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Nestled long and low behind the earthen walls that separate it from the noise of the city, Sanjusangendo is a national treasure temple of unique architectural and sculptural importance. First dedicated in 1164 by Emperor Goshirakawa (1127-92) within his retirement estate, the Hojuji Dono, Sanjusangendo is one of the few architectural remnants of the turbulent era that ended rule by the nobility and brought power to the warrior class, who moved the center of government to Kamakura near Tokyo.
The 12th century was marked by the phenomenon of emperors retiring soon after ascending the throne (Goshirakawa reigned only 3 years), taking with them much of the actual power, which they continued to use from elegant retirement estates. Goshirakawa, a gifted poet and musician, conducted affairs of state for 34 years, even after taking priestly vows in 1169. His living quarters were directly connected to Sanjusangendo, which served as his personal chapel. But of the numerous buildings he constructed within the Hojuji Dono, only Sanjusangendo and the Hojuji Den (small octagonal halls which mark the graves of Goshirakawa and his consort Kenshumonin) exist today.
Although popularly known as Sanjusangendo or the Hall of Thirty-three Bays, officially the temple is known as the Rengeo-in: the Temple of the Lotus King, considered the most powerful esoteric form of Kannon (The Goddess of Mercy) for the bestowal of prosperity, cure of illness, eradication of evil, and insurance of enlightenment.
This 1,000-armed Kannon for which the temple is famous, was Goshirakawa’s special object of devotion in his later years. Although the original hall burnt to the ground in the disastrous fire of 1249, it was reconstructed on the same site and rededicated in 1266. Its name originates from an architectural unit of length: the bay or space between large pillars (each a single tree trunk) that support the roof beams. There are 33 bays because Kannon manifests herself in 33 different forms. Within these bays, the central 3-meter-high image of Kannon is flanked by 1,001 smaller standing Kannons with multiple heads and arms.
The symbols held in each of Kannon’s hands signify the various benefits she bestows on humanity. The unique sculptures of Sanjusangendo provide a comprehensive overview of the realistic imagery typical of Kamakura Period art. One hundred and twenty-five of the standing Kannons are originals saved from the fire of 1249. The remainder were carved in the same style. The softer, more feminine faces of the replacement figures are representative of Buddha and Bodhisattva forms made throughout the Kamakura Period. The sense of motion and emotion seen in the bodies and faces of the Gods of Thunder (Raijin) and Wind (Fujin) at the north and south ends of the altar provide a vivid contrast. Lifelike features, enhanced by glass eyes (an innovation of the Kamakura Period), mark the high point of Japanese portrait sculpture. Fujin with his bag of wind and Raijin with his ring of drums are two of the 28 attendants of the 1,000-armed Kannon, many of Hindu origin, such as the flute-playing birdman Karurao (Garuda). These deities, ascetics, heavenly maidens, warriors and demi-gods give special protection to those who believe in the protection of Kannon. Their facial expressions and form cover every human and inhuman form imaginable and are masterpieces of the art of the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), which was a time of vigorous realism that gave birth to Zen Buddhism and the simple but devoted military life of the samurai class that has been romanticized since.
The great length of Sanjusangendo became an inspiration to warriors in later centuries, with the start of a great archery contest held at the temple twice yearly since 1573. You will have a chance to see this contest on May 2nd, when the best line up to try and hit the target which is 118 meters away (the full length of the building). Shooting along the side of the building, under the overhanging roof, requires the archers to shoot their arrows in a perfect arc to hit the target. It’s quite amazing to see! Outside of the temple, be sure to wander around the large and rather plainly landscaped grounds.
Something that everyone enjoys is feeding the carp in the large pool on the east side of the building near the entrance. Food for these colorful and massive beasts, which bring good luck by the way, is available at the side of the pond for a small sum. Also in the area (just 500 or 600 meters north of the museum) is the remarkably preserved home and studio of the famous Japanese ceramic artist Kawai Kanjiro. His home looks just like the day he last lived in it some 30 years ago. A leading figure of the Japanese folk-art movement, there are many examples of his works and objects he collected or received in his lifetime. The house is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm (closed Mondays).
Sanjusangendo is at the eastern end of Shichijo Street (just walk east along Shichijo from Shichijo Keihan Station).
Courtesy of Your Japan Private Tours (YJPT). Ian Ropke, founder and owner of YJPT (since 1992), is a Japan destination expert for travel and tourism. He specializes in private travel (customized day trips with guides / private guided tours) and digital guidance solutions (about 25% of our business and growing!). Ian and his team offer personalized quality private travel services all over Japan. To learn more, visit www.kyoto-tokyo-private-tours.com or call us on +1-415-230-0579.
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