I am still in contact with my first Japanese teacher, 中村りつこさん, and before we headed off on our sixth trip to Japan in 2015, she had put up on Facebook some photographs of a trip she took with her family to Kyoto. Among the places that she visited was Sanjusangendo. Her pictures looked amazing, and so I determined that this trip we would make time to visit. Especially since the machiya we were staying in was literally around the corner. There was no excuse not to!
Of course, in the same way that we rarely make time to visit the cultural attractions on our doorstep in Manchester, we behaved as though we lived in Kyoto and had all the time in the world to pop to the temple up the street from us. We finally visited on our last day in Kyoto.
It was a sunny day, hot but not as humid as the rest of the week had been, and a visit to a cool shady temple was just the ticket. Sanjusangendo roughly translates as Hall with 33 Intervals, which is an accurate description of this 120 metre long temple building. Its official name is Rengeo-in (蓮華王院), which means Temple of the Lotus King.
The outer walls and gates of the temple are stained a brilliant vermillion, and create an impressive barrier both to entry and to seeing the buildings inside. They’re quite forbidding from the inside as well.
A school group had arrived at the temple at the same time as us, so we took some time to enjoy the gardens before we headed into the hall. The gardens are really beautiful, and include a couple of pools, a large bell, and a purifying fountain said to sound like a child crying in the night.
Known as the Midnight Crying Stream (pictured above), the story goes that its location was revealed to a priest in a dream, and people believe that the water has the ability to stop children crying at night.
Photographs inside the hall aren’t permitted, so here are some more of its exterior.
After our wander around the outside, we were feeling pretty warm and in need of some shade, so we headed into the hall. As with all Japanese buildings, we had to remove our shoes before entering. As photography isn’t allowed, we decided that we would also stash our bags in the lockers near the ticket gate. We left our shoes in the pigeonholes at the entrance to the hall, then followed the other visitors inside.
The temple was founded in 1164. It was destroyed by fire and had to be rebuilt around a hundred years later. As well as being Japan’s longest wooden building, it is also the only surviving example of a Sentai Kannon-dõ. This is the real attraction of Sanjusangendo, and the reason photography isn’t permitted inside. The hall is home to 1001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. Ranked around the central Senju Kannon (1000 armed Kannon) are a further 1000 Kannons, arranged in 50 rows of 10 on either side of the central National Treasure. The 1000 Kannons are designated as Important Cultural Properties. 124 of the statues date from the founding of the temple in the 12th century, and the remaining 876 are from the period when the temple was rebuilt in the 13th century. The Kamakura Period sculptor Tankei carved a number of the statues, with the others completed by his apprentices and later craftsmen. Each statue is slightly different, depending on who carved it. Some are signed by Tankei.
The atmosphere inside the hall was quite special. Some of the doors between the 33 bays were open and a cool breeze wafted through, stirring up the smell of incense. The lighting was dim, to protect the statues, which are covered in gold leaf. The train of people making their way through the hall moved slowly, and it all combined to create a sense of reverie. Close to the central Kannon, visitors can pay for prayers to be written out by the priests and offered up to the Kannon in the daily ritual. Visitors can also offer up incense to the goddess.
In front of the Kannon statues are statues of Raijin, the god of thunder, and Fujin, the god of wind, who are imposing figures with faces contorted by wrath. They stand on cloud shaped pedestals. Alongside them are 28 other deities, whose role is to protect Kannon. The ferocity of their expressions is in stark contrast to the serenity seen on the face of Senju Kannon and her 1000 companions.
I’m glad that photography wasn’t allowed. It enabled me to spend more time actually looking at the statues and thinking about their significance to people who follow Buddhism, rather than thinking about angles and lighting and how to take the best shot. I have more of a sensory memory of the visit as a result.