Written by Stefanie Haehnel
The Tale Of Genji Was Written Here! Ishiyama-dera Temple In Shiga
Ishiyama-dera Temple in Shiga prefecture is famous for being the place where the "Tale of Genji" began to be written. It is a fascinating temple with an amazing display of objects related to the court life in Japan from a thousand years ago. We introduce
Only every 33 years the main object of worship at Ishiyama-dera, a 5 meter high Buddha statue from the Heian period (794 - 1185), is shown to the public by imperial order. Luckily it happens to be this year! Until December 4th 2016 you will have the chance to see the main Buddha statue, before it will be back behind closed doors for another one-third of a century again. On this occasion, two other special sights can be enjoyed at the Ishiyama-dera Temple complex!
Through the East Main Gate you will start your journey to Japan as it must have been like hundreds of years ago, when the world's first novel, the "Tale of Genji" (Genji Monogatari), was written.
Exploring the National Treasures of Ishiyama-dera
After entering the vast temple area of Ishiyama-dera (118.800 square meters), you will first arrive at an interestingly shaped Wollastonite, a large rare natural rock monument, which gave the Ishiyama-dera Temple its name: “Rock Mountain Temple”.
If you follow the route, you will then come along the main building of the complex, called hondō. Built over 850 years ago, it is the oldest building in Shiga prefecture and a National Treasure of Japan.
Standing on the hillside, the outer part of the building is a wooden stage-like construction that looks similar to Kyoto's Kiyomizudera, though it is a bit smaller. Inside the main building is where the old Buddha statue was hiding for so many years and is now finally made public again.
Relics in the Room of Genji
Another big attraction of the hondō is the Room of Genji. This room is said to be the place where the court lady Murasaki Shikibu started to write the famous "Tale of Genji" under the full moon light in the year 1004. The room maintains a life-size figure of Lady Murasaki showing the writer at work.
Unfortunately, it is not allowed to take photos in the main building, but that doesn't matter much. It is about the feeling you get when you stand there traveling through time back to the Heian era in Japanese history. It is still a matter of debate whether Genji Monogatari is indeed the first novel ever written, but nevertheless it is an acknowledged masterpiece of Japanese literature.
For the visitors who aren't too familiar with the "Tale of Genji", Ishiyama-dera offers a summary in 54 steps! Before even going through the entrance of the temple, you will find a small building on the right, where 54 pictures explain the long "Tale of Genji" in short, for free!
The short descriptions that come with every picture are available at the moment only in Japanese. However, regardless of that, the display gives you a good impression of the story and puts you in the right mood.
The Treasure Tower
On top of the rock monument you can find the Treasure Tower called Tahōtō. It also is a National Treasure and was built over 750 years ago during the Kamakura period (1185 -1333), which makes it the oldest of its type in Japan.
Ishiyama-dera and Murasaki Shikibu Exhibition
Image from the brochure of the exhibition "Ishiyama-dera and Murasaki Shikibu"
One of the special things that can be experienced only now at the same time as viewing the great Buddha statue, is the Ishiyama-dera and Murasaki Shikibu Exhibition. It displays objects that are connected to Lady Murasaki's "Tale of Genji" and haven't been shown to the public yet, including various paintings and folding screens that, for example, illustrate scenes from the Tale of Genji, which took place on the precincts of Ishiyama-dera Temple.
In Memory of Lady Murasaki
To commemorate the fact that Murasaki Shikibu had begun writing her novel at this very temple, Ishiyama-dera displays a large statue of her. At the bottom of the statue people have made offerings of coins to honor Lady Murasaki. She must have been an incredible talented and beautiful woman.
You can feel the connection to Murasaki Shikibu throughout the whole area. Even the vending machine is designed with a Lady Murasaki theme!
Toll the Bell and Make a Wish
The second special experience that is reserved to visitors of the temple only this year is the realization of one's earnest wishes through the ringing of the 1000 year old bell in the bell tower of Ishiyama-dera.
For an extra 300 yen you can toll the bell with your own hands. You have to make your heartfelt wish while hearing the ringing of the old bell, which is an original from Heian period. It is believed that, because the door to the great Buddha statue is open now, your wish will directly reach it and, of course, will come true!
Ishiyama-dera was founded in the year 749 and is sitting on the bank of Setagawa River in the south of Otsu city, Shiga prefecture, at the bottom of Mt. Garan. From Kyotoit can be reached in 25 minutes by train. It is furthermore the 13th temple of the "33 temple pilgrimage" in Saigoku (Western Japan). The large mountain area is covered in maple trees, so I can definitely recommend a visit in autumn when the beautiful red leaves are all around!
By exploring the gardens and nature of this sacred mountain one can actually get the feeling of walking in an enchanted forest and getting lost in time.
For me it is one of the most beautiful temples I have visited in Japan so far and let me tell you that I, the little temple-girl, have seen a lot of temples before. I hope you will like it too!