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.
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 (anti-Buddhism) and Soga (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.
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.
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 niostatues on the right and left that ward off bad spirits.
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.
Pagoda and Kondo
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].
Other places of Interests
The Rokuji-do got its name because monks held memorial mass six times a day in this building. The building itself was built in 1623 and moved from the other temple. The dieties in the Rokuji-do are the statues of Yakushinyorai and Shitenno.
Even though it is not inside the garan, the Rokuji-do is one of the main buildings in Shitenno-ji and many ceremonies take place here. One famous event is Doyadoya, a traditional festival in Osaka, held in the early January. And yes, they are basically naked.
In front of the Rokuji-do, is the famous pond, Kame no Ike [亀の池]. As the name suggests, there are dozens of turtles in the pond!
Shorei-in, also called Taishi-den, enshrines the soul of Prince Shotoku. Statues of the prince as a young boy are in the front and the back of the building, but unfortunately, they are only visible to the public on special occasions.
If you are lucky enough to come to Shitenno-ji on the 22nd of any given month, and walk behind the Seirei-in. There you will find the secret little shrine for Mononobe no Moriya, the Moriya-do. Mononobe no Moriya fought against the prince Shotoku and Soga clan as to whether Japan should accept Buddhism or not.
When you visit the Seirei-in, be sure to check out the Tora no Mon [虎ノ門] and the Neko no Mon [猫ノ門]. Both of these gates have very unique carvings. The tiger wards of bad spirits, while the cat wards off mice.
Info: Shitennoji Temple
1−11-18 Shitennoji, Tennoji Ward,Osaka, Osaka Prefecture
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].
8:30-16:30 (Apr-Sep) 8:30-16:00 (Nov-Mar)
300 yen for adults and 200 yen for children
*Admission fee waived every month on the 21st