Founded in 1164, with the current buildings dating from 1266, Sanjūsangendō (“Thirty-three ken Hall”, where ken is a unit of measurement) is Japan’s longest wooden structure at over 100 metres in length, and houses an impressive collection of 1,001 statues of Kannon, goddess of Mercy. Officially named Rengeō-in (Hall of the Lotus King), the building belongs to the Tendai sect of zen Buddhism.
These statues are made from Japanese Cypress, and are well over 600 years old. 124 of them are the originals from before the fire of 1249, and the remainder were constructed in the thirteenth century. Alone, this massive hall filled with unique statues – every single one different – is worth the journey, but that’s not all there is to Sanjūsangendō.
From 1606, the temple played host to the Tōshiya, a massive annual archery competition which ran all the way through until 1861. The competition had four main events: Hyaku-i; Sen-i; Hiyakazu; and Ōyakazu. Every single one of these events was utterly mental. The first two were archers firing a hundred and thousand arrows respectively. The competitor who hit the target with the most arrows won. The Hiyakazu was for boys who had not yet come of age, and these lads fired as many arrows as possible during a twelve hour period. The record holder there is 13 year old Masaaki Noro, who managed to pop out 11,715 arrows – and most of them hit the target. Let’s pause a moment for a 13 year old boy who fired almost twelve thousand arrows over twelve hours. The final event, the Ōyakazu, was for any adult determined enough to give it ago. The goal was to fire as many arrows as possible, in a 24 hour period.
Sanjūsangendō has an excellent museum showcasing some of the weapons, targets, bits of old buildings, and photographs from the Tōshiya. Although much of the accompanying literature is in Japanese, there’s also quite a lot in English, and the museum runs the entire length of the hall behind the Kannon statues. You have to pass it on your way out, so you might as well go slowly, allow plenty of time, and take in as much as you can.
The archery isn’t Sanjūsangendō’s only connection with Samurai history, although the next link is more tenuous. It is a widely-held belief that it was outside this temple that Miyamoto Musashi duelled and defeated Yoshioka Denshichirō, head of the Yoshioka-ryū school of martial arts.
There had been bad blood between Miyamoto and the Yoshioka-ryū, as the school’s founder Yoshioka Kenpo had been defeated in a duel against Miyamoto’s father Shinmen Munisai (at the time under his own family name, Hirata Munisai). Yoshioka was swordmaster for the Ashikaga shogunate, and Ashikaga Yoshiteru decided to have a comparison duel between the two samurai. Not only did Hirata defeat Yoshioka 2:1, Ashikaga then also bestowed a rarely-gifted title upon Hirata: “Unrivalled Under the Sun”. Even more dishonour was heaped on the Yoshioka-ryū school when Yoshioka Kenpo was hit accidentally with a wooden weapon by a noh actor, so took it upon himself to smuggle a sword into the grounds of Ashikaga’s castle and murder the actor who had humiliated him. Weapons were forbidden within castle walls, and Yoshioka was hunted down and killed as a criminal, after killing many of his pursuers.
These days there’s still an archery competition every year, on or near coming of age day early in January. It’s not Tōshiya-level, and only people aged 20 and with their first Dan in archery are eligible to participate, but it’s a fantastic day out if you can make it!
Alas photography is not permitted within the hall itself, lest flash cause further damage to the original statues, but postcards are available.
From Kyoto Station, take bus 100, 206 or 208 to Hakubutsukan-Sanjūsangendō-mae stop. Sanjūsangendō is immediately visible from the bus stop.