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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
Behind the kondo is one of the temple’s famous wells.
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.
The original bell from the 8th century is housed in the Reishodo, just a few feet away from the kondo.
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.
While Mii-dera’s main attraction is the kondo, its Kannon-do is just as popular.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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. Unfortunately, you cannot even get close to the building, but it looks certainly beautiful.
Onjoji-cho 246, Otsu City, Shiga Prefecture
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 of JR 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.
600 yen for adults
This temple is one of the biggest one in Kansai region. Make sure to allow yourself plenty of time to look around! (2~3 hours)