Sanjusangen-do Temple is one of the most visited sites in Kyoto. It is located in front of Kyoto National Museum, in Shichi-jo dori St. The entrance of the temple is inside a wall enclosure. A long building is the access to the ground of the temple, and here you purchase the ticket. You cross a gate, and on the left side, you can see a stone garden with a pond, the long corridor of the East Gate, and, on the right side, the building in which golden 1001 statues shine in the dark brown wooden structure. The entrance of Hondo, Main Hall, is on the right, where you have to take off your shoes.
Follow the corridor and…Silence! You enter to a holy place in which Buddhist images are displayed, forming a perfect “ensemble”. The Hondo has a rectangular shape. It is 118 m long and 16.4 m wide. You will cross it from north to south, passing in front of 1001 Buddhist images. The spectacle is astonishing and breathtaking. It is very unique. The statues are misted up with mystic. The place is cloaked with a shroud of silence. 1001 statue of golden “Kannon”, god of Mercy, standing in rows, deeply absorbed in meditation, create a special visual and emotional effect.
Part of the vermillion corridor on the side of the East Gate, and garden
Sanjusangen-do Temple belongs to the Tendai school of Buddhism. The temple was completed in 1164, following the request of Emperor Go-Shirakawa, (後白河天皇：1127-1192), who was a devotee of “Kannon”, and wanted to spread the doctrine of Buddhism to bring peace to the country. Taira-no-Kiyomori (平清盛：1118-1181), civil ruler of Japan, supported the Emperor to realize the temple’s construction. The main statue is “Senju Kannon” (千手観音：one-thousand-armed Kannon), surrounded by 1000 images. Originally, the name of the temple was “Renge-o”, Lotus King, as Senju Kannon was called. Senjo Kannon is the lord of all the other forms of Kannon, and he can appear in 33 incarnations to save mankind. All the statues in Sanjusangen-do are standing on a lotus flower, symbol of rebirth. A fire destroyed the temple and other buildings. Only Hondo has been rebuilt and completed in 1266. Some of the statues had been saved from fire, among these the head of the main Kannon was rescued.
View from the East side, and the big South Gate
Sanjusangen-do, (Hall with thirty-three spaces between columns), derives this name from its architectural construction. In fact the temple is built with 34 pillars and creating 33 “gen”, space, between them. 33 it is also the number of the Kannon ‘s incarnation. Kannon has 40 arms, and each can save 25 worlds, figuratively 1000 arms. The main Kannon is a masterpiece of the sculpture Tankei(湛慶:1173-1256), made during his elderly age. All the statues are made of Japanese cypress and have a coating of gold leaf. The soft light from outside makes the gold colour shining gracefully. Every single statue has a different face and expression. Sometime I had the feeling that Senju Kannon could move, and all the other Kannon could follow it. Other then the Kannon statues there are 28 guardians. A famous pair is the one formed by “Fujin(風神)”, the god of wind, and “Ryujin(竜神)”, the god of thunder.
The pond like a mirror
It is somehow difficult to come to a separation with this spectacle of Buddhist art and spirituality. Inside the Hall there is a sense of stability and at the same time a motion, or a motion of the silence. It is hard to leave this place, but the spiritual images remain inside our hearts.
It is not allowed to take photos, so we can concentrate on looking at each statue, and we will not forget about this experience.
Sanjusangen-do is also famous for a festival started during the Edo period. It is an archery tournament called “Toshiya” (通し矢；January 15), it is held beside the West long corridor of the Hall. Many students in beautiful kimono come here to participate in the contest.
Do the 1001 Kannon cheer for the best player?
Practise in the precincts of the temple
After the visit to Sanjusangen-do, you might go to Kyoto National Museum, on the other side of Shichijo dori St. It has a valuable collection of wooden statues, ceramics, kimono, and more and more. There is also an elegant café facing a simple garden. It is a good idea to spend a quiet day, just admiring the beauty made by men in other periods of history, for our present pleasure and acceptance. Sanjusangen-do Temple and Kyoto National Museum answer to our request for spirituality, art, and Kyoto’s culture.