A Comprehensive Guide to the World Heritage Byodoin Temple
Byodoin Temple is a World Heritage Site on the banks of Uji River in southern Kyoto Prefecture. This gorgeous temple, which was originally a vacation home for aristocrats, is one of Kyoto's leading tourist destinations with many national treasures and cultural properties. This is a comprehensive guide that includes basic information about Byodoin Temple, its highlights, and recommended places to go in the area.
What is Byodoin Temple?
Byodoin Temple is a temple with a long history that was established approximately 1000 years ago. During the Heian Period (around 794 - around 1185), known for its brilliant aristocratic culture, there was also widespread belief in Mappo Shiso (the belief that there will no longer be people undergoing ascetic training and achieving enlightenment, resulting in a disorderly world), and aristocrats and monks wholeheartedly dreamed of the Buddhist Pure Land (a paradise where one is free of all suffering). Byodoin Temple was built at such a time by the Regent Fujiwara no Yorimichi to represent the Pure Land. It has many national treasures and important cultural properties, such as the main structure, Phoenix Hall (Hou-ou-do), and is registered as a World Heritage Site.
Admission Fee: 600 JPY/adult, 400 JPY/junior high and high school student, 300 JPY elementary school student
Hours: Garden 8:30 am - 5:30 pm (last entry 5:15 pm)
Regular holiday: None
Access: 10-minute walk from Uji Station *Uji Station is about 17 minutes by train from Kyoto Station
What to See at Byodoin Temple
Phoenix Hall (Hou-ou-do)
The national treasure, Phoenix Hall, was built in 1053 and still retains its form from that time. It is a valuable ancient structure that offers a glimpse into the splendor of the aristocratic culture of the time and is even depicted on the 10 JPY coin. The sight of this gorgeous building reflected on water is so magnificent, it is truly as if one has entered the Pure Land. It houses the principle image of Amida Buddha (Amida Nyorai), which is a national treasure, as well as 52 statues of Bodhisattva (Buddhist Saints) which can be viewed on request.
Entry to interior of Phoenix Hall 9:30 am - 4:10 pm
*Closed between Monday, May 13 and Friday, November 15, 2019 for renovations
It is said that Phoenix Hall is named after the pair of phoenixes on its roof. A phoenix is a mythical bird that was revered as a wind deity in ancient times. The current phoenixes are the second generation, and the original ones can be seen in Hoshokan Museum on the premises. The phoenix is depicted on the 10,000 JPY bill, so if you have a bill, be sure to compare it. It is also said that when seen from the front, Phoenix Hall itself looks like a long-tailed bird spreading its wings.
Kannon-do Hall, which is designated an Important Cultural Property, was built in the early Kamakura Period (1185 - 1333) on the former site of the original main hall of Byodoin. It is a simply built structure, but has "futanoki" (double eaves) of the highly regarded "Jien Hikaku" style where there are two layers of rafters supporting the roof under the eaves, one made of square timber and one made of log. It is currently not open to the public due to repairs.
The Temple Bell was once hanging in a bell tower to the south of Phoenix Hall. It was considered to be one of the "three greatest bells in the world" and is an impressive 199cm tall with an aperture of 123cm. The bell's surface is decorated with elaborate figures of phoenix and Celestial Beings that are comparable to none other in their intricacy. The bell currently in the tower is a replica, and the original is exhibited in Byodoin Temple Museum "Hoshokan".
Jodoin Temple behind Phoenix Hall is a temple that Eiku Shonin of the Jodo (Pure Land) sect of Buddhism is said to have established during the latter half of the 15th century. It is said that it was built for the renovation of Byodoin Temple, and today it shares the role of managing Byodoin Temple together with Saishoin Temple of the Tendai sect. To the right of the main hall is the Rakan-do Hall, which has a different architectural style from other buildings, and when you turn back, you can see Phoenix Hall from behind. It is unassuming but has many hidden points to see, so be sure to stop by.
Byodoin Temple Garden
Byodoin Temple Garden, which spreads out as if encompassing Phoenix Hall, is a garden of the Jodo Garden style representative of the Heian period. The style recreates the Buddhist Pure Land with the beautiful Aji-ike Pond representing Hochi, the pond in the Pure Land. It is recognized as a Historic and Scenic Beauty Site by the government as the oldest Jodo Garden. It is also a place to enjoy the changing colors of the seasons, with cherry blossoms and wisteria in the spring, lotus flowers, in the summer and colorful foliage in the fall.
Lawn of Fan
This is an area to the left right after entering the main gate where grass is growing in a fan shape. It is said that Minamoto no Yorimasa, who had raised an army to overthrow the Heike Clan, which was in power at the time, was chased from Uji River and finally took his own life at this spot in Byodoin. It is in the shape of a fan based on the story that he opened his fan at the end and composed a death poem. On May 26 every year, the anniversary of his death, sutras are chanted at the Lawn of Fan and Yoritomo's tomb in Saisho-in Temple to honor Yorimasa.
Yorin-an Residence next to Jodoin Temple is a building with traditional hinoki bark thatching. It is said to be built with the remnants of Fushimi Castle (aw castle in Fushimi Ward, Kyoto City) that was moved in 1601. Unfortunately, the interior is not open to the public, but it consists of a study, chapel and tea room with a Snow Scenery painting in the tokonoma alcove and a Hedge and Plum painting said to be by Kano Sansetsu on the sliding doors.
Illuminated Night Visit
The temple is usually closed in the evenings, but during the season of the fall foliage, there is a Special Night Visit for a limited period. The sight of nearly 200 trees of vibrant colors lit up together with Phoenix Hall is breathtakingly beautiful. Phoenix Hall reflected in Aji-ike Pond also offers a mystic view different from the day time. It tends to be very crowded right after opening and there can be wait times to enter, so plan to visit after 7:00 pm. There is also a special goshuin stamp on paper that is only available at the Special Night Visit.
2019 Dates: Saturday, November 16; Sunday, November 17; Friday, November 22 - Sunday, November 24; Friday, November 29; Saturday, November 30; Sunday, December 1
Hours: 6:00 pm - 8:30 pm (last entry 8:15 pm)
Admission Fee: 1,000 JPY/adult (junior high school age and older), free for elementary school age children and younger
Recommended Time of Year
One of the highlights of Byodoin Temple is its nature, such as the various trees and flowers in the garden. It presents a distinct aspect as the season changes, so you can enjoy it in a different way whenever you visit. Here are some times of the year that are especially highly recommended.
Wisteria (late April - early May)
A flower that Byodoin is known for is the wisteria. There are wisteria trellises in three areas on the grounds and the flowers reach their peak between late April and early May. The sight of the colorful purple wisteria flowing like a waterfall is breathtaking. The wisteria on the bank of Aji-ike Pond is said to be 280 years old and there are chains of flowers that are more than 1m long. Two different types of rhododendrons also blossom one after the other during this time of year, adding lovely colors to the scenery.
Cherry Blossoms (late March - early April)
The cherry blossoms reach their peak ahead of the wisteria, between late March and early April. There are cherry trees of all types, including weeping cherry, Yoshino cherry and mountain cherry, along Aji-ike Pond and all around Phoenix Hall. The light pink cherry blossoms have a graceful, delicate presence that look like wispy soft clouds floating around Phoenix Hall. If you can visit in early spring, be sure to enjoy the cherry blossoms while paying your respects and strolling around the grounds.
Fall Foliage (mid-November to early December)
Byodoin is still a lovely place to visit when the flowers are gone and the temperature drops. From mid-November to early December, the numerous trees on the grounds turn vibrant yellows and reds. The combination of Phoenix Hall and the approximately 200 trees painted in fall colors is a special sight to enjoy this season. It is also beautiful when the leaves start to fall and cover the ground with a blanket of red leaves.
Snow (late December - February)
Byodoin Temple, which is located in southern Kyoto Prefecture, rarely has enough snow to cover the ground. That is precisely why Phoenix Hall and the garden covered in snow is an extraordinary and special sight. You can count yourself lucky if you are able to see it. In the winter, between December and February, the Camellia sasanqua by Byodoin Temple Museum "Hoshokan" will be covered with pink blossoms. Their colors are particularly welcome in the winter, when there are few colors.
Also Recommended - the Museum and Cafe
There is also a museum with national treasures and a cafe to take a break in on the grounds of Byodoin Temple.
Hoshokan Museum was opened in 2001 to replace the former temple museum which had become outdated. It is the first comprehensive museum run by a religious organization and incorporates the latest technology. The highlights are the three national treasures: Temple Bell, 26 Praying Bodhisattva on Clouds and Phoenix. The lighting is designed so that the details of the artwork can be seen, so you can enjoy the delicate patterns on the Temple Bell and the varying facial expressions on the 26 Praying Bodhisattva on Clouds. Be sure to see the special exhibits that are changed from time to time with items connected to Byodoin Temple.
*Entrance is included in the admission fee for Byodoin Temple
Tea Salon Toka
This is a salon specializing in Japanese tea where you can enjoy authentic Uji matcha green tea within the precinct of Byodoin Temple. The original tea blend created by certified "Japanese tea instructors" are all from Kyoto and were mostly picked within Uji City or in neighboring areas. The water temperature is carefully controlled and the tea brewed in a manner suited for each tea leaf so you can thoroughly enjoy the natural flavors of the leaves. Note the innovative use of tea utensils as well! Cold sencha tea is served in wine glasses.
Hours: 10:00 am - 4:30 pm (last order 4:00 pm)
Get a Goshuin Stamp to Commemorate Your Visit
If you visit Byodoin Temple, you will want to get a goshuin stamp to commemorate your visit. A goshuin is like a certificate with the name of the temple and the principal object of worship recognizing that you have paid your respects. For the goshuin of Phoenix Hall, you can choose between one that has the temple name "Hou-ou-do" or one with the principal object of worship "Amida Nyorai". It is available at the Goshuin Reception to the left of Phoenix Hall. There are goshuin available from Jodo-in Temple and Saisho-in Temple as well, but the goshuin receptions at these two temples open irregularly. You can also purchase an original goshuin booklet (1,500 JPY) with embroideries of Phoenix Hall and the phoenix.
Fee: 300 JPY
Hours: 9:00 am - 5:00 pm
Discover the Area Around Byodoin Temple
If you are going to Byodoin Temple, be sure to visit other spots in the area as well. There are many places to enjoy strolling around in, including historic Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples and beautiful parks. Here are two options.
Byodoin Omotesando, the main path from Uji Bridge to the main gate of Byodoin Temple, is filled with shops including ones established over 400 years ago and famous Uji tea shops. It is a lively street with great atmosphere and the pleasing smell of green tea. There are also shops selling Japanese confections, a variety of miscellaneous items, and restaurants. There is a great selection of special Uji products sold here, so why not look for souvenirs after visiting the temple?
Uji Park consists of To-no-shima Island and Tachibana-jima Island on sandbars in the middle of Uji River that flows right in front of Byodoin Temple and Yorimichi Park. It is a park popular for tourists to rest in and for local residents to relax and reinvigorate themselves. There are four bridges connecting the banks of Uji River and the two islands so you can walk all around the park. The stone tower on To-no-shima Island is worth a look. It was built to memorialize the spirits of fish and pray for the safety of Uji Bridge and is designated as an Important Cultural Property. There is also a beautiful view of the park from Uji Bridge.
Byodoin Temple is famous for Phoenix Hall, but there is much more to see. The more you know about the temple, the more there is to know, so when you visit, be sure to refer to this article to thoroughly enjoy the appeal of Byodoin Temple.
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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