The Enryakuji is a Buddhist monastic complex on the sacred Mt. Hiei, near Kyoto, Japan. The site was selected by the monk Saicho to become the headquarters of the Tendai sect, which he founded in Japan in the early 9th century CE.
Enryakuji became one of the great seats of learning and had 20-25,000 residents at its peak. Systematically destroyed in the 16th century CE after it had become a troublesome military stronghold, many of its buildings have since been restored and it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Located atop 848m-high Hiei-zan (the mountain that dominates the skyline in the northeast of the city), the Enryaku-ji complex is an entire world of temples and dark forests that feels a long way from the hustle and bustle of the city below. A visit here is a good way to spend half a day hiking, poking around temples and enjoying the atmosphere of a key site in Japanese history. There are some incredible views of the mountains and Biwa-ko (Lake Biwa).
ENRYAKUJI BECAME A MAJOR SEAT OF LEARNING IN JAPAN, BOASTING UP TO 3,000 BUILDINGS & 25,000 RESIDENTS IN ITS HEYDAY.
The complex is divided into three sections: Tōtō, Saitō and Yokawa. The Tōtō (eastern pagoda section) contains the Kompon Chū-dō (Primary Central Hall), which is the most important building in the complex. The flames on the three dharma lamps in front of the altar have been kept lit for more than 1200 years. The Daikō-dō (Great Lecture Hall) displays life-sized wooden statues of the founders of various Buddhist schools. This part of the temple is heavily geared to group access, with large expanses of asphalt for parking.
The Saitō (western pagoda section) contains the Shaka-dō, which dates from 1595 and houses a rare Buddha sculpture of the Shaka Nyorai (Historical Buddha). The Saitō, with its stone paths winding through forests of tall trees, temples shrouded in mist and the sound of distant gongs, is the most atmospheric part of the temple. Hold on to your ticket from the Tōtō section, as you may need to show it here.
The Yokawa is of minimal interest and a 4km bus ride away from the Saitō area. The Chū-dō here was originally built in 848. It was destroyed by fire several times and has undergone repeated reconstruction (most recently in 1971). If you plan to visit this area as well as Tōtō and Saitō, allow a full day for in-depth exploration.
Located on the summit of Mt. Hiei in the north east of Kyoto, Enryakuji Temple was founded in 788 by the young Buddhist monk Saicho (767-822), who was later sanctified as Dengyo Daishi.
Legend has it that Saicho built himself a small hut on the mountain and carved a statue of Yakushi Nyorai (the Buddha of Healing) for a temple he wished to build. After returning from a year of training in China, Saicho completed his temple and founded the new sect of Tendai Buddhism.
Tendai supported rigorous asceticism: severe self-discipline and denial of desires on top of chilly Mt. Hiei. Study of the sutras (sacred texts), especially the Lotus sutra was also central to the new faith. During his time in China, Saicho had also learned something of Esoteric (secretive, magical) Buddhism (known as mikyo in Japanese), and he incorporated some of its mysterious rituals into Tendai, adding to the dramatic appeal of the new sect. Initial practioners of Tendai went on to found other sects such as Jodo (Honen 1133-1212), Jodo Shinshu (Shinran 1173-1263), Rinzai Zen (Eisai 1141-1215) and Nichren Buddhism (Nichiren 1222-1282).
The Temple Complex
Enryakuji has three distinct precincts spread over several kilometres across the mountain’s wooded slopes: Yokawa, To-to (Eastern Pagoda), the area first settled by Saicho, and Sai-to (Western Pagoda). The most important building at the site is the Konponchudo which was built on the site of Saicho’s first hut on the mountain, now the Eastern Precinct. The present version is a reconstruction dating to 1642 CE. Inside is an altar and ever-burning flame, said to have been lit since the site’s foundation. The Daikodo or Great Lecture Hall has many portraits of Enryakuji’s famous alumni. Next to the Great Lecture Hall stands the Bell of Good Fortune suspended in its own roofed structure. Other buildings in the To-to precinct include the reconstructed Kaidan-in or Ordination Hall, which was built to replace an older building commemorating the recognition of the Tendai sect by the emperor in the 9th century CE, the Amida Hall which was rebuilt in 1937 CE and has a two-storey pagoda, and the Monju-ro Gate.
The Chu-do or Central Hall of the Yokawa precinct was built in the 9th century CE by the renowned monk and abbot of Enryakuji, Ennin, but later destroyed by a lightning strike. It was rebuilt in 1971 CE. The most important structure in the Western Precinct is the Shakado, which was moved from its original location at the Miidera temple in 1595 CE and originally built by Saicho’s disciple Encho. Between the Sai-to and To-to precincts, nestling in the forest is the tomb of Saicho and the Jodo-in or Worship Hall. As Tendai Buddhism recognises the existence of Shinto kami or spirits, there are several small Shinto shrines dotted around the complex, many dedicated to Oyamakui, the Shinto spirit of Mt. Hiei, and several torii or sacred gates.
You can reach Hiei-zan and Enryaku-ji by train or bus. The most interesting way is the train/cable-car/funicular route starting on the Eizan line from Demachiyanagi Station to Yase Hieizanguchi. Note that this cable-car/funicular route does not operate in winter from early December to mid-March. You can also access Enryaku-ji by the JR Kosei line from Kyoto Station to Heizan Sakamoto Station and then a bus to the Sakamoto cable-car station, which runs year-round. If you’re in a hurry or would like to save money, the best way is a direct bus from Sanjō Keihan or Kyoto stations.
Note that the Japanese word for funicular is ropeway. From the funicular station, you can hike through the wooded forest (2.2km) to the Tōtō section. Otherwise, it’s a short walk to the bus station, from where you can board a bus to the Enryaku-ji Bus Center for the Tōtō section. You can hike between all three sections; otherwise the bus runs between them all quite frequently.
Enryakuji Temple (hieizan.or.jp)
Tel: 077 578 0001
From Demachiyanagi Station in Kyoto take an Eiden Line train to Yase-Hieizanguchi Station, then transfer to the Eizan Cable Car and then the Eizan Ropeway (840 yen one-way). From there it is a 30 minute walk to Enryakuji or take one of the hourly shuttle buses.
From Hiei-Sakamoto Station on the Shiga side, ride the Sakamoto Cable Car, from the top it is a 700m walk to the Eastern Pagoda Area. Hiei-Sakamoto Station can be reached from Kyoto Station by the JR Kosei Line and a bus.
Alternatively take a direct bus from Kyoto or Sanjo-Keihan stations or hike up from Shugakuin. The trail begins either near to Sekizanzen-in Temple or follow the stream that runs along the southern edge of Shugakuin Rikyu until you come to a large concrete weir. The trail is signposted on your left.
The walk from the Eastern to Western Pagoda areas takes about 30 minutes or less.