Nishi Hongwanji

Osaka Castle
Osaka Dome
Osaka Grand Cube
Universal Studios Japan
Hiroshima Peace Memorial
Shukkeien Garden
Golden Pavilion
Heian Shrine
Kasuga Taisha
Toji Temple
Nishi Hongwanji
Toshogu Shrine
Irohazaka Drive
Meiji Shrine
Asakusa Kannon
Girl with Red Shoes On
Hikawa Maru
Marine Rouge Cruise
Kaiko Promenade
Yokohama Museums

The Shin Buddhist path was founded by Shinran Shonin (11731262) during the Kamakura period and in several centuries grew into one of the largest and most influential schools of Buddhism in Japan, a position it maintains today. Hongwanji (“Temple of the Original Vow”) is the headquarters of the Hongwanji denomination of Shin Buddhism (Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha) and is known as Nishi (“West”) Hongwanji.

The Hongwanji developed from a modest temple built at the site of Shinran Shonins mausoleum. For further information about the early history of the temple, see the Hongwanji history Web page.

In relatively recent history, the Shin sect has spread worldwide. With the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan entered a period of rapid modernization, but it was also a time of crisis. The new government adopted a strong anti-Buddhist attitude, and a movement to eradicate Buddhism and bring Shinto to ascendancy arose throughout the country. It was precisely at this time that the twenty-first monshu (head of the Hongwanji), Myonyo, took office.

Myonyo was energetic in protecting religious freedom and successfully struggled against state control of temple activities. To advance the Shin tradition, as early as 1872 he began sending advisors and students abroad to investigate religious thought and practices throughout the world. In 1888, in response to interest among Buddhists in Europe and America, the Hongwanji published a journal in English, and also highly-regarded reports in Japanese on religious conditions abroad.

At home, he broke down the rigid hierarchy of branch temples and directly involved local temples throughout the country in governing the Hongwanji. He also built schools, orphanages, and other social welfare facilities, and created a program of prison and military chaplaincy. In 1897, the Hongwanji began sending official ministers to establish temples for Japanese immigrants in Hawaii and the mainland United States.

 In 1903, Myonyo was succeeded by Kyonyo (Ohtani Kozui), who continued to broaden the vision and scope of Hongwanji activities. He is known in particular for the Otani expeditions to Buddhist sites in central Asia, which recovered many texts and artifacts from the deserts across which Buddhism had been transmitted to Japan over the Silk Road.

Shin missions in Europe started after the twenty-third monshu, Ohtani Kosho, made a tour in 1954. Today, the Hongwanji is the head temple for over ten thousand temples throughout Japan and some two hundred temples around the world.

Although this temple can be found on lists of Japan’s most important temples, when we visited it, there was no admission fee, probably because its largest, oldest, and most important building, the Goeidō (Founder’s Hall), was being restored. Once the restoration is complete, I imagine Nishi Hongwanji will again become a full-fledged tourist attraction.

Since the main gate, the Goeidō gate, is currently closed, we entered by the Amidadō Gate, and the Amidadō was directly in front of us. To our left was a gift shop, which we entered, at least in part, I think, to see if anyone would charge us for admission. As no one did, we bought a guidebook about the temple (¥840). When I later got a chance to actually peruse it, I discovered that we had only scratched the surface of the buildings in the temple precinct and had totally missed some of the outlying features. Perhaps we can be excused for missing the Hiunkaku (“Flying Cloud Pavilion”), a National Treasure that sits beside a pond inside a walled section in one corner of the precinct, but I can’t imagine how we failed to discover a much larger pond and garden immediately behind the Amidadō. In our defense I can only say that our time was somewhat limited, and some of the paths around the precinct were obstructed by construction barricades. Moreover, some of the buildings in the precinct were part of Ryukoku University, some were purely administrative, and one was the Hongwanji Chuo Kindergarten.

Another National Treasure, the Shoin, seems to contain most of the halls and chambers pictured in the book, but if it was open to the public, we missed the entrance (the main entrance was not open).

This map shows the location of the temple in relation to nearby sites in Kyoto, including the train station. Our hotel, the Rihga Royal, is located several blocks south on Horikawa-dori, just north of the rail line.

The Goeidō Gate, which is currently closed. Behind it can be seen the canopy that protects the Goeidō during restoration.

To the left is the gift shop where we bought a guide book. In the background is the Amidadō.  Rebuilt in 1760, the Hall of Amida Buddha measures 37 x 42 m, with a height of 29 m. A wooden statue of Amida Buddha is enshrined in the center, flanked by portraits of the Seven Patriarchs from India, China, and Japan. During the restoration of the Goeidō, the statue of Shinran Shonin has been moved to the Amidadō, which is being called the Somido because it temporarily houses the statues of both Amida Buddha and Shinran Shonin until the completion of the restoration, which is scheduled for 2008.

I thought this was another view of the Amidadō, but now I am not so sure; possibly it is a portion of the Shoin Chambers (see below).

The grounds of the temple precinct. The building in the background is another mystery. It may be the Sampai Kaikan (visitors reception bureau).

Plan of the temple precinct. The two dark-blue-roofed buildings in the center are the Goeidō (left) and Amidadō. The largish building in the lower right corner of the precinct is the Sampai Kaikan. The Hiunkaku is in the lower left corner.

Part of a poster explaining the restoration of the Goeidō, posted on a chain-link fence surrounding the construction site.

Detail of the poster listing (presumably) previous restoration projects to the building, which was completely rebuilt in 1636.

The Karamon Gate, a National Treasure.

Sign identifying the Karamon.

Entrance to the Audience Chambers, which I believe to be part of the Shoin, another National Treasure, which contains a Main Audience Hall and numerous smaller chambers, including the Chamber of Sparrows, Chamber of Wild Geese, and Chamber of Chrysanthemums. The Chambers of Waves, Tigers, and Drums are the oldest of the Shoin Chambers and are an Important Cultural Asset. The Shiro Shoin Chambers is a suite of three rooms divided by sliding screens and traditionally used by the Monshu as an audience chamber for receiving guests.

Detail of a plaque identifying the Entrance to the Audience Chambers. It reads:

The architectural style of the main entrance hall, which is located south of the Audience Chambers, is known as “Irimoya”, and has an undulated style gable on the front. This main entrance is utilized to receive guests on the occasion of formal observances or to see the monshu off when he departs on an official trip. Although there is no record showing when the hall was built, it was completed before Shinran Shonin’s 500th Memorial Observance in 1760 (Hōreki 10), as it already existed on that occasion.

The gate in front of the main entrance hall, which was completed in 1847 (Kōka 4) during the twentieth monshu, Kōnyo Shonin’s tenure, has guardhouses on both the left and right. This reveals the importance of the gate, since this type was normally used by feudal lords whose annual harvest was worth more than a hundred thousand koku (over 500,000 bushels). The one-storied wooden building adjoining the gate to the southwest was used as a facility in which horses were stabled in those days, and is still referred to as umatsunagi (stable). Even though part of the temple, the style of architecture retains the refinement of the age of warrior rule.

Barney standing in the gate described above, with guardhouses on either side. I believe this is the gate described on the plan as Ogenkan.

Detail of the roof tiles on the west guardhouse.

The “canopy” that protects the Goeidō during restoration. This massive structure, standing 31.1 m tall, is composed of six segments weighing 2300 tons and covering 7248 square meters. The segments were slid into place over the Founder’s Hall. The canopy is buttressed on the front side only, relying on a cantilevered construction for support. For environmental purposes, each pillar is filled with 330 tons of water for stability. The support structure has been left open in front (left in the photo) to provide natural conditions for the legendary gingko tree in front of the Goeidō.

Barney with a display of worn-out and replacement roof tiles. The roof is covered with a total of 115,000 tiles. By November 2000, the tiles had been individually removed by skilled technicians and scrupulously examined to determine age of production. Reusable ones will be returned to the roof. Ridge ornaments (finials) prevent water from entering around the edge of the roof. Each weighs one ton and consists of 40 segments. It took two days to remove each by crane.

Detail of the chased brass hardware on the Amidadō gate.

Sign in front of the temple precinct (outside the gate). Presumably it explains that the Goeidō roof is under restoration.