Sanjūsangendō, Kyoto, Japan

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Visiting Sanjūsangendō:

From Kyoto Station, take bus 100, 206 or 208 to Hakubutsukan-Sanjūsangendō-mae stop. Sanjūsangendō is immediately visible from the bus stop.

Admission: 600円.

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8 thoughts on “Sanjūsangendō, Kyoto, Japan

  1. I learned a lot from this, and this is on my list of things to see in Kyoto next time I’m out there! This makes me curious what Masaaki Noro went on to do in his future career.

  2. I enjoy your article so far about Kyoto, would you mind to give me any recommendation about castle, temple, or shrine in Kyoto? I’m going there with my friend at late April, but as we know, there are so much temple there. which temple do need to see and don’t. thank you if you kindly want to answer it.

      • waw, thank you for kindly answering it.
        okay, i already put the 3 first line on the list and fushimi. i just have one day in kyoto, so i need to review again which one worth my limited time, kekekeke.
        besides that, do you have any recommendation of places and the other stuff? (sorry for demanding more).

        Nara, i already planned for that 🙂

        keen photographer? wow, i will take it as a compliment. I’m even not worth to be called as an amateur one. 🙂

        Thank you and have a great Sunday.

      • Hmm. If you only have one day, I suggest:

        Start at Ginkakuji. It opens at 08:30, so make use of that 😀
        If the Cherry blossoms are out during your stay, walk the Philosopher’s Path (2KM) down to Nanzenji, and either visit Nanzenji or continue on to Keage station on the Tozai Subway.
        Use the Tozai to get across to Nijo Castle at Nijojo-mae station.
        If you still have time afterward, you can walk north from Nijo Castle to the Kyoto Imperial Palace and Sento Palace – they are within the same park.

        Alternatively:
        Start at Ryoanji. It opens at 08:00.
        From Ryoanji walk to East to Kinkakuji. It’s not very far, or you can take bus 12 or 59. Opens at 09:00.
        From Kinkakuji-Michi bus stop, take bus 204 to Kumanojinja stop and change on to the 202 or 206 to Kiyomizu-Michi stop.
        Enjoy a pleasant stroll through Kiyomizudera and the Higashiyama historical district surrounding it. If your visit is on a weekend, though, this will be crowded! If you are present during cherry blossom season, Kiyomizudera will be spectacular!
        Visit Kodaiji temple in Higashiyama too. It’s stunning 😀
        Continue through Higashiyama to the Yasaka Shrine. This is where the annual Gion Matsuri is held, and is a lovely shrine to visit year-round.
        Onward through Yasaka and you are in Gion, which has fantastic streets, great little shops, and plenty of restaurants, since you’ll probably be hungry by now 😉
        If you’ve rushed all this and somehow made it to Gion by early afternoon, you can continue on to Nishiki Market, which is great fun. Or you can walk north to Sanjo station on the Tozai Metro Line and go to Nijojo-mae, which is right outside Nijo Castle. Last entry to the Castle is 16:00, so don’t do this unless you’re sure you can make it 😀 Nishiki Market is around until about 17:30 / 18:00, so you can do the Castle then walk back to the market if you prefer, and on to Gion in the evening.

        You MUST check each site’s information to see whether it is open on the day that you plan to visit! I’m pretty sure none of these locations have closing days during the month of your trip, but double-check.

        Also, if you’re in Kyoto the first two weeks of April, you can juggle Kiyomizudera into the evening – they open at 18:30 to 21:30 for the Spring Illuminations between mid-March and mid-April, so that gives you longer daylight to visit something else instead, and leave Kiyomizudera to the evening – since it’s quite a way out East. If you can do this, I recommend you squeeze Ginkakuji in.

      • oh my God, thank you for your generosity Troo (is it okay to call you by that name)
        I’m moved by your explanation, i already copied it.
        actually, i already have one day plan there and if you don’t mind, i would like to discus it. heheheheh

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