Originally a high ranking courtier’s rural villa, Byōdō-in was built in the Heian Period and converted into a temple in 1052 by a member of the influential Fujiwara clan, now managed by both the Tendai and Pure Land sects of Buddhism. Located in the green tea-producing city of Uji just southeast of Kyoto, the temple feels slightly removed from city life, surrounded by a pond and garden. The architect intended to convey a vision of the Buddhist Pure Land, and succeeded in making Byōdō-in a strikingly beautiful temple in the process. The most famous building in the complex is the Phoenix Hall, which is placed in front of a reflective pond and topped with golden statues of phoenixes. Inside the hall is a statue of Amida Buddha, the main object of worship and the being said to be the one who offers passage to the Pure Land upon death to those who call out his name. The garden surrounding the hall as well as other buildings on the property make for a leisurely stroll, and visitors can also view a museum with temple treasures and art for a small fee.
The architect intended to convey a vision of the Buddhist Pure Land, and succeeded in making Byōdō-in a strikingly beautiful temple in the process.
Amida Hall (Phoenix Hall)
The main building on the property, and perhaps one of the most famous in Kyoto, is the Amida Hall (Amida-dō), more commonly known as the Phoenix Hall (Hōō-dō) due to the two Chinese phoenixes on top of the roof. Amida Nyorai (Amitabha Buddha) is enshrined within the central hall, and a large 2.8 m statue carved in 1053 by the famous Jōchō sits serenely on a lotus flower within. This statue is a National Treasure and was done in the yosegi-zukuri style in which a carving is done by assembling multiple pieces of wood instead of carving from a single block. On the walls around Amida Nyorai are the Unchū Kuyō Bosatsu, 52 wooden statues of various saints performing Buddhist rituals in the clouds. Though the colors have faded, in its original form this hall was brightly painted to depict the colorful heavenly host said to accompany Amida Nyorai when he descends from the Western Paradise. Entrance to the Amida Hall is ¥300 in addition to the admission fee and is staggered according to set times when visitors can enter in small groups with a guide.
Pure Land Garden
The garden and pond of Byōdō-in were designed specifically to evoke an image of the Buddhist Pure Land, the celestial heaven where Amida Nyorai resides and where all those who believed in Pure Land Buddhism and called on Amida Nyorai to save them would be reborn. The garden is designed to take visitors on a crescent-shaped stroll from one end of the Phoenix Hall to the other, and the pond surrounding the hall reflects it clearly on a sunny day, making for a striking view that is often photographed. Take a look for yourself and we’re sure you’ll understand why! Seasonal beauties such as sakura, azaleas, wisteria, and autumn leaves can also be enjoyed at Byōdō-in if you time your trip accordingly.
Designed by Akira Kuryū, a famous Japanese museum architect, the Byōdō-in Hōshōkan Museum was intended to be Japan’s first proper “temple museum”, and its design has gone on to win several awards. Located largely underground to preserve the landscape of the temple above, the cool modern style of the museum makes for an interesting contrast with the priceless relics displayed within. Using the most advanced technology to preserve the treasures while still allowing them to be viewed, visitors can cast their eyes on Buddhist statuary, the temple’s famous bell, and recreations of how the temple once looked in freshly painted glory. The ground floor features a quality gift shop as well as a rest area. A café called Tōka has also recently opened beside the museum, serving Japanese teas and sweets in a cool, modern setting.
Built in 998, Byōdō-in was originally a rural villa for the high-ranking Minister of the Left, Minamoto no Shigenobu. After his death the property was procured by Fujiwara no Michinaga, one of the more powerful members of the politically influential Fujiwara clan who all but controlled the early 11th century court, serving as adviser and regent to emperors and marrying his family in to the imperial line. Upon Michinaga’s death, and seized with the thought of that time that mappō (Decadent Age of the Dharma) had begun and human beings would no longer be capable of enlightenment under their own power, his son Fujiwara no Yorimichi converted the villa into a temple in 1052 and began construction on the temple’s most noteworthy structure, the Amida Hall, commonly called the Phoenix Hall (Hōō-dō). In order to appeal for rebirth in the Pure Land, he installed Amida Buddha for worship in the main hall with a large 2.8 m tall statue of the seated divinity created by an innovative sculptor of the time, Jōchō.
In 1180, the long-standing conflict between the powerful Minamoto and Taira clans over control of the Imperial court erupted in to full-scale war at the Battle of Uji when Minamoto no Yorimasa fled south towards Byōdō-in with the Minamoto clan’s favored claimant to the throne, Prince Mochihito, accompanied by warrior monks from nearby Mii-dera and Minamoto forces. To stall the Taira forces pursuing them, they ripped out the planks of the bridge after crossing the Uji River and set up defenses outside of the temple, but the Taira assault proved too powerful and Byōdō-in fell into Taira hands. With his sons sacrificing themselves to buy time, Minamoto no Yorimasa entered the temple and committed ritual suicide before he could be captured by the enemy. It’s said he had his severed head weighed down with a rock and thrown into the Uji River by his retainer in order to prevent those who defeated him from claiming it, considered by some to be one of the first recorded instances of seppuku honor suicide. Yorimasa’s grave can be viewed at Saishō-in, the Tendai sect sub-temple of Byōdō-in.
Despite widespread destruction and the loss of several other buildings on the property caused by civil wars, such as the Ōnin War that plagued Kyoto in the 14th and 15th centuries, the Phoenix Hall alone did not burn down, making it one of the few remaining wooden buildings in Kyoto to have survived from the Heian period intact. The Phoenix Hall graces the front of the Japanese 10 yen coin, and its phoenixes are featured on the 10,000 yen bank note. It has been on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list since 1994, and also contains several items in the treasure hall classified as National Treasures.
- General Admission: ¥600
- Junior High School, High School: ¥400
- Primary School: ¥300
- General Admission: 8:30 to 17:30 (entry until 17:15)
- Closed: No closing days