A temple built by the famous warlord Taira no Kiyomori for Emperor Go-Shirakawa in 1164, Sanjūsangen-dō is primarily famous for its 1,001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of compassion in her thousand-armed incarnation, lined up along the entire length of the thirty-three ken (unit of measurement) hall from which the temple gets its moniker. The temple complex used to be larger until a fire decimated it and only the main hall was rebuilt, but visitors are more than satisfied with the impressive contents of the long wooden structure. Not only is the hall filled with the golden faces of a thousand Kannon statues, but another 28 sculptures of Buddhist guardian deities are also featured in the front row. The hall itself shows its age in the many arrow notches that can be found in the wood on the edge of the building, marks of the Tōshiya archery competition once held at the temple hundreds of years ago.
(All photos are courtesy of Myōhō-in temple. All rights reserved.)
Sanjūsangen-dō is primarily famous for its 1,001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of compassion, in her thousand-armed incarnation along the entire length of the thirty-three ken long hall from which the temple gets its moniker.
1,001 Thousand-Armed Kannon Statues
One of Sanjūsangen-dō’s well-known aspects is the statuary housed in its main hall, created by a team that was led by sculpture masters father and son Unkei and Tankei. Arranged in ten rows and fifty columns on each side of the hall, the thousand statues of Kannon are made of Japanese cypress covered in gold leaf. Of these, 124 are originals from the temple’s founding that were saved from destruction in a 1249 fire, while the rest were replaced in the 13th century. The thousand human-sized statues flank a much larger statue of the deity that serves as the principal object of worship and is also a National Treasure. The thousand-armed Kannon is said to have eleven heads to better see the suffering of mankind, and one thousand arms to save everyone in need. Though the wooden statues only have 42 arms, each holds a different item or is posed in a Buddhist symbolic gesture. Look carefully at their faces: it is said that among the Kannon statues you will find one that resembles the person you long to meet.
In addition to the thousand-armed Kannon statues, the hall displays 28 guardian deities whose origins lie in Hinduism. There are various theories as to how the concepts spread, but they somehow made their way across Asia in the form of Sanskrit texts and over the sea to Japan where the Hindu deities of Shiva, Vishnu, Lakshmi, Brahma and others found new lives as fusion deities in Buddhism. They now serve to protect the goddess Kannon.
Scattered around the Sanjūsangen-dō are willow trees, their long, green branches hanging low to the ground. These willows are used in the temple’s annual Rite of the Willow, where the branches are used to purify those who come for a blessing. The temple is also known for its rather original omamori, or protective charms, which is called a zutsū fūji. This charm to ward off headaches contains a piece of a willow branch, as well as a sutra that asks the goddess Kannon to heal the holder of their afflictions.
Taira no Kiyomori, the famous warlord who held political control over the Imperial Court at the height of his power in the late Heian period, constructed Sanjūsangen-dō in 1164 at the behest of Emperor Go-Shirakawa to serve as his retirement palace (the practice at the time was that an emperor officially abdicated the throne but continued to rule behind the scenes). Unfortunately, the large complex burned down in 1249, and only the main hall was reconstructed in 1266 by an order of Emperor Go-Saga. Of the original 1,001 Kannon statues, 124 were saved from the burning building and the remaining were commissioned when the temple was rebuilt.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–1598), the second great unifier of Japan, sought to imitate the Great Buddha hall in Nara and built another hall just north of Sanjūsangen-dō, surrounded by an earthen wall. This wall, called the taikōbei (Regent’s wall), can still be seen today.
Sanjūsangen-dō was the supposed sight of a famous duel between the wandering warrior Miyamoto Musashi and the leader of the prominent Yoshioka-ryū school of swordsmanship, Yoshioka Denshichirō, in 1604. It is said that Denshichirō challenged the masterless samurai to a duel to avenge his brother, Yoshioka Seijūrō, whose arm was crippled by Musashi in a duel outside Rendai-ji temple. According to the stories, Miyamoto Musashi handily disarmed his steel staff-wielding opponent, winning the duel. He would later go on to kill the next leader of the sword school, the young Yoshioka Matashichiro, in a duel arranged outside Ichijō-ji temple, thus destroying that branch of the Yoshioka-ryū before he left Kyoto.
Sanjūsangen-do was home to a popular archery contest called Tōshiya. Though the origin of the competition is unclear, it was already an established event by the Momoyama period (1583–1600). A particularly famous warrior named Asaoka Heibei is credited with popularizing the contest back in 1606 by successfully shooting fifty-one arrows. With the thirty-three ken (120 meters) long hall as a measurement of distance, archers would shoot arrows from the southern end of the structure into a target erected at the northern end. Various events were part of the competition, including the “One Hundred Shots” (Hyaku-i) and “One Thousand Shots” (Sen-i) challenges, in which the archers who made the most hits were the winners. Young boys participated in the Hiyakazu and tried to shoot as many arrows as possible in a twelve hour period, and men competed in the Ōyakazu to do the same in a twenty-four hour period.
Meticulous records of the popular competition were kept in the form of wooden certificates displayed in the temple that listed the champions by name, age, and arrows used. Modern visitors may be shocked to learn that in 1827 an eleven year old named Kokura Gishichi successfully hit the target with 995 of his 1,000 arrows, or that in 1686 an eighteen year old named Wasa Daihachiro shot 13,053 arrows over the period of a day, landing 8,133 shots and averaging 9 arrows a minute. After 255 years the competition was ended in 1861, though it survives in part with the temple’s Ōmato Taikai archery competition held for Coming of Age Day on a Sunday in mid-January.
Sanjūsangen-dō is currently administered by Myōhō-in temple and belongs to the Tendai School of Buddhism.
Yanagi no Okaji (Rite of the Willow; free admission)
|Shuntō-e Spring Ritual (free admission)|
|Hana Matsuri (Flower Festival)|
|Kaisanki (Celebration of the Temple’s Founding)|
|Ohitaki Fire Ritual|
- General Admission: ¥600
- Junior High and High School Students: ¥400
- Primary School Students: ¥300
- General Admission: 8:30 – 17:00 (April 1st to November 15th), 9:00 – 16:00 (November 16th to March 31st)
- Closed: No closing days