Temple in Hieizan. After much due diligence, Enchin went abroad to study Buddhism in China. However, after he came back from China, he and another monk, Ennin, began to have profound disagreements, from Buddhist philosophy to how to run the temple. The rift between these two monks created a deep divide at the temple. Ultimately, Enchin decided to leave Enryaku-ji and moved to Mii-dera. There, Enchin acquired many followers and Mii-dera soon gained as much recognition as other powerful and famous temples, like Enryaku-ji or even Todai-ji. Though this was an exciting time for Mii-dera, not everyone was happy. As Enchin and Mii-dera’s rose to power, many at Enrayku-ji were left a bitter taste in their mouths.

stone statue of Enchin flanked by two other stone buddha statues
Statue of Enchin (center)

After Enchin’s death, Enryaku-ji was practically leading an outright assault on Mii-dera. Their hated for one another was so bad that Enryaku-ji burnt down Mii-dera more than 10 times! To make matters worse for Mii-dera, Hideyoshi seized the temple’s land, leaving the temple a shadow of its former self. It wasn’t until Hideyoshi died that their lands were finally restored and part of the temple could be rebuilt. Due to the constant destruction and rebuilding of Mii-dera, the temple eventually earned itself the name “Phoenix Temple”.

 

Getting to Mii-dera

Mii-dera is a few minutes away from Kyoto in Otsu, Shiga. The closest station to the temple is Mii-dera Station on the Keihan Ishiyamazaka Line.

The easiest way to get there, from either Osaka or Kyoto, is to take the Special Rapid Express via the Kosei Line. At Otsukyo Station, change lines for Keihan Ishiyamazaka Line and take a train bound for Ishiyama-dera. From Otsukyo Station, it is only several stations until you reach Otsu.

All in all, the journey should take roughly 40 minutes from Osaka and about 15 minutes from Kyoto.

If you want, you can take the Keihan Line from Yodoybashi in Osaka all the way to Mii-dera Station, but I don’t recommend this route since it takes significantly longer and you have to change lines several times.

 

Temple Grounds

Since Mii-dera is quite big, there are several entrances, but when we went there, we entered from the biggest gate, the Niomon Gate, located on the north side of the temple.

Niomon Gate of Mii-dera temple in Otsu Shiga
Niomon Gate

Kondo

The kondo, the main temple building, is just after the Niomon Gate. It was donated by Hideyoshi’s wife, Nene [寧々]. This part of the temple is a good representation of temple buildings from the Momoyama Period, and is designated as a Japanese National Treasure. The main Buddha enshrined in the kondo is Miroku Busatsu [弥勒菩薩]. Allegedly, temple’s oldest main Buddha statue of Miroku Bosatsu was a gift from Emperor Tenmu, but nobody has ever actually seen it.

Kondo of Mii-dera Temple in Otsu Shiga
Kondo

Behind the kondo is one of the temple’s famous wells.

wooden building containing one of Mii-dera's three sacred wells
Well inside this structure

Above the well is the carving of a dragon, carved by the famous Hidari Jingoro [左甚五郎]. The nail hammered into the dragon’s eye makes sure he stays sealed.

 Hidari Jingoro's wooden dragon carving at Mii-dera in Shiga
Dragon

Bell

Next to the kondo is another of Mii-dera’s most popular attractions: it’s bell. Along with bells at the Byodoin and Jingo-ji Temple, Mii-dera’s bell is one of the three best bells in Japan, particularly known for its beautiful sound. The bell next to the kondo is not the original, but is still quite old and dates back to 1602.

replica of Mii-dera famous bell
Replica bell next to kondo: you can ring a replica of the bell for 300 yen

The original bell from the 8th century is housed in the Reishodo, just a few feet away from the kondo.

back of the Reishodo at Mii-dera
Back of Reishodo

According to a folk story from the Kamakura Period, the famous warrior monk, Benkei, stole the bell and brought it back to Enryaku-ji. However, after arriving in Enryaku-ji, the bell said “Ino, ino”, which literally means, “I want to go home”. Terrified by the talking bell, Benkei threw it into a gorge. It was only later that the bell was successfully retrieved and brought home to Mii-dera.  

Mii-dera famous bell inside the Reishodo
Bell: If you look closely, you can see scratch marks at the bottom indicating someone drug it once.

To-in

On the path from the kondo to the Kannon-do is one of the most sacred places in Mii-dera, the To-in. The To-in stores many things that Enchin brought back from China making them all very old and very unique. Presently, in order to preserve these treasures, most of the building is off limits.

stone lantern lined path to Mii-dera's To-in
Entrance to To-in: Lanterns donated by the Muromachi government
Mii-dera's three story pagoda
Three Story Pagoda relocated from Nara. Originally built in Muromachi Period.
Mii-dera's Kanjodo and Gomado
Kanjodo [灌頂堂] and Gomado [護摩堂] in front of Taishido [大師堂] that enshrines Kukai.

Kannon-do

While Mii-dera’s main attraction is the kondo, its Kannon-do is just as popular. 

stone staircase leading to Mii-dera's Kannon-do
stairs leading to the Kannon-do
Mii-dera's huge Kannon-do
Kannon-do: Current building made in 1689.

The Kannon-do enshrines a statue of Nyoirin Kannon from the Heian Period and is the 14th stop in the Saigoku Pilgrimage. The statue of Nyoirin Kannon is open to public once every 33 years.

View of lake bowa from Mii-dera's Kannon-do
View of Lake Biwa

You can get a good view of the Lake Biwa from the Kannon-do as well.

Points of Interest

Nezumi no Miya

Another interesting building at Mii-dera is Nezumi no Miya. Though this is just a small shrine, it actually has a very local legend attached to it.

Nezumi no miya at Mii-dera in Shiga
Nezumi no Miya

Long ago, the government wanted to give the temple the authority to license new monks. Mii-dera was thrilled with the news, as only truly important temples could perform this service. However, nearby Hieizan Enryaku-ji Temple was not pleased with the thought of Mii-dera having this role. Hieizan used their political influence to force the government to retract their offer. Needless to say one of the head monks at Mii-dera was furious. He was so angry he prayed in a small shrine for revenge against Hieizan. But during his prayer he suddenly became ill and died. His body was transformed into thousands of tiny mice that then descended on Hieizan, enacting the monks revenge.

 

Shinra Zenjindo [新羅善神堂]

One of the buildings you should see at Mii-dera, especially if you are a history buff, is the Shinra Zenjindo, the guardian shrine of Mii-dera. The Shinra Zenjindo is a bit far away from the main temple area—about 15 minutes or so from the north gate. Though it is a Japanese National Treasure, there is no board to indicate where it is, so be sure to have a map if you want to see!

old Shinra Zenshindo building near Mii-dera in Otsu Shiga
Shinra Zenshindo

Built by Ashiakaga Takauji (creator of the Muromachi government) in the 14th century, the Shinra Zenjindo is and is the only building that Hideyoshi did not burn down.

Main building of the Shinra Zenshindo
Shinra Zenjindo: the building is known for its simple beauty, and is adorned with surprisingly few decorations or carvings.

It enshrines Shinra Myojin, a god from the Kingdom of Shilla, who according to legend appeared to Enchin on his ship during his returned from China.

 

Mii-dera

Address 246 Onjoji-cho, Otsu City, Shiga Prefecture 〒520-0036 
Website http://www.shiga-miidera.or.jp/translation/eng.html
Hours of Operation Mon-Sun:
9:00-17:00
Admission Fee Adults: 600 yen
High/Middle School Students: 300 yen
Elementary School Students: 200 yen

 

Coming next time,
Isshin-ji Temple 
The adventure continues…

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