13 Sep 2015

Planning a trip north to Iwate? Then don't miss these six amazing temples. World Heritage sites, National Special Historic Sites, and Special Places of Scenic Beauty can be found in Iwate Prefecture, so if you are travelling or planning a tour of the area, then these six temples are the ones that can't be missed:

Ho’on-ji Temple

6 Unmissable Iwate Temples

(image by 公益財団法人岩手県観光協会)

Kitayama, which is in the northeast section of central Morioka, is an honorable community of temples which has about 20 temples in the vicinity. Ho’on-ji is the most famous temple among them which was established in 1362 and then moved to its present location in 1601. It is a Zen temple of the Soto sect whose long history has been passed down to the present. There are plenty of historic landmarks in its solemnly rising main temple gate, the temple bell within the grounds, the octagonal Lotus Pagoda and the highlight of the arhat hall, and inside that last place, 499 quietly dignified arhats or Buddhist statues are enshrined. The temple is also famous for a large meditation hall behind the main hall, and it is said that the famous modern poet and children’s storywriter, Kenji Miyazawa, had practiced there. Also, another poet and tanka poet, Takuboku Ishikawa, had loved the neighborhood when he was young and enjoyed walks with his friends in the area.

Inside the arhat hall, the surviving 499 Buddhist arhats are enshrined. In Buddhism, arhats refer to Buddhist disciples and saints who have achieved the highest level possible as practitioners, and these statues are placed for memorial services. They were created over 4 years from 1731 by 9 Buddhist monks in Kyoto before they were transported over a long way to their current resting place. There are interesting anecdotes of the boxes used to transport them being used as pedestals. 499 of the 500 wooden statues have survived, and they have been clearly seen over the ages as very precious arhat statues. Among these 499, statues of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan are included, and it is said that with their various expressions, no two arhats are alike.

Admission: Adult: ¥ 300 / Child: ¥ 100

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Motsu-ji Temple

When the great priest Ennin came to this land during his pilgrimage through the Tohoku region, there was a thick fog which he couldn’t escape. He then noticed some white fur at his feet which led to a white deer crouched down on the ground. When the deer disappeared beyond the fog, an old white-haired figure appeared and that figure prophesied that a temple would be built on the land before he disappeared. After the temple was established in the year 850, Motohira Fujiwara who represented the 2nd generation of the Northern Fujiwara clan which controlled the entire Tohoku, and his son, Hidehira, had many temple buildings constructed in the mid-12th century, but with the collapse of the Northern Fujiwaras, all of the buildings were burned down in fire. However, the Pure Land Garden surrounding Oizumi Pond has survived in its original form, and on the remains of the former buildings, many cornerstones exist to relate those days from the past. Motsu-ji and Chuson-ji Temples have both been registered as World Heritage sites, and the former temple is designated as a National Special Historic Site and a Special Place of Scenic Beauty.  

The Pure Land Garden, which has retained its original appearance for over 800 years, has a lush lovely waterfront in its large space and has created a world of tranquility that splendidly harmonizes features such as the trees and the artificial hills. Said to be the Earthbound form of the Pure Land from the world of Buddhism and created based on Japan’s oldest book on gardening that had been written in the Heian Era, the garden also has high academic value as well.  At Motsu-ji, along with Buddhist events, there are many other seasonal festivals and events connected with the Fujiwara clan, but the Gokusui-no-En on the 4th Sunday in May is special. Participants clothed in Heian Era costumes recreate the activity of composing Japanese poetry before a floating cup of sake on the garden’s feeder stream reaches them so that you can experience the elegant lifestyle of the Heian nobility.

Admission: Adult: ¥ 500 / Child: ¥ 100 

Guidebook from Planetyze about Motsu-ji Temple
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Chuson-ji Temple

Chuson-ji is a temple built upon a 130m hill in the middle of deep forest. Beautiful 300-year-old cryptomeria trees line the gentle Tsukimizaka Slope on its way to the temple. The history of the temple is old: it had been established by Buddhist abbot Ennin in 850 before further construction was initiated in 1105 by the first of the Northern Fujiwara clan, Kiyohira, which began an age of prosperity for the temple. However, due to the ravages of war, the Northern Fujiwaras collapsed in 1189 and the now-unprotected temple went into decline with a further tragedy occurring in 1337 when many of the temple buildings were burned down due to a fire. But some of the cultural heritage of the temple managed to survive the fire including the No. 1 National Treasure of the Golden Hall, and it is this group of surviving cultural assets that has been designated as a treasury of Heian Buddhist art as well as a World Heritage site. Currently, centering upon the Hondo Main Hall where the memorial services, ceremonies and events are held, numerous cultural assets are preserved such as the Sankozo Museum where 3000 of those assets left by the Fujiwara including National Treasures are stored, and the Important Cultural Property of Hakusan Shrine Noh Stage that was built in the Edo Era. All of this elegant Buddhist cultural heritage continues to be taught to future generations.

The National Treasure of Konjiki-do, or the Golden Hall, has been in existence since after the Heian Era, and is a cultural heritage that survived the ravages of fire. Constructed in 1124 by Kiyohira Fujiwara, it was built retaining the essence of the craftsmanship of that time. The hall, which is designed with the expression of Paradise, shines with the gold leaf layered upon it, and is a true jewel with its decorative mother-of-pearl and ivory. The temple also has Buddhist statues that cannot be seen elsewhere such as the Kannon Bodhisattva and Seishi Bodhisattva standing on either side of the principal image of the Amida Nyorai, the Jizo Bosatsu, and two of the Four Heavenly Kings, Zochoten and Jikokuten. These are hidden treasures that hold the repose of those lost in the war and Kiyohira Fujiwara’s strong wish for peace.    

Admission: Adult: ¥ 800 / Child: ¥ 200 

Guidebook from Planetyze about Chuson-ji Temple
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Fukusen-ji Temple

The massive wooden Kannon statue was carved out of a huge 1200-year-old tree by the chief priest himself, a process that took 20 years and involved the priest taking weeklong fasts 100 times. He completed his mission through prayer for bringing back the world back from confusion and despair.

Admission: Adult: ¥ 300 / Child: ¥ 200 

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Takkoku no Iwaya Bishamondo Temple

6 Unmissable Iwate Temples

(image by upload.wikimedia.org)

400 years before the establishment of Chuson-ji Temple by Kiyohira Fujiwara in Hiraizumi in the 12th century, there stood Tendai-shu Takkoku Seikou-ji Temple. To the west of it is Takkoku no Iwaya Bishamondo Temple which was built inside a rock wall, a conspicuous sight that seems to be enveloped in rock. The temple was erected in the early Heian Era in 801 in commemoration of the defeat of the Ezo people who had lived in the area by Tamuramaro Sakanoue. A Bishamonten deity was enshrined there and it was built to resemble Kiyomizu-dera Temple in Kyoto. In addition, 108 Bishamonten statues were offered to the temple. However, with the temple burned down twice and rebuilt, many of those statues were also destroyed of which around 30 have survived to the present day. To the west of Bishamondo on the upper part of the rock wall, there is a carving of Buddha, and there are nationally designated historic sites preserved all throughout the grounds of the temple such as the statue of the Joroku God of Fire that was built in the Heian Era.

At Takkoku no Iwaya Bishamondo Temple which has the air of an unexplored region, the legend of Tamuramaro Sakanoue remains. Long ago, the evil Akuro-O who had built a castle there terrorized the people. One day, the leader of the Ezo imprisoned an abducted princess in a cave. Although she tried to escape, Akuro-O managed to ambush and capture her at a waterfall, and cut off her long hair. The emperor, who could no longer bear watching the violence committed by Akuro-O, ordered Tamuramaro Sakanoue to punish Akura-O. After the fierce battle, thanks to the help from the Bishamonten, Sakanoue was victorious. The waterfall where the princess was ambushed is now known as Himemachi Falls, and the hair that was cut off from the princess was placed on a huge rock which has survived as Katsura (Wig) Rock due to its appearance, both being places that are now connected to the legend. 

Admission: ¥ 300 

Guidebook from Planetyze about Takkoku no Iwaya Bishamondo Temple
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Hachiyozan Tendai-ji Temple

6 Unmissable Iwate Temples

(image by 公益財団法人岩手県観光協会

Tendai-ji was established in 728 by the monk Gyoki under the command of the emperor. Built in the Heian Era, it is thought to have developed the northernmost example of Buddhist culture in the ancient days of the nation with worship of the holy water bubbling from the giant katsura trees below the sando path to the temple. In the 14th century, further developing under the auspices of the increasingly influential Nambu clan in the Tohoku area, the temple underwent major restoration and repairs during the Edo Era of the 17th century so that it enjoyed great prosperity as a large temple with 27 subordinate temples under it. However, due to the anti-Buddhist movement at the beginning of the Meiji Era in the 19th century, the temple went through some harsh times. It is said that the temple suffered the greatest damage in Japan due to the movement with most of its buildings and cultural properties destroyed. In 1953, the tragedy of the temple continued when 1666 giant cedar trees were cut down without permission. The shock of this incident was so great that there were calls for the preservation and restoration of the temple, and in 1976, Shuncho Kon, the chief abbot of Chuson-ji, the main temple of the Tohoku district for the Tendai sect, appointed a special chief priest to oversee its restoration. Continuing that intention, in 1987, the famous female writer, Jakucho Setouchi, took over as the chief priest and devoted her efforts into the restoration to achieve one of Iwate Prefecture’s foremost temples.

In spite of many cultural properties being destroyed during the anti-Buddhist movement, many parishioners at the time took away several Buddhist statues and hid them, although they were put in some severe environments such as being buried underground or being left out to become weather-beaten. However, with their warm expressions beaming through the simple locations, these statues have become important items to witness as they relate the past after surviving such an ordeal. It is said that 13 of the 59 statues enshrined at the temple were created in the Heian Era, and the Standing Image of Shokannon, which was supposedly made by the monk Gyoki himself, is a masterpiece that was created through the use of the distinct method of natabori (hatchet carving) with chisel marks being left on a majority of the statue’s surface.

Admission: ¥ 300 

Guidebook from Planetyze about Hachiyozan Tendai-ji Temple
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