On our last morning in Japan, Ruth and I went to the Kyoto National Museum. It was closed for reconstruction until next fall.
Kyoto was Japan’s capital city and home to the imperial family from 794 until 1868. According to Lonely Planet, there are 17 Unesco World Heritage Sites, more than 400 Shinto shrines, and in excess of 1,000 Buddhist temples there as a result. We had seen several of all 3 in this surprisingly compact city of just under one and a half million people where it’s easy to feel that the next temple will be one too many.
I’m glad that the National Museum was closed because we walked across the street to yet another temple, one that we would otherwise not have seen, and found one of the top attractions in the world–the Sanjusangen-do. Built in 1164, this temple was destroyed by fire 85 years later. The building that replaced it in 1266 has stood since then with only 4 re-models. Its longevity is partially due to the fact that it was made earthquake-proof by alternating layers of sand and clay underneath. Once brilliantly colored and much of its contents gilded with gold, it’s now hard to find any color in or outside.
It’s one of the longest buildings I have ever circled. Slightly more than 387 feet in length, this incredible temple has been the scene of an archery contest since the 16th century. The bowman who shoots the largest number of arrows from one end to the other outside wins. The record is held by Wasa Daihachiro, who shot 8,133 out of 13,053 arrows in one day. Today the contest is held in January.
The reason why this wooden structure is so lengthy is because inside are row upon row of Kannons, gods of mercy. There are 1,000 of them, 500 on either side of a central Kannon, a very large Bodhisattva with 11 faces and 1,000 arms.
This is the only hall in Japan where these Kannons are enshrined, and I believe that Sanjusangen-do rivals the terra-cotta warriors in Xi’an, China, while being far less known. Awesome as it is, I have no interior pictures because photography is STRICTLY forbidden. In fact, visitors are warned that cameras might be checked and photos deleted at the exit if an attempt is made to record anything.
Fronting the 1,001 Kannons are an additional 28 guardian deities like the Thunder God at the first corner. Looking mighty fierce, he’s on a pedestal amid a ring of 8 thunder makers. 68 inches tall, he and the other deities originated in ancient India and were said to be protectors of Buddhism. They’re made of wood, have crystal eyeballs, and were once richly painted. One of them is dour but Madonna-like Mawaranyo, a female general.
Those who don’t circumnavigate Sanjusangen-do outside miss 2 especially pretty ponds. This temple is considered one of Japan’s greatest national treasures. I don’t doubt why.