January 23, 2015
By Chinami Aizawa, Marino Takeuchi and Nao Mochizuki
Bishamon-do, 毘沙門堂, is one of the great temples of Kyoto. It belongs to the Tendai sect and is a Monzeki temple. It is located in Yamashina. Visitors can wander the grounds freely from 8:30 to 17:00, but the temple closes early at 4:30 pm from December to February. Spring and autumn are the best times to visit. This temple is famous for the maple trees in its garden and a large, 150-year-old “weeping willow” cherry tree. Many people visit Bishamon-do during these seasons, so it can be crowded at those times. The entrance fee is 500 for adults.
The History of Bishamon-do
Bishamon-do was originally built near the Imperial Palace in Kyoto as Izumo-dera Temple by the order of Emperor Monmu in 703. It is believed that the founder of this temple was Gyoki, a very famous Buddhist priest of the Nara period. The temple was later moved to Yamashina and renamed Bishamon-do.
Over the centuries this temple fell into ruin many times. Taita-no-Chikanori, a member of the government, rebuilt the temple once in the early Kamakura period. In the Middle ages, Izumo-dera became a famous place for its cherry blossoms, and was referred to in some famous books, such as the Meigetsuki, a diary written by Fujiwara-no-Teika. The temple went into ruin again in the late medieval period because of the Onin wars. In the Edo period, Izumo-dera was moved to Yamashina, where it stands today. People began referring to the temple as “Bishamon-do,” because of the image of the deity Bishomonten that was kept there. After that, the temple gradually prospered as an important stop on the route between Kyoto and Shiga. It is said that many people started to come to this temple to see beautiful red leaves in the Edo period. In its long turbulent history, Bishamon-do had many head priests. One of them was the Imperial Prince Koben, who was the son of the Emperor Gosai. So this temple is also known as a Monzeki temple, a temple in which the head priest is related to the Imperial Family.
The temple is named after Bishomenten, one of four heavenly warrior Kings that defend Buddhist Law. Bishamonten is easily identifiable —he holds a spear in one hand and a small pagoda in the other. He is also a member of shichi-fuku-nin, the Seven Gods of Good Fortune, who are celebrated in many local Japanese folk festivals. People believe these gods can bring them prosperity and good luck. It is said that Bishamonten brings people good luck for “winning” any kind of competition.
The Temple Precincts
There are eight buildings and a monument on the temple grounds. Nioumon is the main gate—it leads to the main temple building up a steep stone stairway. A second gate, the Imperial messenger gate, is opened only at special times. The Bansui Garden is a landscape-style garden with a stroll path. It dates back to the beginning of the Edo period when stroll gardens were in vogue. The garden features a waterfall, a mountain stream, a “bridge to paradise” and many maple trees. The shinden is a new reconstruction the older building that was built by Emeror Gosai. The mausoleum contains many portraits and an image of the Buddhist deity Amitabha Tathagata that rests in the center of the building. Takadai-bensanten is a building dedicated to the happiness of ordinary people.
Many events take place at Bishamon-do. An annual light-up at night is held when the maple trees turn red in autumn. During this period the temple stays open until 8:30 pm. On New Year’s Eve, the general public is invited to ring the temple bell from 11:45 pm.
If you come from Kyoto station, it’s better to use a train. You can use JR, subway, or Keihan. The temple is about a 15 -20 walk from Yamashina Station. The way is marked clearly with many flags upon which are written “毘沙門堂.” There is a free parking lot if you come by car.