In the past few years, there has been an increasing interest in Buddhism. One example is the popularity of mindfulness meditation, a practice inspired by Zen philosophy, in the West.
There are apparently more than 77,000 Buddhist temples in Japan. Notably,
Hieizan Enryakuji Temple, located near Kyoto on Mt. Hiei, is called the “ mother temple of Japanese Buddhism.”
In this article, we introduce the past and present of Hieizan Enryakuji Temple, registered as a
UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994, highlights, and experiences to delve deeper into Buddhist culture.
The temple that served as the beginnings of Hieizan Enryakuji Temple was founded by the Buddhist monk
Saicho (around 767 - 822) in 788.
At the time, Japan’s Imperial Court (government) was established in Nara. As the influence of Buddhist monks grew, so did the political disarray and many people were suffering.
During that time, Saicho studied Buddhism in China and founded a new school called the Tendai sect. Saicho advocated that “anyone could attain enlightenment and become Buddha regardless of their social status,” and tried to make society better through Buddhism.
Saicho especially placed value on the development of talented individuals when building Enryakuji Temple. For that reason, Enryakuji Temple was seen as a university where one could study the teachings of various Buddhist sects. Indeed, Enryakuji has produced many high-ranking monks that deeply influenced Japanese history.
During its long history, Enryakuji Temple was frequently in strained relationships with political authorities. During Japan's
civil war period in the sixteenth century, the temple was set afire by Oda Nobunaga, a military commander, and was met with hardship (*).
Even nowadays, Enryakuji Temple monks continue to undergo ascetic training that would astonish modern-day society.
For example, jogyo zanmai is a type of training that involves continuous walking around an image of Buddha while chanting prayers for 90 days in a hall lit by candles. During this time, the monks can rest while standing but are not permitted to sit outside of mealtimes. Additionally, they essentially cannot speak to others during this time.
A famous training in particular that is conducted on Mt. Hiei is the
sennichi kaihogyo (*). This training takes place over a seven-year period.
The first three years are spent praying in various locations on the mountain while walking over 30 kilometers per day for over 100 days per year. The distance and number of days continue to increase from the fourth year onwards. During this period, they will undergo the doiri (“entrance to the hall”) ritual over nine days while continuously chanting mantras without consuming any food, water, or sleep.
*This training is often referred to as “Marathon Monk” in English but is actually far in definition from a marathon. During this period, the monk will travel around the mountain and visit various small wayside shrines and temple halls en route.
Why is such training still continued today at Enryakuji Temple?
There is a saying by Saicho that has been cherished at Enryakuji Temple for centuries: “
Shining light into a corner is itself a national treasure.” In other words, “Material wealth is not the true heritage of society. The true national treasures are the talented individuals trying to make society a better place from where they stand.”
You must look deeply into yourself and dispel your anxieties to become an individual that “shines light into a corner.” The temple continues to have its monks undergo strict training for that reason.
Of course, the general public doesn’t necessarily need to participate in such training. Hieizan Enryakuji Temple has several gorgeous architectural buildings and can be enjoyed as a sightseeing destination.
The temple does accept outside visitors. However, despite that fact, Mt. Hiei continues to maintain a solemn appearance as sacred grounds that offer relief from internal anxieties.
The Highlights of Hieizan Enryakuji Temple
Hieizan Enryakuji is a massive temple with a total area of 1,700 hectares. It is divided into
three areas called Todo, Saito, and Yokawa.
The central main area is the Todo area. This is where you’ll find the Enryakuji Bus Center where shuttle buses come and go to the Saito and Yokawa areas.
Saito is located a kilometer away from Todo, while Yokawa is about four kilometers away. If you want to travel around efficiently, we suggest renting a car or taking the shuttle bus.
On the other hand, we recommend walking if you’re someone who wishes to reflect and meditate during their time on Mt. Hiei. The Mount Hiei Tour, a travel route around these three areas, is thought of as an abridged version of the sennichi kaihogyo ascetic practice.
Furthermore, each of the three areas represents a different Buddha and instances of time.
Todo: The area where Bhaisajyaguru (the Buddha that grants wishes in the transient world) is enshrined and where you resolve to make the present a better place.
- Saito: The area where Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, is enshrined and where you go to reflect on your past.
- Yokawa: The area where Avalokitesvara (the bodhisattva that betters the future world, otherwise known as Kannon) is enshrined and where you resolve to create a better future.
Your time spent at Hieizan Enryakuji Temple can be more fulfilling as you travel around the mountain while being aware of these facts.
Below, we introduce things to see and highlights in each area.
The Todo Area of Hieizan Enryakuji
Todo is the area where the origins of the Enryakuji Temple have been laid and where important temple halls are concentrated.
Konpon Chudo Hall
Konpon Chudo is the very first temple hall that was built in Hieizan Enryakuji Temple and is the center of the Todo area. It was destroyed multiple times in disasters and fires; its current building is a replica that was completed in 1642.
The main highlight here is the altar where the principal object of worship (a figure of Buddha enshrined at the center of the temple) is located. The candles on this altar have been lit for 1,200 years and are known as the “immortal light of Buddhism.”
At Konpon Chudo, you can watch as the monks perform the goma-burning ritual (a Buddhist ritual that prays for peace).
There are several additional highlights of the building such the ceiling painting, donated by the Tokugawa shoguns during the Edo period, and the old lacquered pillars. The building itself is designated as a national treasure.
The Konpon Chudo Hall has been undergoing major repairs since 2016 that will continue until 2026. At the time of this article, you would be able to watch the roof being rethatched, which is a rare occurrence.
Dogen (1200 - 1253), a world-renowned Zen monk, Shinran (1173 - 1263), the founder of the major Buddhist sect Jodo Shinshu, and Honen (1133 - 1212) of the Jodo sect all studied on Mt. Hiei.
Wooden statues of each renowned sect’s founders are enshrined in the Daikodo Hall. You can also see portraits of high-ranking monks in Japanese Buddhism and the Tendai sect including Siddhartha Gautama.
Hokke Sojiin Todo Stupa
Saicho had planned to build stupas in six locations across Japan to protect the country. Hokke Sojiin Todo (*) was built as the main structure in this plan.
The current structure is a reconstruction built in 1980 that houses 1,000 Lotus Sutras written by volunteers. Lotus Sutras are long scriptures that total nearly 70,000 characters, so you can imagine that the creation of these sutras took an immense amount of labor.
*The hall is not open to the public. Monjuro: The Temple Gate
Monjuro is the main temple gate of Enryakuji Temple. It was originally built by Ennin (794 - 864)—the third-generation head of the Tendai sect—but was burned down in a fire in 1668. It was rebuilt afterward in its current state.
This beautiful vermilion-lacquered gate has become a symbol of Enryakuji Temple.
The Saito Area of Hieizan Enryakuji
This area was developed by Encho (772 - 837), the second-generation head of the Tendai sect. The temple halls where monks of Enryakuji Temple trained are located in this area.
The Jodoin Hall
The Jodoin Hall (*) is where the revered Buddhist monk Saicho is buried. Here, monks selected by Hieizan Enryakuji Temple perform an ascetic practice called juninen rozangyo.
Juninen rozangyo is a training in which monks perform altruistic services as if Saicho were still alive. A daily routine of serving meals, cleaning the temple grounds and halls, Zen meditation, and study is done over a 12-year period without a single day of rest.
Jogyodo and Hokkedo (Ninaido) Halls
The Jogyo zanmai ascetic practice mentioned above is performed at the Jogyodo and Hokkedo Halls (*).
These temple halls are connected via a corridor. Together, the two halls are called Ninaido based on a legend stating that Benkei, a monk of Mt. Hiei who was active during the 12th century, had once carried the corridor connecting the two buildings on his shoulders.
*Jodoin, Jogyodo, and Hokkedo are not open to the public. The Yokawa Area of Hieizan Enryakuji
Yokawa is an area developed by Ennin, the aforementioned third-generation head of the Tendai sect.
Yokawa Chudo Hall
Yokawa Chudo is a temple hall constructed with a technique called the butaizukuri (*) style.
The hall looks like a ship in the ocean when viewed from below. That is because the building’s design was modeled after Japanese mission ships that were sent to China from Japan between the seventh and ninth centuries.
At the time, hundreds of missionaries including Saicho embarked on mission ships and studied Buddhism in China. You can almost feel the power that seems to move toward the future from Yokawa Chudo.
*A building constructed with long pillars on a mountain or cliff. It is also known as the kakezukuri style. Ganzan Daishido Hall
Picture courtesy of Hieizan Enryakuji Temple
Ganzan Daishido (officially known as Shiki Kodo) was once the residence of Ryogen (912 - 985), a head of the Tendai sect. Ryogen is said to have driven away the worries that people had about how to live their lives by drawing slips at random from 100 verses written by Kannon Bodhisattva.
Ganzan Daishido is considered to be the birthplace of omikuji, the custom of drawing fortune slips in Japan. To this day, you can get an omikuji fortune slip in a unique shape (reservations required) or receive talismans against evil spirits here.
Other Things to See at Hieizan Enryakuji
Kokuhoden. Picture courtesy of Hieizan Enryakuji Temple
You can even enjoy some sightseeing while on Mt. Hiei. Garden Museum Hiei is a garden art museum built to reproduce artworks by Western impressionist painters. Kokuhoden is a museum where treasured Buddhist statues and documents are stored.
Experiences at Hieizan Enryakuji Temple
You can gain exposure to the teachings of Buddhism through various experiences at Hieizan Enryakuji Temple.
DINING OUT is an event held at Hieizan Enryakuji Temple. During this event, participants can enjoy unique local food while experiencing Mt. Hiei’s story.
The first event was held in February 2023. Please check ONE STORY’s
official website (Japanese/English) for future event schedules. Sutra Copying and Zazen Experiences
Picture courtesy of Hieizan Enryakuji Temple
You can experience shakyo (sutra copying) and zazen (Zen meditation) for yourself by advance reservation at Enryakuji Kaikan, the temple visitor lodgings. Beginners are also welcome to participate (instructions only available in Japanese). Please check
Enryakuji Kaikan’s official website (website and instructions in Japanese) for details on where to make your reservation.
*Shakyo: a training to calm one’s mind and cultivate concentration through transcribing Buddhist sutras. Shomyo: Buddhist Chanting
A shomyo chant performed during a Buddhist memorial service in 2021
Similar to how Christianity has church music, the Buddhist Tendai sect has shomyo rituals. Shomyo is a type of chanting performed in praise of Buddha through music.
There is no set schedule for when a shomyo is performed. However, if a memorial service (ceremony) is being performed at the time of your visit to Enryakuji Temple, then you may watch the service. Shomyo concerts are also sometimes held at venues like the National Theatre of Japan in Tokyo.
Meals and Accommodations at Enryakuji Temple
You can stay and dine at Enryakuji Kaikan located in the Todo area. Here, you can get a taste of Buddhist cuisine, a type of vegetarian cuisine traditionally eaten by Buddhist monks. The lodgings also have a large bathroom and tub from which you can enjoy the view of Lake Biwa while soothing your body from the fatigue of travel and training.
The food spots below are also available options on Mt. Hiei.
Hieizan Minemichi Restaurant
Tsuruki Soba Hieizan Daikodo
Café de Paris
Café Terrace YUMEMI Access to Hieizan Enryakuji Temple
Tanotani Pass Toll Gate
There are several ways to get to Mt. Hiei. If you plan to use public transportation, then you should first take the train to either Keihan Sakamoto-Hieizanguchi Station or Eizan Yase-Hieizanguchi Station.
From there, take the cable car. For more details, please take a look at the
Hieizan Biwako DMO official website (information available in English, French, Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese, and Korean).
If you plan to rent a car, then please keep in mind that you will need to pay toll fares. Traveling to the Todo area from the Tanotani Pass Toll Gate, the entrance to Mt. Hiei, will be 1,700 yen, while traveling to the Saito and Yokawa areas will be 3,270 yen (as of January 2023).
Moreover, snow does accumulate in the winter and additional traffic regulations will be enforced. Please keep in mind that cars will not be allowed to enter the mountain in the early morning nor be allowed to enter without studless snow tires installed.
Please check out
Hieizan Driveway’s official website (Japanese) for details.
Written by Mizzochi
Sponsored by Monjusenji Temple