Kyoto, Japan exudes history, culture, and spirituality. As the former imperial capital of Japan, Kyoto boasts an array of temples, shrines, and other religious and cultural landmarks that have survived for centuries. One such landmark is Higashi Hongan-ji, a large temple complex located in central Kyoto. Higashi Hongan-ji is the head temple of the Jodo Shinshu school of Buddhism, one of the largest Buddhist sects in Japan. Its impressive architecture and beautiful gardens make it instantly recognisable. It is a place that you don’t want to miss. Even more conveniently, it is just a short walk away from Kyoto Station!
History of Higashi Hongan-ji
Higashi Hongan-ji was founded in 1602, during the Edo period, by the revered Buddhist monk Shinran. The temple was established as the eastern branch of Hongan-ji, the main temple of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism. Higashi Hongan-ji’s main hall, or hondō, was constructed in 1895. It is one of the largest wooden structures in the world.
Throughout its history, Higashi Hongan-ji has faced numerous challenges, including wars, natural disasters, and fires. The temple was destroyed and rebuilt multiple times. Its current buildings date back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Higashi Hongan-ji’s history is also closely linked to the history of the Jodo Shinshu sect, which emerged in the 13th century. The founder, Shinran, believed that followers could achieve salvation by simply relying on the power of Amida Buddha’s vow of salvation. Shinran’s teachings emphasized the importance of faith, rather than ritual or merit, and were popular among the common people of Japan.
Over the centuries, the Jodo Shinshu sect grew in popularity and influence, and Higashi Hongan-ji played an important role in spreading its teachings throughout Japan. Today, Higashi Hongan-ji remains a major centre of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism and is a popular destination for both local and international visitors.
Architecture and Design
Higashi Hongan-ji’s architecture and design reflect the unique characteristics of the Jodo Shinshu sect and its history. The temple’s main hall, or hondō, is an impressive structure made of Japanese cypress. It boasts a grand entrance and ornate details. It is also one of the largest wooden structures in the world. The hondō houses several important Buddhist statues, including a statue of Shinran, the founder of the Jodo Shinshu sect.
Another notable feature of Higashi Hongan-ji’s design is its emphasis on simplicity and functionality. Unlike other Buddhist temples that feature elaborate decorations and ornaments, Higashi Hongan-ji’s buildings are austere and practical. This reflects the Jodo Shinshu sect’s emphasis on inner faith rather than external displays of piety.
In addition to the hondō, Higashi Hongan-ji features several other notable structures, including the Goju-no-to, a five-story pagoda that stands over 60 meters tall, and the Founder’s Hall, which contains artefacts and documents related to Shinran’s life and teachings.
Overall, Higashi Hongan-ji’s architecture and design serve as a testament to the Jodo Shinshu sect’s rich history and unique philosophy.
As the head temple of the Jodo Shinshu sect, Higashi Hongan-ji is an important centre of Buddhist practice and study. Visitors to the temple can participate in various religious activities, such as meditation, chanting, and prayer.
One of the most popular religious practices at Higashi Hongan-ji is nembutsu. During nembutsu, monks recite the name of Amida Buddha as a form of gratitude and reverence. Visitors can participate in nembutsu by joining a group chanting session. These occur several times a day in the hondō.
Another important practice at Higashi Hongan-ji is shakyo, or copying sutras. Shakyo is a meditative practice that involves copying Buddhist scriptures by hand as a form of concentration and contemplation. Visitors can try their hand at shakyo by participating in a workshop held at the temple.
Overall, Higashi Hongan-ji offers a unique opportunity to learn about and participate in Jodo-Buddhist practices. Whether you are a devout Buddhist or simply curious about different religious traditions, Higashi Hongan-ji’s religious practices are sure to leave a lasting impression.
Visiting Higashi Hongan-ji
Getting to Higashi Hongan-ji is very easy. From Kyoto Station, you can easily walk there. Even a leisurely pace will only take approximately 10 minutes. You can either walk up the main street from Kyoto Station’s intersection or you can walk through the underground street. The above-ground street runs next to the temple. The underground street ends at the temple. Take the last set of western stairs, which will put you right in front of the temple. It is well-signposted on both routes.
It is free to enter the temple and the grounds. You can also enter the buildings for free as well, as long as no ceremonies or prayers are going on at the time. Remember that photography is prohibited inside. Some signs will also remind you.
Kyoto is synonymous with historical and cultural sites. There are several nearby sites that visitors to Higashi Hongan-ji might also want to explore.
Shoseien Garden: Located just a 10-minute walk from Higashi Hongan-ji, Shoseien Gardens is a peaceful oasis in the heart of the city. Originally built as the villa of a powerful samurai family in the 17th century, the gardens feature a large pond, several walking paths, and a teahouse where visitors can enjoy traditional Japanese tea and sweets.
Toji Temple: Just a short bus/subway ride from Higashi Hongan-ji, Toji Temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site that dates back to the 8th century. The temple’s main hall, the Kondo, houses a large statue of Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of healing. Other impressive structures surround the Kondo, including a five-story pagoda. At certain times of the year, such as during cherry blossom season, the temple is illuminated at night.
Fushimi Inari Taisha: Located a bit farther from Higashi Hongan-ji, but still easily accessible by train or bus from Kyoto Station, Fushimi Inari Taisha is a must-see for anyone visiting Kyoto. This Shinto shrine is famous for its thousands of torii gates that line the hiking trails that wind up the nearby mountain. Visitors can hike up to the summit for stunning views of the city and the surrounding countryside.
Whether you’re interested in Japanese gardens, ancient temples, or scenic hikes, there are plenty of nearby attractions well worth a visit after exploring Higashi Hongan-ji.
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