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October 4, 2011

Higashi Honganji (Kyoto Guide)

Visitors to Kyoto, arriving at the station, cannot miss Higashi Honganji. An impressive pile of wood, it sits squarely at Karasuma Avenue that leads into the city from the station. Walking past its magnificent gates and wall, viewing it from bus or taxi, you realize: I am in Kyoto, the Buddhist capital of Japan...

[Higashi Honganji]

In the sheer force of its size, Higashi Honganji is indeed what you imagine a Kyoto temple to be. And it is more. Always open in the daytime, its spacious halls beckon a warm welcome to passersby who long for a moment of silence, a break from rain or heat, an interval with oneself alone. In the size of its buildings, Higashi Honganji is one of the largest temples of Japan, and this is also true for the number of followers, that runs to ten million.

Higashi Honganji split off from the Honganji in 1602, when land for the present site was donated by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Edo shogun, who may have wanted to diminish the power of the sect. The wily shogun availed himself of a succession conflict in the temple to bring a brother of the Honganji abbot, who earlier had been passed over in the succession, to rival power. So Higashi Honganji and Nishi Honganji were born.

In the modern city, Higashi Honganji stands right in front of the station. You almost stumble over it when coming into Kyoto. It is separated from its western counterpart by a maze of streets teeming with shops selling items to supply the needs of pilgrims (Honganji Jinaicho).

[Higashi Honganji]

Hall of Compassion
Higashi Honganji is always bustling with people, as out-of-town parishioners make it a point to stop over to pay their respects when they are in Kyoto. Not counting the temple offices, abbot's quarters etc., there are only two halls: in central position, opposite the main gate (also very impressive, as it is one of the largest gates in Kyoto) stands the Founder's Hall (Goeido or Founder's Hall) dedicated to Shinran and containing an image of the master, and on the left side stands a hall dedicated to the Buddha Amida (Amidado).

It is characteristic of the Jodo Shin faith that Shinran's hall is larger and more centrally positioned than the one of the Buddha himself. This is a reflection of the fact that the temple originated in Shinran's funerary chapel. The Goeido occupies an area of 3,900 square meters and features double roofs in the Irimoya style. At 76 meters in length, 58 meters deep and 38 meters high, it is one of the largest wooden buildings in the world. It floor consists of more than 900 tatami mats and the roof is covered with almost 176,000 tiles. Besides Shinran's image, it also contains portraits of previous abbots and scrolls extolling the virtues of taking refuge in Amida Buddha.

Although smaller, the Amida Hall has been built in a more elaborate style. Next to the Amida image in central position is a scroll depicting Prince Shotoku, the legendary founder of Japanese Buddhism. There are also portraits of the seven patriarchs of Pure land Buddhism. The sliding doors have been decorated with paintings by Meiji-period artists.

The Main Gate (called Goeidomon as it stands opposite the Goeido Hall) is 28 meters high. The top floor (which is inaccessible to visitors) houses a trinity of Sakyamuni with Ananda and Manjusri. A plaque with the words Shinshu Honbyo "Main temple of the New Faith" hangs on the gate. In the middle of the road in front of the gate sits a fountain designed as lotus flower - which represents rebirth and is said to have flowered in profusion when Sakyamuni was born.

Other buildings in the grounds are the Belfry (Shoro) and the Reception Office (Sanpai Settaisho, built in 1934, but with an underground addition from 1998 in the form of an audiovisual hall designed by architect Takamatsu Shin).

Higashi Honganji's buildings are relatively new, as the temple burned in 1864 and was rebuilt in 1895. At that time, fifty ropes woven from the tresses of female believers were used to haul the massive timbers. One of these coiled ropes, now of a somewhat ghostly aspect, can still be seen in a glass case on the temple porch.

Higashi Honganji is Kyoto's gateway. A temple to end all temples, it has on the contrary become the quintessential temple. Everyone is welcome to enter and sit down on its tatami mats, that have worn down to a velvety sheen. The huge keyaki-wood pillars impart a sense of security.

The pigeons, they come too. In droves they fill the wide courtyard. As it is against Buddhist law to take life, there are no active means to banish pigeons. On the contrary, vendors standing under the gate sell bags of beans to feed the birds.

This, too, is a sign of the all-embracing nature of Higashi Honganji.

Access: 5 min. on foot north of JR Kyoto Station, facing Karasumadori. Grounds free.
In the neighborhood: Also see the Shosei (Kikokutei) Garden belonging to the temple (5 min. east of Higashi Honganji) and explore the Buddhist shops in Honganji Jinaicho.
Otani Mausoleum. While Nishi Honganji has its grave temple and graveyard at Gojo, in 1670 Higashi Honganji established its funerary temple near Gion, just south of Maruyama Park.