Primarily known as bustling center of commerce and cuisine, the port city of Osaka is also extremely rich in culture and history. Shitennoji Temple is easily the most famous temple in Osaka, as well as one of the most famous temples in Japan. Despite massive losses during the Osaka air raids of WWII, Shitennoji Temple still draws hundreds of thousands of tourists every year.
Make sure to check our series post of Shitennoji
The History of Shitennoji Temple
Completed in 593, right around the time of Buddhism’s introduction to Japan, Shitennoji Temple was one of Japan’s first temples. Built by the famous Prince Shotoku, Shitennoji was one of the first full-scale Buddhist temples in Japan. Throughout the course of Japanese history many emperors visited this temple, making it one of the most famous temples in Japan.
The Soga-Mononobe Conflict
Although Buddhism is now widespread throughout Japan, it faced many challenges in becoming a part of Japanese society. In the years shortly after Buddhism’s introduction to Japan, a number of aristocrats were very skeptical about this new religion from the east, and strongly opposed to allowing it to take root in the country.
One of the most notable conflicts was between the powerful Mononobe [物部] (anti-Buddhism) and Soga [蘇我] (pro-Buddhism) clans, who disagreed as to whether Japan should accept Buddhism. This disagreement soon led to a fierce war between these two clans. The young prince, Shotoku [聖徳太子], also fought in this war alongside the Soga clan. The Mononobe clan was very strong and for a time, it looked as though they would surely win. However, something miraculous was about to occur.
In an act of desperation, Prince Shotoku made wooden statues of the four Buddhist Heavenly Kings, known as the “Shiten-no”. He prayed to these statues, beseeching these gods to grant him victory over the Mononobe clan. In exchange, he promised to build a large temple to enshrine the Shiten-no. Shortly after, an arrow just so happened to fatality strike down Mononobe no Moriya, the leader of the Mononobe clan. With the Soga clan and Prince Shotoku victorious, Buddhism now had safe passage into Japan. A promised, Prince Shotoku built his temple for the Shiten-no, which he named Shitennoji.
The Oldest Temple in Japan?
You may see on some websites that Shitenno-ji Temple is the oldest temple in Japan, but unfortunately this is not exactly true.
Toyura Temple in Asuka used to be the oldest temple in Japan, but it was sadly destroyed. Nearby Asuka-dera Temple is the first full-scale Buddhist temple in Japan, predating Shitennoji by just a few years. However, it is safe to say Shitennoji is the oldest “public” temple in Japan, as other temples at the time were privately owned by rich families.
Getting to Shitennoji Temple
Shitennoji Temple is easily accessible from Tennoji Station. From the Tennoji Station walk north about 15 minutes or so, and you will be right in front of the main gate, Nandai-mon [南大門].
Alternatively, the Shitennoji Yuhigaoka Station of Tanimachi Line is in fact the closest station to Shitennoji Temple. From this station, walk south for 5 minutes and you will arrive at Shitennoji’s west gate [石鳥居].
If you have plenty time, I recommend that you walk to Shitennoji Temple from Namba Station. From Namba station, walk east to Ikutama Shrine along Sennichimae Street and then head south. The route from Ikutama Shrine to Shitennoji Temple is right along the Uemachi Plateau, home to many historic places. The journey will probably take an hour or an hour and a half, given that you allow yourself plenty of time to explore.
Shitennoji Temple is not as big as Todaiji or Horyuji, but it is still a very large temple, especially considering that it is in the center of the Osaka City. Today, we are going to cover the main area (called the garan) of the temple and will talk about the surrounding area in the next post.
Shitennoji’s west gate has a giant, and quite famous stone torii.
You may be confused about why a Buddhist temple has a torii. The answer is rather simple; in the ancient times people didn’t clearly differentiate between Buddhism and Shinto. Sometimes, a torii only indicate that a certain area is a sacred place. Additionally, around the time of Shiteno-ji Temple completion, the west gate stood near the shoreline. The west gate was believed to be the gate to Gokuraku jodo, or Buddhist heaven.
Shitennoji Main Temple: The Garan
There is an entrance fee for the main temple area. However, if you come to Shitennoji Temple on the 21st of any given month, you don’t have to pay the entrance fee because of the monthly festival held on the temple grounds.
Traditionally, the main gate to the garan is the Chumon [中門]. You can see the nio statues on the right and left that ward off bad spirits. However, Chumon is only in use during festivals.
The first things you may notice on entering is the layout of the buildings. The layout of Shitennoji Temple is very different from that of Horyu-ji or other famous temple made by Prince Shotoku. In Shitennoji, all of the buildings in the garan sit on one line and are surrounded by a corridor.
Unfortunately, time has not been kind to Shitennoji Temple. On many occasions, various natural disasters (lightening and typhoons) or wars ( namely World War II) destroyed large parts of the temple. Each time the temple buildings were destroyed the people of Osaka rushed to have it rebuilt almost exactly in the same manner. Shitennoji Temple is a testament to how eager Osakans are to protect their heritage no matter what.
Probably most iconic building in Shitennoji is its 5 tier pagoda. It is 39.2m high and you can go inside and climb to the top. The inside of the pagoda is rather narrow and if you are, say, 6 feet tall or more, you might have a hard time moving around.
Though the pagoda is the most famous part of Shitennoji, it is not the temple’s main building. Instead, the main building is the nearby kondo. There, you can see the main deity of Shitennoji, Kusekannon Bosatsu [救世観音菩薩], surrounded by the Shiten-no. Unfortunately, the events of WWII destroyed many of the original statues of Kusekannon and the Shiten-no. Today, the statues in the kondo are replicas of the ones that originally stood there. Even so, these replicas clearly display key characteristics of Buddha statues during the Asuka Period when Prince Shotoku lived. In fact, since all the statues and paint are new, you might get an even clearer understanding of what the kondo originally looked like .
The right next to the kondo is the kodo [講堂], which is connected to the corridor that runs around the parameter of the garan. The kodo enshrines Juuichimen Kannon Bosatsu [十一面観音菩薩] and Amida Nyorai [阿弥陀如来坐像]. There is also a mural depicting the life of monk Xuanzang [玄宗三蔵]. Since the mural is very recent painting, you can clearly see the details and symbols used in classic-style Buddhist art.
|Address||1−11-18 Shitennoji, Tennoji Ward,Osaka, Osaka Prefecture 〒543-0051|
|Hours of Operation||Garan and Gardens|
*Outer temple grounds are open 24/7
Adults: 300 yen
Children: 200 yen
*Admission fee waived every month on the 21st
Don’t walk away after you finish the garan! Shitenno-ji is pretty big and exploring the outer temple grounds is well worth your while. The festival/flea market on the 21st is also interesting as there are usually a handful of food vendors and tons of people selling all kinds of stuff!
Coming next time,
Shitenno-ji’s outer grounds and secret garden
The adventure continues…