Tsubosaka-dera Temple

Tsubosaka-dera Temple is a Buddhist temple located on the mountain of Tsubosaka, which overlooks Mt. Yoshino, one of the most popular cherry blossom viewing spots in Nara. It is considered to be one of the oldest and most historically significant temples in Japan, with a history that dates back more than 1,300 years.

According to the temple’s “Nanhokuji Koroden”, it was originally built in the late Taiho era in 703 CE. The temple is officially named Tsubosakayama Minami Hokkeji Temple, however over the years people have become used to calling it Tsubosakadera temple. In this article, we will explore the history and significance of Tsubosaka-dera Temple, its architectural features, and the best time to enjoy this hidden gem.

After a long gap of three years, Mani and I were back in Japan. Due to the stringent travel restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, we missed out on two opportunities to visit this captivating island nation. Following a day of relaxation in Kyoto, we made the decision to venture into the outskirts of Nara. Although the cherry blossom season had recently concluded, a time renowned for its enchanting beauty, we remained thrilled about the prospect of exploring the splendid temple.

Starting from Kyoto Station, we embarked on the Kintetsu Limited Express bound for Kashiharajingu-Mae Station. Upon reaching Kashiharajingu-Mae Station, we made a transfer to the Local Yoshino train, which conveniently transported us to Tsubosakayama Station. The journey from Kyoto Station to Kashiharajingu-Mae Station typically lasts around an hour, whereas the Tsubosakayama Station is just a brief 10-minute ride away from Kashiharajingu-Mae Station.

From Tsubosakayama Station, you can either take a cab to the temple or wait for the local bus. The buses are at wide intervals, so we walked down to the local mall nearby. After a quick lunch from a sushi box, we walked back to the station to find the bus already waiting. Apart from us, there were hardly any passengers on the bus. Once we started from the station, it took us around 15 minutes to reach the temple parking lot.

A brief history of Tsubosaka-dera

Tsubosaka-dera Temple was founded in the early 8th century by the monk Benki Shonin, a monk of Gango-ji Temple, who is known for his role in spreading Buddhism throughout Japan during the Nara period.

The temple was originally named Tsubokokubun-ji and was dedicated to Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of healing. Over time, the temple became known as Tsubosaka-dera and became associated with Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion, who is now enshrined there. It is also called Minami (south) Hokke-ji Temple, while Kiyomizu-dera Temple is known as Kita (north) Hokke-ji Temple. During the Heian period, it was listed as a fixed temple along with Hase-dera (847), and the Heian aristocrats often visited the temple.

Sadaijin Fujiwara no Michinaga (966 – January 3, 1028), whose son is credited with building Byodo-in Temple in 1052 stayed at this temple on his way to visit Yoshino in 1007 CE.

During the Heian period, Tsubosaka-dera Temple was an important center of Buddhist learning and scholarship. Many prominent scholars and monks studied and taught at the temple, and it was renowned for its extensive library and collection of Buddhist scriptures.

In the 12th century, Tsubosaka-dera Temple was severely damaged by fire and had to be rebuilt. Tsubosaka-ji Temple also declined with the downfall of the Ochi clan (12th – 14th centuries), which had been protected at that time, as it was involved in the upheavals of the Northern and Southern Courts and the Sengoku period. The temple was restored several times over the centuries, with major renovations taking place in the 17th and 19th centuries. Many roof tiles from the time of the Fujiwara Palace have been excavated from the precincts. At its height, there were thirty- six halls and sixty-odd temples on the mountain, but only a three-storied pagoda and a few temples remain in the precincts today.

Daikodo (Lecture Hall)

The lecture hall has traditionally been one of the seven structures on the grounds of Buddhist temples in Japan. It is one of the main structures on the compound of a Buddhist temple, in which sutras are read, Buddhist doctrines taught, and rituals performed.

The Hina dolls are not dolls people play with, but very elaborate, decorative dolls depicting members of ancient Japanese society. Hina dolls, also known as Hina-ningyo, are traditional Japanese dolls that hold great cultural significance. They are typically displayed during the annual festival called Hinamatsuri or Girls’ Day, which takes place on March 3rd.

Hina dolls represent the imperial court of the Heian period in Japan and are a symbol of good luck and protection for young girls. These dolls are beautifully crafted, usually made of wood, and dressed in elaborate silk costumes reminiscent of traditional court attire.

In the lecture Hall, you can also find several ancient pieces from India. Here we see two rock-cut heads of Budha. The left one is from the 5-6th century CE from the Gupta period. The one on the right is from Mathura dating from the 7-8th century.

Below them are two bas-reliefs of Shiva. The one on the left looks very much like Buddha and the right one is a depiction of Shiva with his consort Parvati.

From the lecture hall, we went up the hill toward the upper part of the temple grounds. The grounds are adorned with stone lanterns at several points. Stone lanterns, known as Ishidōrō in Japanese, hold a significant place in the aesthetics and symbolism of Japanese temples. They serve both practical and spiritual purposes, providing light to guide visitors during evening visits to the temple and symbolizing illumination of the spiritual path.

Even though we didn’t come expecting to see any cherry blossom, we were greeted by some Yae-Zakura. Yaezakura, which means “multi-layered cherry blossom,” is used to refer to all cherry blossoms with more than five petals. These flowers bloom a little late in mid-to-late April. The Yaezakura have petals that range from light to dark pink.

Because of the double layers of petals, they’re known as a symbol of strength in comparison to the delicate “Somei Yoshino”. The normal type of one-layer sakura tends to be fragile and easily blown away by strong wind or rain.

The mix of Japanese and Indian styles makes this temple unique. There are several Indian-style stone Buddhas and bas-relief carvings in white stone. These were presented by the Indian government as a gesture of thanks for the temple’s work to help leprosy sufferers.

To the left of the stone Buddha idol, you can find the Chōzu-ya. The Chōzu-ya is a water pavilion for ceremonial purification. It is a designated area within the temple grounds where visitors can perform the act of cleansing before entering the sacred spaces. The Chōzu-ya typically consists of a stone basin, known as a Tsukubai, filled with water. Visitors use a long-handled ladle to pour water over their hands and rinse their mouths as a symbolic act of purifying themselves before engaging in religious activities or paying respects to the deity.

This is an important place to purify one’s mind and body before approaching the main shrine and conversing with the gods to symbolize this people wash their hands and mouth in a small personal purification ritual before going further into the shrine. The act of purification is considered essential in Japanese religious and cultural practices, emphasizing the importance of physical and spiritual cleanliness. The Chōzu-ya serves as a peaceful and contemplative space for individuals to prepare themselves spiritually and mentally before entering the sacred precincts of the temple.

Taho-to Pagoda

We kept walking towards the left to reach the Tohoto Pagoda. Tsubosaka-dera Temple is known for its distinctive architectural style, which blends elements of both Japanese and Chinese Buddhist architecture. The temple complex consists of several buildings, including a main hall, a pagoda, a bell tower, and a number of smaller structures.

The Tahoto Pagoda is an exquisite example of Japanese architecture, featuring intricate wooden carvings, elaborate roof decorations, and ornate details. It is unique among pagodas because it has an even number of stories (two). Its name alludes to Tahō Nyorai, who appears seated in a many-jeweled pagoda in the eleventh chapter of the Lotus Sutra. With square lower and cylindrical upper parts, a mokoshi “skirt roof”, a pyramidal roof, and a finial. After the Heian period, the construction of pagodas in general declined, and new tahōtō became rare.

According to the Hoke-kyo (Lotus Sutra), when Shaka Buddha was preaching, the ground cracked open and a stupa appeared from below. From inside the stupa, a voice emanated saying “Wonderful, wonderful, Sakyamuni Buddha. Your sermon is the truth.” That was Taho Nyorai (the Buddha of the Past) proclaiming the truth of Shaka’s words. Hence, traditionally the temples which practice the chanting of the Lotus Sutra build Tahoto pagodas.

Kanjo-do Hall

Just beside the Tahoto Pagoda lies the Kanjo-do Hall. It is built in irimoya-zukuri style (a hip-and-gable roof construction, or a building with this roof construction) and hongawarabuki (tile roofing in which round and square tiles are laid down alternately). An irimoya style roof is composed of a kirizuma-zukuri style roof in its upper part (which inclines backward and forward when viewed from the longer side of the roof) and a yosemune-zukuri style roof in the lower part (which inclines in each of the four sides of a rectangular house). This roof style was introduced in medieval Japan from China at the same time as Buddhism in the mid-6th century.

There were some very ancient wooden idols inside the Kanjo-do Hall, but they were prohibited from photographing. Just beyond the hall, we found a huge stone idol of Kannon.

Couples Kannon

Juichimen Kannon (ekadaza mukha in Sanskrit) is one of the venerable entities of Bosatsu This is also a Kannon that was brought over from India to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the founding of Sawa City and the 50th anniversary of the establishment of a nursing home for the elderly. This stone idol was commenced in 2011.

In front of the Kannon lies a flat circular platform. Several visitors were standing on this power stone bare-naked foot and asking for Kannon’s power and blessing. The power stone contains green malachite, which is said to improve eyesight and ward off evil, and blue is lapis lazuli, which is said to improve health and improve brain clarity.

The pedestal for praying to this Kannon is made of power stone. If you look closely, you can see the seams. It is also called Daikofusho Kannon, and it is said that the 10 faces on the front, back, left, and right among the 11 faces on the head show Jicchi (ten stages) while the topmost Butsumen (the head of a Buddha) shows nirvana. It is said that this shows the pious act of cutting away 11 kinds of ignorance and the earthly desires of living things opening the path to nirvana.

Sanju-do Pagoda

The pagoda at Tsubosaka-dera Temple is also an impressive structure. It is a three-story tower with a hexagonal base and is said to be one of the oldest surviving pagodas in Japan. It was rebuilt in 1479 in the Muromachi period. It is designated as a “National Important Cultural Property”.

Hakkakuen-do (Octagonal Hall)

When most people think of Hakkakuen-do, they think of the Yumedono Hall of Horyu-ji Temple. Yumedono was built by a monk named Yukinobu in 739 CE. The octagonal hall of Horyu-ji Temple was the mausoleum of Prince Shotoku, and Yukinobu built Yumedono to comfort Prince Shotoku’s spirit. Benki, who is said to be the founder of Tsubosaka Temple, may have had the same motive as Yukinobu when he built the octagonal hall.

Another octagonal building that comes to mind is the North Round Hall of Kofuku-ji Temple, which was proposed by Emperor Gensho as a mausoleum for Fujiwara no Fuhito. There is no other way to think that the Octagonal Hall of Tsubosaka Temple was built by Benki to mourn for the spirit of Emperor Jito.

As you enter the hall, you will find hundreds of hina dolls lined up. Tsubosaka-dera holds an event called “Dai-hina Mandala” every year during the Hinamatsuri, in which many Hina dolls are displayed around the statue of Buddha.

A total of 3,500 Hina dolls are displayed on the temple grounds. Of these, the Raido, which is an important cultural property of Japan, has about 2,300 Hina dolls on the tiers surrounding the statue of Dainichi Nyorai.

The dolls depict the Emperor, Empress, court attendants, musicians, merchants, their wives, lords and ladies, wizards and wise teachers, girls and boys, men drinking sake in an izakaya, etc., all dressed in the traditional court dress of the Heian period. Tsubosaka Temple’s “Dai-hina Mandala” remains open to the public until the 18th of April.

These Hina dolls are handmade treasures, and people keep them for generations. Please note that these precious dolls are not on display all year round. They are shown only once or twice per year depending on the temple authorities.

When inside the Octagonal hall, remember to follow the guided path indicated by arrows. You’ll end up walking around the sacred statue 3 times (clockwise direction), the last round will see you out of the building to witness the beauty of the mountain.

Rei-do (worship hall)

The Reido Hall was built around 1103 CE and again rebuilt before the middle of the Muromachi period (1336 -1392). The main focal point of the temple is the eleven-faced Kannon Bosatsu Zazo, a seated statue of Kannon. This revered Gohonzon stands at an impressive height of 3 meters, making it quite imposing when viewed up close.

The statue portrays Kannon seated on a lotus throne with its forty hands gracefully extended. Originally constructed during the Muromachi period, the current idol replaced the previous Thousand-armed Kannon that resided there. Made with oak marquetry, this masterpiece holds significant cultural and historical value. The Kannon enshrined in this temple is widely worshipped as the “Buddha of the eyes.” It has garnered national treasure status in Japan, representing one of the finest examples of early Buddhist sculpture in the country. While rare, there are occasions when visitors are allowed to touch this revered statue.

According to legend, the temple was built on a sacred site. In ancient Japan, a monk was in the midst of prayer when he noticed a bluish light outside his room. Upon investigation, the light was emitting from the ground. He dug that location and uncovered a statue of Senju Kannon (Thousand Arm Avalokitesvara)

Many years later after the story of the Buddha statue and of monk Benki’s healing skills had spread and grown popular, he was summoned to the Imperial Palace by Emperor Gensho, who founded Heijo-kyo in Nara. The Empress was suffering from an eye disease. Benki cured the Empress of an eye ailment. She rewarded him by financially supporting him in building Tsubosaka Temple and also enshrining the Senju Kannon in the Hakkakuen-do in 717. Subsequently, this temple became renowned for curing eye ailments.

Within the room, you can find a number of additional idols. Behind a glass wall, a pair of bronze statues caught my attention, conveying a sense of antiquity and value. Positioned slightly behind the main Kannon, I observed a distinct variant of Kannon. While I am unsure of its specific narrative at the moment, I will make sure to provide an update to this post once I gather more information.

After capturing some shots of the main hall, we hiked up the hill towards the Grand Stone Statue of Avalokiteshvara brought from India. On the way, we noticed some devilish oni statues. One of them holding out 2 fingers in a sign of peace.

This majestic Kannon is the largest stone statue in the world, standing tranquilly on the mountaintop. The mudra or hand gesture in this image is known as Karana Mudra. It means subduing evil forces!

Placed before it you can also see the stone statue of Buddha in Nirvana, also brought from India. The garden area is paved with fine-grained gravel.

By the way, the size of the Great Buddha in Nara is 14.98m in height and the base is 3.05m, so the total is 18m. The Daikannon of Tsubosaka Temple is even bigger! The huge statues were created by thousands of Indian stonemasons, and sent to Japan in pieces. The pieces were then assembled on location at this mountain. Some of the stone used to create the Buddha statues dates back millions of years.

The statue of Shaka Nyorai Dainirvana is 8 meters long. it presents a beautiful view of the Yamato Basin making Tsubosaka a memorable and grand place to visit.

Did you know: The nighttime illumination of the Tenjikutorai Daikannon stone figure located on the temple grounds is fully using solar panels installed at the site.

Tsubosaka Temple is in the mountains, so it is rich in nature. You can enjoy all four seasons, with yamabuki and cherry blossoms in spring, lavender in summer, and autumn leaves in autumn. The mountain scenery is beautiful too.

Myths relating to Tsubosaka-dera

There is a Bunraku story called Tsubosaka Reigenki. According to this story, a blind man, Sawaichi, found out his wife, Osato, went to Tsubosaka-dera Temple every day to pray for a cure for his blindness. Sadly, Sawaichi suffered from depression and tried to commit suicide by throwing himself off the edge of the temple. His wife lept after him. However, the Kannon of Tsubosaka-dera Temple saved them and Sawaichi regained his sight.

There are no souvenir shops nearby, so maybe this is not a tourist spot, but it is certainly a big temple if you compare it to the other temples of the Saigoku Pilgrimage.

At Tsubosaka Temple, you can also enjoy viewing the cherry blossoms at night during this period.

The cherry blossoms that cover the temple grounds and large stone Buddha statues are lit up, creating a magical beauty that is different from the daytime.

How to get to Tsubosaka-dera Temple

From Shin-Osaka Station: take the subway to Tennoji Station (about 20 minutes), then walk to Kintetsu Osaka Abenobashi Station (just across the street from Tennoji) and take a limited express train to Tsubosakayama Station (about 40 minutes).

From Kintetsu Kyoto Station: take a limited express train to Kashiharajingu-mae Station, then change to Tsubosakayama Station (about 70 minutes).

Tsubosakadera Temple is 10 minutes by taxi from the Kintetsu Tsubosakayama Station.

Admission Timings:

Opening hours : 8:30 to 17:00

Admission Tickets:

Adults: ¥600
Children: ¥100
5 years and under: free

What is the best time to visit Tsubosaka-dera?

late March to early April

Annual Events:

18th of every month except for February and June: Kannon fair
August 18: Segaki-e (hungry ghosts’ feeding rites)

When is Tsubosaka-dera Illumination?

March 25th (Sat) to April 9th ​​(Sun), 2023
*Subject to change depending on the cherry blossom season

Viewing hours during illumination:
Gate opening time during the light-up period: 7:30-20:00
Lighting time during the light-up period) 18:00-20:00

The enchanting Torii Gates of Fushimi Inari Taisha

The first time I visited Fushimi Inari-taisha was way back in January of 2016. Since then I have been to the heritage site a couple of times but I never came around to writing about it.

The Inari shrine is one of the most popular shrines in Japan. The classical vermillion Torii (gate) with a pair of stone fox images guarding such shrines can be found everywhere in the country. The most striking feature of Inari worship (Inari shinkõ) is the high degree of diversification and even personalization of this kami. Devotees do not simply worship “Inari,” but a separate form of Inari with its own name.

Fushimi Inari-taisha (伏見稲荷大社) is the head shrine of the Kami Inari, located in Fushimi-ku area of Kyoto. The shrine sits at the base of a mountain, also named Inari, which is about 230 meters in height. Most of the shrine’s prominent structures are located right at the base of the mountain. However, for the adventurous types, there are numerous trails that lead right up to the summit of the Inari mountain, where you can find some very old and interesting shrines.

Whichever trail you choose, it is about 3 km to the top. Along the way, you will witness hundreds of smaller shrines, some freshly painted and some, in a somewhat debilitated state. The most intriguing part of the hike, however, are the thousands of vermilion-colored gates called Torii.

Vermilion is said to be a color that repels magical powers and is the reason it is often used in shrines, temples and even palaces in Japan.

Most of you, I assume, would be arriving to Fushimi Inari-taisha from Kyoto via the JR train line unless you are using your personal vehicle. As soon as you get off the train at the Inari Station, you cannot miss the huge Torii gate that leads to the main shrine grounds. The shrine’s close proximity to the bustling city of Kyoto makes it very easy to reach but that also means massive crowds, especially during the weekends. My recommendation would be to reach as early as you can.

The Great Torii of Fushimi Inari Taisha

Visit to a Japanese temple or shrine starts with passing through an exorbitantly designed gate. These ubiquitous gates that form an integral part of every Shinto shrine, vary from shrine to shrine in terms of both size and effect. Made from bronze, stone or wood, they are typically constructed to form a horizontal beam – kasagi, supported by two cylindrical columns called hashira. The first massive gate you pass while visiting Fushimi Shrine is known as the Daiichi Torii. It is meant to indicate to the visitor that he or she is now passing into an even more sacred space.

If you visit the Taisha from Keihan Fushimi Inari Station via Miyuki Road, you will not be passing through this torii gate.

The wooden ones are always colored in bright vermilion. Though commonly built at a scale that comfortably fits a small group of people, they range from miniature torii placed on shrines by worshipers to mighty structures such as this one leading into Fushimi Inari-Taisha.

Beyond the Torii, you will find the entrance gate to the shrine known as the Rōmon gate or Plum Blossom Gate, guarded with statues of foxes on either side. Generally, you will find a couple of lion-dog statues beside the shrine gate, but in the case of an Inari shrine, a fox statue is placed instead of the guardian dog. How the fox began being considered as the guardian spirits of the Inari shrines and messengers of the Gods. I will deal with a little later in this very article.

The Rōmon gate was donated to the shrine by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1589

The Rōmon gate along with the entire complex burned to the ground during the Onin War (1467-1477) in the mid-15th century and everything you will see onwards from here is a reconstruction. Beside the Rōmon gate, you can find the Chozuya, to purify yourself before entering the shrine complex.

A brief history of Fushimi Inari Taisha

Fushimi Inari Shrine is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto deity of rice cultivation and business success. This deity is said to grant a wide variety of prayers, from gokoku hojo (better crop output) to shobai hanjo (business prosperity), and in some regions of Japan, anzan (safe childbirth), manbyo heiyu (being completely cured of any illness), and gokaku kigan (prayers for academic success). Owing to the popularity of Inari’s division and re-enshrinement, this shrine is said to have as many as 32,000 sub-shrines (bunsha) throughout Japan.

Inari is a different kami to each believer, shaped by what each person brings of his own character and understanding of the world.

The earliest structures on Mt. Inari were built as early as 711 CE. It was originally erected as their patron deity by the influential Hatas, the descendants of the Korean prince naturalized in the 4th century. The day Inari Okami was enshrined on Mt. Inari is known as “Hatsuuma.” To commemorate Inari’s enshrinement, the Hatsu-uma Festival began to be celebrated every year. It’s been about 1300 years since and the custom is still maintained to this day. The shrine was later re-located to the base of the hill in 816 on the request of the monk Kūkai.

The shrine became the object of imperial patronage during the early Heian period (794-1185). In 965, Emperor Murakami decreed that messengers carry written accounts of important events to the guardian Kami of Japan. These heihaku were initially presented to 16 shrines, including the Inari Shrine.

Inari was first worshipped in the form of three deities (perhaps because there are three peaks on Inari Mountain in Fushimi) and later, from the time of the Kamakura period (1185–1333), as five deities. There has been great variation in the priestly assignment of kami as the three main deities of Inari Mountain; the current tradition of enshrinement, standardized during the Meiji period, is as follows:

  • Lower Shrine: Sannomine Uganomitama no õkami
  • Middle Shrine: Ninomine Sadahiko no õkami
  • Upper Shrine: Ichinomine Õmiyanome no õkami

Another custom that developed during the Heian period was the “souvenir cedar” (shirushi no sugi), a term so popular it became symbolical with the Inari shrine. The custom required one to take a small branch from one of the cedar trees on Inari’s mountain and attach it to themselves as a kind of talisman. It was especially popular to do this on the first horse day in the second month (nigatsu no hatsuuma), the traditional day of Inari’s worship.

In 1875, the name of Inari Shrine was changed to Mizuho Kosha

From 1871 through 1946, Fushimi Inari-taisha was officially designated one of the Kanpei-taisha (官幣大社), meaning that it stood in the first rank of government-supported shrines.

The mythical Fox of Inari

At Inari shrines, foxes (Kitsuné), are regarded as the messengers of Gods. The word Kitsuné comes from two Japanese syllables: Kitsu & ne. Kitsu is the sound of a fox yelping and ne is a word signifying an affectionate feeling. Each fox statue holds a ball-like object representing the spirit of the Gods, a scroll for messages from the Gods, a key for rice storehouses, or a rice ear in its mouth.

One legend suggests that an agricultural cycle is similar to that of a fox’s behaviors and habits, and the routes of the shrine gates are considered to be foxes’ routes. Ancient Japanese people seemed to believe that foxes had mystical powers.

According to the Nihon Ryoki, one of the oldest records, a great number of foxes lived in the national capital of Kyoto in ancient times. According to the Nihon Shoki, the Kitsuné were held in respect as an animal of good omen. In 720 a black fox was presented from the Iga province to Emperor Gemmyo (661-726 CE), the founder of the capital of Nara.

It is said that during the reign of Emperor Kammu ( 737-806 CE), foxes used to bark at night inside the Imperial Palace grounds and sometimes were even seen walking up the stairs of the palace. In the Edo Period (1603–1867), local people established the practice of erecting gates along the path of the foxes on the mountain behind the shrine to protect and fulfill their prayers.

Night Photo-walk at Fushimi Inari-Taisha

The daytime experience at Fushimi Shrine is one of noisy crowds and chattering school children. Because of its close vicinity to Kyoto, the Fushimi shrine is always crowded with the daily wide-eyed tourists from different parts of the world who generally forget to respect the heritage place in their excitement. So this year when I decided to visit the shrine once again, I planned it specifically at night, when it truly becomes magical. The number of tourists also decreases significantly at this time and I can promise you that it will be a much better experience if you choose to do the same.

As you walk out of the JR train station, you will immediately notice a fox illuminated by a beam of light near the station gate, carrying a rice stock in its mouth.

Heritage structures at Fushimi Inari Taisha

The first Torii leads you to another. It is a beautiful sight sans the crowd.

The two-storied Rōmon gate is the building that makes up the main entrance of Fushimi Inari Taisha and has been designated an important cultural property. It was not part of the earliest structures of the Inari shrine, but there is evidence that it already existed around 1500 CE.

The two-storied gate, built with a hip-and-gable roof covered with cypress bark thatching, is believed to have been built during the rule of Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the time from the Warring States period to the Azuchi-Momoyama period. Hideyoshi prayed for his mother Oomandokoro’s recovery from illness, and the gate was built in gratitude for her recuperation.

On both sides of the Rōmon gate are statues of gods called “zuijin” and they act as bodyguards for Inari Okami. Of all the Rōmon gates at shrines located in Kyoto, this is considered to be the oldest and the largest.


Just beyond the two-storied Rōmon gate, will find the Gehaiden, illuminated brilliantly by the lanterns inside. This brightly lit structure is used for various dance performances during festivals. When I visited the shrine in 2018, I was lucky to experience a dance inside the hall. The hall was then surrounded by hundreds of people and absolutely not like how it is presented below.

The Gehaiden is built with a hip-and-gable roof covered in cypress bark thatch. It is also a designated important cultural property. The iron lanterns hanging from the eaves (edge of a roof) depict the twelve signs of the zodiac.

Azumamaro Shrine

While facing the Gehaiden, on your right you will find a small narrow path that leads to the Higashimaru Shrine enshrining Kada no Azumamaro. On its left wall, you will find hundreds of omikuji and wooden ema plates left behind by visitors.

Azumamaro was active in the mid-Tokugawa period as a priest of the Fushimi Inari Shrine and wrote works including “On Opening Schools and Annotations” to Nihon Shoki. In the modern period, he came to be extolled as one of the four great men of kokugaku or the “Learning of the Imperial Land.”

Prior to Azumamaro, there was Ooyama Tameoki, a disciple of Suika Shinto of Yamazaki Ansai, who also served as the priest of the Fushimi Inari Shrine and studied Shinto as the Learning of the Imperial Land. Kada Azumamaro was from the Hakuro family and Ooyama Tameoki was from the Hata family, these two came from two competing priest families. Yet, they both tried to master the Learning of the Imperial Land through the interpretation of Kojiki and Nihon Shoki.


Just behind the Gehaiden, lies the main shrine referred to as Naihaiden. It is very close to the Gehaiden at the base of the mountain. A small flight of steps leads you to into the red building. Here you can pay your respects by giving a coin offering, ringing the bells, and praying by bowing twice, clapping twice, praying silently, and then bowing once again. The Naihaiden was also burned down during the Onin War, and the existing building is said to have been rebuilt in 1499.

The main shrine or Honden lies just behind the Naihaiden. It is the holy building where Inari Okami resides. It is also where festivals and prayer rituals are held. The main shrine located within the Naihaiden was built in 1499 in the nagare-zukuri style with its streamlined roof. The 500-year-old building is painted vermilion and is an important cultural property.

Five kami, or gods, are worshipped: Ukanomitamano Okami, Satahikono Okami, Omiyanomeno Okami, Tanakano Okami, and Shino Okami. Collectively, these kami are referred to as Inari Okami. The gables in the entrance are Karaha-fu, a type of cusped gable, and each beam has beautiful Chinese firebirds and flowers carved into it.

Juyosho or Shrine Management Office

This is where you can buy souvenirs like ema plates, amulets, talismans, and the ever-popular omikuji. Applications for prayers, kagura performances, and offerings are also accepted here. The Ema plaques that they sell here are unique. They are called “gankake torii” which are shaped like torii gates. Usually, during the daytime, there is a long queue in front of the counter with a good number of young girls trying their luck at omikuji.

At the inner shrine and at the Gozendani, ema are shaped like white fox faces and called Gankake Myobu Ema. Ema (wooden tablets for writing wishes on) are very popular in shrines and temples around Japan. People write their wishes and leave the tablets hanging up at the shrine where the kami (Shinto deities) can receive them. Usually, ema have a more rectangular shape, but the special ema at Fushimi Inari Taisha is in the shape of a fox. The ema can be purchased at the shrine for ¥500. After purchasing the ema, write your wish on the back, and on the front draw the face of a fox. It is quite similar to Kasuga Taisha, where instead of a fox, you draw the face of a deer. It is very exciting to see all the ema lined up with the different faces that the visitors have left behind.


The Gonden is used as a temporary home for the kami when the main shrine or other buildings are being repaired. It is a lot smaller than the size of the main shrine, and it is made in the Gokensha Nagarezukuri style, an asymmetrical gabled roof style with six pillars. It too is a designated important cultural property. The current building is a reconstruction built in 1645. To the left of the Gonden hall, you will find a series of steps that go up the mountain. Climbing this stone staircase marks the beginning of “Inariyama Mikamiseki worship.”


This is the Kami-Massha shrine. The big torii to its left goes towards the Okumiya shrine from where the series of torii gates start.

Okumiya Shrine

At the top of the wide stone steps, you will find the Okumiya shrine dedicated to the same Inari Okami as the main shrine. It used to be called the Kamigoten and is made in a different architectural style than the other shrines in the precinct. It also is a designated important cultural property.

To the left of the Okumiya shrine, somewhat hidden by the trees you can find the first of the series of giant torii gates leading through Senbon Torii to the Okusha Shrine.

Continue along the large torii pathway called Myobu Sando and the path will split into two routes with torii gates that stretch tunnel-like. When going to Okunoin from the entrance, pass on the left side. On the other hand, when going down from Okunoin, pass on the right side. That is, we should always keep to the left in the direction we are going.

Senbon Torii

As I mentioned before, the highlight of the Fushimi shrine are the rows of torii gates, known as Senbon Torii. Those who have heard about the Fushimi Inari Shrine, immediately think of the Senbon Torii, or the thousands of red torii gates leading pilgrims up the sacred mountain. The word “Senbon,” literally meaning a thousand is just used here to represent many many more, closer to 10,000. They are so close to each other, that they form an almost perfect tunnel that completely conceals the outside world. Some of the old Japanese literature describes Senbon torii as a tunnel, similar to a birth canal from which a true believer is reborn onto the sacred space on the Kami’s mountain.

Even though I have been here multiple times, I have never thought about counting these torii gates. It is said that there are about 10,000 torii gates lining this road up the mountain to the shrine at the top. This sight of the torii, all lined up is magnificent and, perhaps one of the most iconic views of Japan.

Currently, about 10,000 torii gates stand side by side along the entire approach to the mountain.

After passing through the “Senbon Torii”, you will arrive at Okusha, commonly known as “Oku-no-in”. Legend has it that if make a wish in front of the stone lantern here and lift the empty ring (round-headed stone) of the lantern. It is said that if the weight you feel when you lift it is lighter than expected, your wish will come true, and if it is heavy, it will not come true. From here we turn left and head up into the mountain.

The gateways here are of a brilliant vermillion and black and are engraved with inscriptions from the donors. The custom of donating a torii began in the Edo period (1603-1868.) At times tightly packed and at times irregularly spaced and several yards apart, the torii lead visitors on the 3 km hike up, along the steep hillside, past an assortment of smaller shrines. Strolling up one of the torii tunnels, you will feel lost in a magical red world. It is an almost unreal sensation that washes over you as you venture yet further into the belly of the mountain through this surreal passage.

Some 30 thousand torii are said to have been donated by various people seeking Inari’s blessing on their businesses over the years. Merchants from all over Japan pay large sums of money to get a torii installed dedicated to them, at the shrine. As you move into the next set of torii gates, it does not feel like a tunnel anymore as the gates begin to get separated little by little. The gates here are a little more orangish.

The gates space out more as we head towards the summit. As the torii spread out, the outside light begins to pour into the tunnel and my attention was drawn to the forest that I had entered almost without noticing. The gates here are also not illuminated from the inside so you only have the lights from the street lamps to move around in the dark. The emerging space in alliance with the sequence of columns and beams creates a crisscross of patterns of light and dark.

The path continues upward through the dense cedar forest passing various clusters perched on the hillside until you reach the end of the torii gates.

This area is generally quieter with only the dedicated tourists making it up this far. Being late at night it was almost deserted apart from a couple of young Japanese visitors. A fleet of steep stairs will take you up to a four-point crossroad. The path to your left goes up the hill. On your right, you will find a very narrow lane called the Tamahimesha.


This is the Tamahimesha area where you can find many shrines dedicated to Inari. There is a place called Yotsuji in the middle of Mt. Inari. This is a perfect place to rest and you can enjoy the view of Kyoto. The view at sunset is especially beautiful!

Lit candles at a Kanmidokoro Takeya.

This was as far as we went. We didn’t go beyond this point and started our descent back to the base of the hill. During daytime you can hike further to the top of the mountain. While descending we took a different route.

As we reached the base, the Gehaiden was looking absolutely stunning in the night.

It was pretty late at night by the time we started to leave. To my surprise, I could still see some people making their way into the shrine. Yes, the shrine is open 24 hours with both the approach to the shrine and, the Honden itself, illuminated all night. So you can visit anytime you want.

Contrary to general assumption, the Inari Shrine does not own the entire mountain and a number of religious establishments on the mountain are totally independent from the Fushimi Shrine. It is impossible to tell though, which belongs to the shrine. Most guides are also not aware of this division between shrines and private areas.

The pilgrimage tradition at Fushimi’s Inari Mountain that started in the Heian period is still thriving. There’s something to be said about Japan’s almost seamless blend of new and traditional. Never have I seen such a balance of modernism from such an industrious country, all of their technological advances, infrastructure, media, and corporate lives don’t depreciate their respect for tradition and history.

Thanks for reading! Please leave your comments or questions using the comment form below. I am now going to double-check my shopping list before I disembark for India in a couple of days’ time. If you like my stories you can also connect with me on Instagram.

Admission Timings

Open 24/7

Admission Fees



711 CE

Annual events at Fushimi Inari Taisha

Fox-feeding (Kitsune-segyo)
A custom prevailing in Osaka and vicinity. Believers visit their local Inari shrine carrying a small paper lantern shouting “O-segyo! O-segyo!” a call to the fox that it is feeding time. On their way home, they leave the fox’s favorite food of azuki-meshi, fice boiled with red beans and fried bean curds on the banks or any other place where foxes are expected to go.

Rice Planting Festival in Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine
Rice has been very important for Japanese people for centuries, and farmers have always worked hard together to cultivate rice. At Fushimi Inari-taisha, you can get a brief glimpse of this ancient Japanese culture. The Shinto rituals for prosperity and good harvests include seeding, planting, and harvest festivals are held respectively on April 12th, June 10th, and October 25th.

Sunset at Nigatsu-dō

Nigatsu-dō is one of the important structures of the Tōdai-ji temple in Nara. If you are here to know more about Nigatsu-dō, you already must be familiar with the Todai-ji temple, registered as a world heritage site, and one of the most revered Buddhist temples in all of Japan.

I have visited Nara Park many times. Nigatsu-dō is located to the east of the Great Buddha Hall, on the hillside of Mount Wakakusa. Even though I had visited the Nigatsu-dō temple hall earlier, it was only after one of my friends on Instagram posted a picture-perfect view of the evening sunset from here, that it became an obsession to visit this temple again to witness the magic with my own eyes.

The quickest way to Nigatsu-dō is via the northern side of Todai-ji, past the Daibutsu-ike Pond. On this route, you can avoid the large crowds gathered around Nara Park. With wide open areas, the fresh, crispy winter air around the lake will surely awaken your senses.

December is almost the end of Fall season in Nara, but the roads were still lit up by the beautiful Momiji trees. Momiji or Japanese Maple Tree, is probably one of the most beautiful type of maple trees there is, especially in the fall. As temperatures cool down after the scorching summer in Nara, the colors of the leaves change into vibrant shades of orange, red, yellow, and brown.


We followed the road which after a few minutes leads to a narrow cobbled path that gradually goes up the Wakakusa hill. You can find signs in English that will guide you to Nigatsu-dō temple hall. As we approached the ancient hall, we were quite happy to see a deer lost in its own world, munching away at the dried grass.

The deer of Nara park are a symbol of the city and believed to be messengers of the gods in Shinto religion.

There are two ways up the temple hall. As you can see in the image below, you have a covered wooden walkway on the left and a stone staircase on the right to reach the platform at the top of the temple.

Nigatsu-dō was founded by a monk by the name of Sanetada in 752 CE. However the temple is more closely associated with a Buddhist monk named Jitchu. He is thought to have come from possibly in India. He was one of the founding monks of Todai-ji and introduced many of the rituals still used today.

The most noteworthy of these ceremonies was the Shuni-e repentance ceremony established by him in 1960, at the request of Empress Kōmyō, wife of Emperor Shōmu, who hoped to heal the ailing Emperor who had not been well for a prolonged period of time. Since then this rite has taken place as an annual ceremony without a break. This service came to be known as Shuni-e, as it was held in the second month of the traditional lunar calendar.


Before you take the stairs to the Nigatsu-dō hall, on your right you can find the Sangatsu-dō hall. It is considered to be the oldest building in the Todaiji temple precinct. It was founded in 733 CE by the priest Roben. The hall is also known by the name Hokke-do which comes from the practice of holding a yearly service for the Hokekyo sutra in March. Belief in Hokekyo, has been widespread in Japan since the time of Prince Shotoku (574 – 622), who desired to establish a united nation under the Buddhist Law with salvation for all sentient beings, as taught in the sutra. Sangatsu-dō in Japanese means “Third Month Hall” because the service here is held in the third month.

Similarly the name Nigatsu-dō, or “Second Month Hall” is derived from the fact that the Shuni-e Ceremony is held here during the second month of the lunar calendar. You can enter the Sangatsu-dō hall for a small fee to pray to Kannon. Photography is prohibited inside this hall. I had been inside the temple before, so I just went through the gate that took me up the stone stairs up to the Nigatsu-dō temple hall.

As you reach the top of the stone stairs, you will find yourself in a wide open area paved with cobblestones with a Chozuya at the far end. The Chozuya is a water pavilion near the entrance, for cleansing yourself before you approach the deity of the temple. Most of these Chozuyas are relatively simple with running water coming from a pipe, but this one contains an intricately carved bronze dragon head which spurts out the water meant for purifying visitors.

If you are visiting during Fall, you cannot help notice the surrounding vivid yellow Momiji trees just beyond the Chozuya, a little further up the wakakusa hill.

After washing my hands at the Chozuya, I walked over to the platform of the temple. The platform stands over the inclined hill helped by numerous wooden pillars, kind of like Kiyomizu-dera, albeit a lot smaller. Though the skies were a bit overcast today, the Sun would occasionally peak through and cast a beautiful glow over the front deck of the temple.

The observation deck of Nigatsu-dō

The Nigatsu-dō hall holds two Kannons, a large one and a small one, although both of them are classified as Hibutsu “secret Buddhas” – and therefore are not publicly shown. Hibutsu or “secret Buddhas”, are Buddhist statues that are kept out of sight, maybe not permanently but sometimes the intervals when they are displayed to public can be as long as 33 or 66 years.

Some hibutsu, such as the wooden statue of Gautama Buddha at Seiryō-ji in Kyoto or the Amida statuary at Zenkō-ji, are almost never displayed, even to initiates of the temples in which they are held.

Sunset at Nigatsu-dō

Built on a hill, Nigatsu-dō has wonderful views from its observation deck back over Todai-ji and as far as the five-story pagoda at Kofuku-ji Temple. A magical mist had enveloped the heritage city. On a clear day you can see the whole city from here.

Through the mist, you can still observe the fall trees surrounding the Nara Park. The park’s autumn color is mostly scattered around the grounds in small pockets of deciduous trees, as opposed to being in one, breathtaking wall of color.

Since there are no other buildings around it, you can lean on the wooden railing and enjoy the cool breeze as it heals your soul. In addition, compared with the popularity of the main hall of Todai-ji Temple, Nigatsu-dō is much quieter, and the whole atmosphere is very peaceful.

You can sit down on one of the wooden benches inside and immerse yourself in the beauty of the sunset about to happen. There is no restriction on the opening or closing hours of the Nigatsu-dō so you can stay as long as you like.

As light begins to fade, the lanterns surrounding the temple hall are lit up. The once innocuous looking cobblestones begin to reflect the dying rays of the sun as they come alive.

The sparse number of people who know about the magic of this place at sunset were gone once the Sun had set over the horizon. The attendant at the souvenir counter near the stairs was also starting to shut down. I set up my tripod near the Chozuya to capture some of the beauty of the magical hour as the skies went from a vivid golden color to a more softer purple.

As the natural light faded away, the glow from the lanterns hanging around the temple hall became more overpowering.

Within a few minutes the skies changed again, this time into a beautiful blue. A couple of elderly ladies joined us at the observation deck. It was possibly their regular thing as I couldn’t see another soul otherwise.

Compared with the main hall of Todai-ji Temple, there are a lot fewer people who come to Nigatsu-dō, and it is very comfortable to stroll around. Because of the high terrain, one a clear day, you can overlook the entire city of Nara. The leisurely pace and the antique scenery are unforgettable and of course, when the sun goes down, it is just magical!

If you have plans to travel to Nara, don’t just use up all your time at the Todai-ji Temple, remember to climb the mountain and take a look at this beautiful and peaceful scenery of Nara.

Thanks for reading! I hope you like my story. Please leave a comment if you have any questions. Tomorrow we leave for Izumo to spend a few days in the ancient city that is known to be as the realm of the Gods in ancient Japan. On the way we plan to stop for a brief time at lake Shinji to experience another sunset, I hope the rain gods stay away!

Events at Nigatsu-dō

Nigatsu-dō is particularly popular for the Omizutori ceremony that is held for two weeks from 1st to 14th March every year. The ceremony is held to cleanse the people of their sins as well as to usher in the spring of the new year. The ritual has been practiced non-stop since the Heian period, more than 1200 years ago.

During the event, priests with a torchlight in hand descend repeatedly from the Nigatsudo hall to the holy well at the base of the temple. Of the many events held during Omizutori, Otaimatsu, the fire torch is the biggest and the most impressive one at 6-8 meters tall.

When was Nigatsu-dō Hall built?

Nigatsu-dō Hall was founded in 752 by a Buddhist monk named Sanetada

What is the best time to visit Nigatsu-dō?

Early March is the best time to visit Nigatsu-dō. Here is a schedule of the events held during that time:
March 1st-11th: 19:00 (20min)
March 12th: 19:30 (45min)
March 13th: 19:00 (20min)
March 14th: 18:30 (10min)

Fall at Nara Deer Park

Through my early teens, I grew up consuming detective tales from the likes of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle. These classics have led me into believing the concept of criminals eventually going back to their place of crime. My crime is that I fell in love with the heritage city of Nara. Since knowing it from the Fall season of 2015, I have tried my best to visit the city that has somehow stopped in time, to breathe in its pure air and enjoy its hospitality.

Nara was the first capital of Japan and has a rich history that has kept me captivated since I first set my foot here in the fall of 2015. Nara Park is the central attraction of the ancient city and also one of the most amazing places to enjoy the fall season in the Kansai region. The lavish park contains hundreds of Momiji (Japanese maple) trees that turn red, brown, and yellow imparting a vivid range of colors to the area. The wandering herds of deer adds a touch of fantasy to the already beautiful canvas created by nature.

Fall in Nara

In Japan, the fall season or Koyo starts towards the middle of September, just like in most countries in the upper reaches of the northern hemisphere. The Japanese maple or Momiji is native to Japan, Korea, China, and eastern Mongolia, and southeast Russia. The northern-most island of Hokkaido is the first to experience the fall season and the leaves already start turning red towards the middle of September.

This phenomenon gradually spreads towards the south of the Japanese archipelago until the middle of November when it reaches the southernmost areas. Late November to early December marks the beginning of fall colors in western Japan, and even though Kyoto is where the real magic plays out, Nara is not bad either.

I and my wife, Mani were staying at the Piazza Hotel in Nara. It is kind of a lavish place to stay but it is also kind of difficult to find lodgings in Nara with most hotels booked almost 6 months beforehand. We woke up at dawn, freshened up, and after a hot cup of coffee walked down to Nara Park. The hotel is located adjacent to the JR Nara Station and it is at least a 20-minute walk to Nara Park. I was back after almost a year and the old memories of Sanjo-dori came flooding back as I made my way along the narrow road which had been a big part of my life when I used to live in Nara. On the way, we grabbed a couple of onigiris for breakfast from a convenience store.

Ukimido Pavilion

Our first stop was one of the hidden treasures of Nara Park – the Ukimido Pavilion, located in the middle of the Sagi-ike Pond. I call this place hidden because most of the tourists remain concentrated near the Todai-ji, Kasuga-taisha, and Kofuku-ji areas. Very few of them have the energy for the walk to this little place located in a corner of Nara Park.

The beautiful wooden pavilion looks as if it is floating on the pond’s water and is a tranquil place to visit. The early morning mist makes it all the more irresistible. The pavilion is usually lit up every night, which is when I love it the most. If you are in Nara in mid-August, do not miss out on the Nara Tokae Lantern Festival when you can indulge in the visual pleasure of a hundred lanterns lighting up the pavilion. That sight is guaranteed to take your breath away.

After capturing the pavilion, we hung around the place wandering about the Sagi-ike Pond since our next stop was Todai-ji and it doesn’t open before 8 am. Most of the trees surrounding the pond had lost a good part of their leaves during this time. Some of the trees that had started later were still hanging on to their colorful leaves.

Specifically, the word “oyo” refers to yellow leaves, and the word “katsuyo” refers to brown leaves.

The species of maple generally determine the color the leaves will change to red, yellow, or brown. Here in Japan, people refer to this phenomenon as Koyo. Although the word Koyo literally means “red leaves,” it is colloquially used to refer to the phenomenon of changing autumn colors, mainly when it occurs to the leaves of deciduous broad-leaf trees before they fall to the ground.

No visit to Nara Park is fulfilled without a visit to Todai-ji. We were the first couple to enter as the admissions booth opened. The temple attendants were still getting everything ready inside the temple grounds. It was pretty cold so we skipped the purifying ritual at the Chozuya and went directly towards the Great Buddha hall also known as Daibutsu-den.

Before entering we grabbed some incense sticks and lit them up at the altar in front of the Daibutsu-den gate. It is not required but recommended that you donate some Yen here before you take the incense sticks. The scent emanating from the incense slowly surrounds you driving your mind and soul away from worldly distractions. Please note that this is not how Todai-ji will be if you visit a little later in the day. The place is literally crawling with tourists as the day moved towards the after.

While climbing down the steps of Todai-ji, I clicked this shot of the Nakamon Gate with the Octagonal lantern in front. The lantern is as old as the temple itself. In fact, the wooden temple was recreated many times but the lantern has remained as is throughout the history of Todai-ji. I have written a detailed article on the history of Todai-ji, if you are interested to know more.

After paying respects at Todai-ji, we walked towards the back of the temple where I knew there was an interestingly shaped Momiji looking all beautiful in shades of red and yellow colors. The Momiji trees around Nara Park are kind of spread out, so you need to know from before the spots where they are the most alluring.

We gradually walked towards the front of Todai-ji, where near the Kagami-ike Pond, you can also find some lovely Momiji trees. Of all its close kin, this Japanese red maple is not only a sensation because of its brilliant fall color, but also because of the hues of red, it lends to the landscape throughout the winter.

The history of Momijigari

From Todai-ji we slowly moved towards a wooded area of Nara Park. This area is full of Momiji trees. Even though some of the trees had already become bare it was still a lovely sight to behold.

When autumn deepens and the leaves begin to turn color in the fields and mountains, hunting for autumn foliage is a popular pastime in Japan. Over the years it has become like a ritual with its own name called Momijigari – the Japanese tradition of visiting areas where leaves have turned red in the autumn.

This tradition of Momijigari was born during the Heian Era (794 – 1185) among the aristocrats of Kyoto. The word comes from the two Japanese words Momiji and Kari. Momiji means red leaves. Kari originally used to refer to the act of hunting wild beasts, but over the years it came to be used as a word for catching animals and harvesting crops. You can find its use in Japanese words like “kudamono gari” (fruit hunting) and “shiohigari” (clam hunting).

Such alluring was the beauty of the fall foliage that the Japanese nobility became great admirers of this nature’s beauty. They borrowed the words Momiji and Kari and combined them to create Momijigari to mean “red leaves viewing”. Trees were planted specifically in continued rows for this autumn hobby of the era’s elite.

Poetry about Momiji

In Japan, the maple is said to possess a poetic, rather than visual, quality although I would beg to differ. Cherry trees are generally depicted in Japanese painting, but the maple is best described in waka – Japanese songs, and haiku – Japanese poetry.

As more and more trees were planted across each prefecture in Japan, it lent a fantastical beauty to the temples in the region. The ancient collection of Manyoshu poetry compiled in the eighth century includes numerous stories involving Momijigari.

If you have read the classical Heian Period novel “The Tale of the Genji,” the hunting for fall leaves also finds a mention here. A large section of the Kokin Wakashu poetry collection, compiled around the beginning of the same period, is dedicated almost entirely to autumn leaves.

Varying in size from large shrub to small tree, the Japanese maple is a species with many variations. You can enjoy the spectacular fall colors at the many historic shrines and temples at Nara Park. During Nara’s autumn foliage season, many places have various events, special viewing admissions, and scenic night lightings. As we kept walking we went past the wooded area into the wide-open spaces at the base of Wakakusayama with herds of deer grazing around.

The deer are generally gathered around this area because the tourists feed them the local Shika senbei. They love it! We also bought 5 packets, each costing 200 yen.

Be prepared! even as you open the packets, they will come charging at you sniffing the subtle smell of the pancakes from long away.

After feeding the deer, we walked to the base of Mt. Wakakusa where lay a couple of Ginko trees. Among the beautiful Momiji trees, the Gingko is another group of trees that make autumn brilliant with its color. Also called “ichō” in Japanese, they are completely different from Momiji as they are not red but bright yellow and do not have the same shape. Unlike the Momiji trees, the Gingko trees grow to long heights.

Ginkgo is an ancient species, so old that it is said to have flourished during the age of the dinosaurs. Around 1 million years ago, though, the population began to fall and it only narrowly avoided extinction. Until a few hundred years ago it grew almost exclusively in northwest Asia, but global cultivation efforts have brought numbers to such a level that the ginkgo was removed from the endangered species list.

The Ginkgo is a relative newcomer to Japan, having arrived from China around 1,000 years ago. It has thrived over the centuries to become a familiar aspect of Japanese life. The area takes on the appearance of being carpeted in gold – there’s something truly magical about it. The smell of the senbei quickly gathered a couple of deer to us.

Nearby you can find a wooden pavilion. We kept our bags on the benches and had a lovely time feeding the deer.

After an entertaining morning in Nara Park, we went back to get some lunch at Kasuga Chaya. Its located near all the souvenir shops before you reach the Nandaimon Gate of Todai-ji. It’s a cute ticket restaurant where you need to buy your meal tickets from a vending-type machine before you take a seat. I had a big bowl of Udon. The warm soup sure made me feel good after the early morning wandering in a cold and cloudy Nara Park.

In the evening we came back to the Park to catch a beautiful sunset at Nigatsu-do. Once the sun had set behind the mountains, we wandered about the grounds catching a few of the Momiji trees in the street lights

You can find this tree near the Kagami-ike Pond. It was getting pretty cold by then, so after we got a couple of shots, we started on our way back to the hotel.

Thanks for reading! One of the best aspects of travel in Japan is enjoying the natural beauty of the four seasons. Fall is known for its especially nice weather and is a season when one can taste many delicious foods, making it a great time for sightseeing. Just like with the sakura, this season holds a very special place in Japanese people’s hearts as it reminds everyone that everything is ephemeral and that we need to enjoy what is given to us before it vanishes.

The autumn foliage of Nara Park is exceptionally impressive. You can see beautiful autumn leaves in every part of the expansive grounds. The ability to enjoy seeing deer and maple trees while you gaze at the temples through the trees is unique to the park. I hope you liked my story. Please leave your comments or questions using the comments form below. I would love to know about your experiences at the park. You can also connect with me on Instagram.

What are the other places to enjoy the Fall season in Nara?

Apart from Nara Park, you can also visit these recommended spots:
1. Isui-en Garden
2. Hasedera Temple
3. Mt. Yoshino

What is the best time to enjoy Momiji in Nara?

Nara has a scattered fall where some of the trees begin to go red with the onset of November and some of them stay red till early December. It is always smart to come with a couple of days in hand because you will run into grey days with extreme cloud cover and intermittent rainfall.

Photowalk to Ukimido Pavilion

Ukimido is a hexagonal gazebo over the Sagiike Pond in Nara Park. The park is generally crowded with tourists all through the day, but they usually stay away from this area. The airy structure in the middle of the pond, surrounded by herds of deer, is one place where I can find peace at any time of the day.

I have been to Ukimido in Nara several times before but never during the evenings. A few days before I came across a flier at the Nara Tourist Information Center that had a cover photo of the pavilion at night. It looked so immersive that I couldn’t miss photographing this lovely gazebo.

So, at around 5 pm I walked down to the park. I had with me some acorns that I had gathered at Nagoya Castle grounds. The deer love munching on these acorns.

On my way, I went past the meadows beside Todai-ji temple where the deer were busy munching on the green grass. I was a bit surprised to see so many gathered at a single place. A couple came running towards me hoping to get some tidbits. I fed them the acorns I had stuffed in my cargo pockets. The sun was on its way down, so I hurried towards the floating pavilion.

Ukimido, Nara Park

It was almost sun down by the time I reached the pavilion. Some elderly ladies were sitting inside the dimly lit structure. The sunset was playing its magic creating a blend of purple and orange sky.

I stayed around till the ladies moved away after having their fill of the enchanting surroundings. During the summer evenings the floating pavilion is illuminated and it feels very relaxing sitting in the center of the pond amid dimly lit lanterns. I took a few shots of Ukimido Pavilion until the sun had fully set.

Once I was done taking pictures, I went back the along same path towards home. With the fall due in a month, some of the trees had started to turn red already. The lanterns along the Sagiike pond lit up the trees casting a reddish glow over them.

Nara Park is lovely in the day, but its mesmerizing at night. If you are in Nara, try to visit the place at night. Kofukuji and Todai-ji grounds remain open all night. The five-story pagoda at Kofukuji looks like a painting with the moon rising behind. The Todai-ji temple closes at around 5-5:30 pm depending on the season but you can still enjoy the beautifully lit park surrounding the temple. On certain days Todai-ji does remain open during nights. I was lucky to visit Todai-ji on New Years Eve, one of the rare times when the temple is opened to the public at night.

Thanks for reading! In a couple of days, I go back to India but in these few months, I have been so captivated by the rich culture and traditions of Nara, that I am certain that I will be back soon to complete my understanding of this western island of Japan. I would love to know about your experiences. Please post your thoughts using the form below or connect with me on Instagram.

The stunning Osaka Castle

I dropped in at Osaka today to capture the stunning Osaka Castle in the evening light.

Osaka, Chūō-ku is the second largest metropolis of Japan. It’s a bustling city with over 19 million inhabitants. The city is well-connected by the subway. During my first few days in Osaka, I used to feel very lost making my way through the confusing subway. But I have made progress in the last few months and now am able to understand the routes better.

We started from Nara after lunch.

Nara to Osaka Castle

We reached the Tembabashi Station at about 4 pm. In my opinion its the easiest route to the Castle while coming from Nara. From the station its just a 10 minute walk to the castle.

A wide moat surrounds the grounds encircling the castle. In the center of the park, surrounded by the moat, the castle is built atop a tall stone foundation to protect its occupants from attackers.

Osaka Castle

Osaka Castle was built by the hegemon Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who ruled Japan in the latter half of the 16th century, on the site of a temple called Ishiyama Hongan-ji. The construction work began in 1583 and most buildings including the castle tower were completed by 1585. Tens of thousands of people were contracted for the construction which lasted nearly two years.

The stone foundation itself is said to consist of  about 40,000 stones. There is an interesting story that powerful daimyo from all parts of Japan competed in sending the large rocks for the castle, to display their loyalty to the Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

The castle was destroyed in the forthcoming years and then rebuilt in 1931. The current structure is a concrete reproduction of the original and the interior functions as a museum. The central castle building is five stories on the outside, sitting on a high stone foundation. The castle’s interior consists of eight floors devoted mainly to exhibits. The castle tower has large golden dragon fish ornamental shining on the rooftop. Just below the rooftop viewpoint, the exterior walls are decorated with golden tigers.

Small packets of clouds went floating by the castle as we walked around the garden. After a bit of wandering about the castle grounds we came across some weeping Sakura trees on the north side of the garden.

The evening at Osaka Castle

A small bridge on the north side connects the castle with the grounds, over the moat. Evening was gradually setting in and the sky had begun to change into a multicolored canvas.

Beside the bridge, over the moat, a couple of pleasure boats were tied up. Business hours had closed by then and the boats floated nonchalantly over the moat as the sun was just about to hide behind the tall trees.

After a few minutes the sun went to sleep and we started our walk towards the viewpoint I had decided upon to take the evening shot of Osaka Castle.

Osaka Castle at Night

Finally, the moment for which I came here. The light was perfect. I set up my gear on the high stone wall and took this stunning view of the Osaka Castle. For the next 10 minutes the Osaka Castle looked like a fantasy structure from the mythical age of dragons.

Once the lights came on, the castle was illuminated in a burst of bright white light. I packed up my gear and we head back towards the Tembabashi Station.

It was a lovely evening at the castle. The exteriors of the Castle are stunning. There is always a good breeze blowing on the grounds. Many locals use the grounds for jogging in the evenings. Overall its a good place to spend an evening.

Thanks for sticking around to read my journal. If you have any questions, please use the comments section below. If you are in Osaka, you must visit the Kaiyukan Aquarium, the best aquarium I have seen in Japan or if you are looking for a quite evening, just wander around the Osaka Bay.


1583 CE

Built by

Toyotomi Hideyoshi

Castle Tower Timings

9:00 to 17:00 (entrance until 16:30)
Closed: December 28 to January 1

Admission Fees

Adults: ¥600

An evening at Yasaka-no-tō Pagoda

Today we take a walk down to Yasaka-dori in Kyoto to the stunning Yasaka-no-tō Pagoda. Built in 592 CE, the Pagoda with the temple treasure (Yasakato-ezu) is the last remaining structure of the once flourishing temple of Hokan-ji. The rest of the structures have either been destroyed by fires or earthquakes over the years.

Kyoto has many attractions for the wide-eyed tourists. The Kinkaku-ji Temple, the Kiyomizu-dera Temple, and the Fushimi Inari-taisha being my favorites, but if you are photographically inclined, the Yasaka Pagoda is not to be missed. With its old city charm and cobblestone paths, the surroundings of this mystical place takes your breath away, especially during the evenings when the pathways are illuminated in a golden glow from gas-lit street lights.

How to reach Yasaka Pagoda from Kyoto Station

I and my wife, Mani, were coming in from Nara, another heritage city with hundreds of ancient temples and shrines. Nara is around a 40-minute ride on the JR local to Kyoto. If you are coming from outside to tour Kyoto or even staying there, it is best to start from the JR Kyoto Station. You will be able to obtain the current Bus time-tables at the tourist information center inside the station. You can also buy a full-day bus ticket from one of the vending machines that allows you unlimited travel on the public bus for a day. If you are planning to go to more than two sight-seeing points, it is best to obtain the full-day pass. From the station, you can catch either Kyoto City Bus #100 or #206 to reach the pagoda.

Yasaka Dori

The bus dropped us off at the Kiyomizu-michi bus stop. Since we were only going to the Yasaka Pagoda, we didn’t go for the full-day bus pass. The one-way ride cost us ¥230 per head.

As soon as you turn your back towards the bus, you will feel transported to a timeless past. This is the Higashiyama District and the Yasaka pagoda lies in the heart of this district. From the bus stop, it is about a 5-minute walk to the pagoda.

Old town charm of the Higashiyama District

Of the mountains surrounding Kyoto, the ones which are closest to the present downtown area lie towards the east. This is why this whole eastern region of Kyoto is called Higashiyama which literally translates to eastern mountains. Since ancient times this area has been rich in Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.

The Higashiyama District along the lower slopes of Kyoto’s eastern mountains is one of the city’s best-preserved historic districts. From ancient times, the mist-shrouded slopes of Higashiyama and the hills bordering Kyoto on the east, have inspired generations of poets and artists.

These 36 peaks are home to many temples, restaurants, inns, and tea shops – all picturesquely located along narrow winding streets. The shops that line these streets are always crowded, but it is not like the crowds in India. It is a much relaxed and silent gathering.

Visitors can enter the pagoda up to the 2nd floor for a price of ¥400.

Yasaka Dori (八坂通り) is a lovely, quiet path through the back streets leading to Yasaka Pagoda. It is an amazing place to walk around and explore the traditional old houses. Rickshaw drivers can be seen ferrying the wide-eyed tourists along this path. The area’s narrow alleys and machiya (traditional wooden buildings) are filled with small shops, cafes, and restaurants. The street runs between Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka slopes, and ends at the most iconic photo spot with the Yasaka pagoda looming over the cobbled path.

The walk presents lovely views of the Yasaka-no-tō tiered pagoda above traditional gabled roofs. It’s old Kyoto and it’s beautiful.

Long before the actual founding of Heiankyō, the capital of peace and tranquility, a tribe called Yasaka no Miyatsuko had immigrated from the Korean empire of Kōrai and settled at these foothills. Hokan-ji was most likely founded as early as 588 by this immigrant family from Koguryo, modern Korea. The Yasaka-no-Miyatsuko settled in the foothills of Higashiyama during the Asuka period & established the temple as their religious center.

Yasaka-no-tō Pagoda is also known as Hokanji Temple. It was built in 592, which makes it the oldest pagoda in Kyoto.

Their religious life centered around the Hōkan-ji Temple, a Buddhist temple built around 589. The temple itself has been long lost to fire. Of the precinct, only the pagoda is left standing today and is the most important vertical marker within the district today.

July is also the month of festivals in Japan. Saki Matsuri, the early festivities of the Gion Festival begins on July 10th and peaks on the 17th. We were just a day early but as we waited for the Sun to set over the lovely pagoda, troops of children in white attire rode down the cobbled street in makeshift carts. With them followed a horde of tourists flashing away their cameras.

Think of the saki matsuri as a way for downtown Kyotoites to welcome the deities to their town in a similar way as we Bengalis, welcome the goddess Durga into our city of Kolkata.

Yasaka Pagoda

Once the evening started to set and the shops began to close, the huddle of tourists disappeared from the area and the streets were empty again. In the rare silence, I set up my tripod and quickly captured the most iconic landmark of Kyoto in the beautiful surrounding blue light.

Kyoto has four five-storied pagodas, which are located in temples around the city: Hokan-ji, Daigo-ji, To-ji, and Ninna-ji. Yasaka-no-tō Pagoda, also known as Hokanji Temple is the tallest among them and was built in 592, which also makes it the oldest pagoda in Kyoto.

Origins of Yasaka Pagoda

There are various theories about the origins of the Hokanji Temple, but it is generally believed to have been founded in the Asuka period (593–710) as the guardian temple of the Yasaka clan. Although details from the early history of the Yasaka Pagoda are scarce, there is information about the fires. In 1179, the Pagoda was burned in a dispute between the Yasaka Shrine and the Kiyomizu-dera Temple. The temple was rebuilt by Shogun Minamoto Yorimoto in 1191. Later the records show that the temple again burned down in 1291 and 1436.

The current 49-meter tall five-tier pagoda is a reconstruction built in 1440 by Ashikaga Yoshinori and is a nationally designated Important Cultural Property. The construction and design of the pagoda were never altered, despite being rebuilt several times after different blazes.

The Yasaka Pagoda is dedicated to the five great Nyorai, who are depicted in sculptures and murals inside the pagoda. The epithet Temple Hikan-ji reveals in its suffix that it was not the main temple but rather a secondary one. At the base of the pagoda are four finely carved Buddha statues arranged around the points of a compass. Visitors can go inside the pagoda to view a dais on which are placed figures of Mahavairocana, Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, and amoghasiddhi – the Five Perfected Ones; as well as the interior structure of the pagoda and the great central pillar supporting it.

The Yasaka Pagoda is said to contain some of Buddha’s ashes beneath its massive central pillar.

As it got darker, the yellow lamps from the street took over. The evening tourists had disappeared from the streets and the dim light from the street lights bathed the closed wooden storefronts. I felt as though I had stumbled upon a sleeping 18th-century town when life was a lot simpler.

Did you know that to make this view perfect, all the electric and telephone lines were moved underground?

The rather narrow street west of the pagoda runs straight north to the southern entrance of the Gion Shrine, renamed Yasaka Shrine in 1868, the first year of Meiji.

Around the pagoda, there are gently sloping hill east towards the mountains. The cobbled street here is known as the Sannen-zaka, the “Three Year Slope”. To the north is the Ninen-zaka, or “Two Year Slope”. Both streets were paved with stones in about 808.

Illuminated Yasaka Pagoda

The Higashiyama area doesn’t have a lot of tall buildings, so the pagoda is a landmark in the Higashiyama area. The pagoda is surrounded by traditional Japanese-style houses so if you go there, you can feel the history of this area. It was dark, I took one last shot of us to keep as memorabilia, and then we made our way back to the Kiyomizu-michi bus stop.

After a small wait at the bus stop, we were able to catch a bus back to Kyoto Station.

Note: The bus back from here is always full and the less weight you carry, the better it is for you.

Over the centuries, millions of pilgrims have passed along these streets, stopping to buy a charm, sip a cup of green tea or purchase a Kyoyaki (Japanese pottery traditionally from Kyoto). This is a great place to experience the traditional Kyoto, where the narrow lanes, wooden buildings, and traditional merchant shops invoke a feeling of the old capital city.

If you are visiting the pagoda, only a short walk away, on the border of the historic Gion district, lies the ornate red-and-white gate of the Yasaka Shrine. Open 24 hours a day, the shrine is one of the most popular shrines in Kyoto.

Thanks for reading. Please leave me a comment if you liked my story or follow my travels as I go on a day tour of Shimane to explore the perfectly manicured gardens of Adachi.

When was Yasaka-no-tō Pagoda built?

592 CE

What are the entry timings of Yasaka-no-tō Pagoda?

10:00 am to 4:00 pm

What is the entry ticket price for Yasaka-no-tō Pagoda?

¥400. Children under 12 not allowed in the pagoda.

Exploring the Horyu-ji Temple

Hōryū-ji (法隆寺) is one of the seven great temples of Nara. The temple is a central artifact in the history of Japan and just invoking its name is enough to bring a sparkle in the eyes of most Japanese. The original temple was commissioned by Prince Shōtoku in 607 CE. and even though the complex has been hit by fire more than a few times, it still boasts the presence of the world’s oldest wooden building known to man.

Summer was upon us. On a lazy Sunday, Me & Mani, left our dorm for Hōryū-ji at around noon. In the steaming hot weather, with only the occasional breeze providing some relief, we walked all the way to Nara Station.

From the station, we caught the local JR-Namba along the Yamatoji line. It takes about 11 minutes to reach Hōryū-ji Station. The train dropped us off at a small quiet station. A shuttle bus is available to Hōryū-ji Temple from the south exit at Hōryū-ji Station, but you can also walk to the temple quiet easily in around 20 minutes.

If you have been following my stories, you will know that I love to walk. I did think twice, because of the sweltering heat, but walking gives me an additional motivation as I pass through the streets of these heritage towns, past age-old houses. Google maps was there to guide us, but there were ample road-signs along the way, including the one like this below – designed into the footpath.

The day was bright with intermittent clouds spread across the sky. On the way, you can find various casual cafes, restaurants and convenience stores.

As you near the temple, the concrete buildings, give way to a lane lined with beautiful green trees. This long path is referred to as Hōryū-ji Sando and the waving trees welcome you into the temple.

On both sides of this path you can find some restaurants and souvenir shops. These wooden structures take me back into a time where we didn’t have copy-pasted rows of rectangular concrete buildings with no soul. We made it a point to stop at one of these eateries while going back.

Brief history of Hōryū-ji

Before we begin our exploration of the temple grounds let me brief you a bit about the rich history of the temple. The full name of the temple is Hōryū Gakumon-ji, or Temple of the Flourishing Law.

The story of Hōryū-ji’s founding is laid out in the historical writings engraved on the back of the halo of the Yakusi Nyorai Buddha statue, located on the eastern side of the room in the temple’s Main Hall, and in the official inventory of Hōryū-ji property holdings recorded in 747.

According to these records, the emperor Yomei vowed to build a temple and an image of a Buddha as a form of prayer for his own recovery from illness–a vow he was never fated to fulfill, for he died shortly thereafter. These same writings state how Empress Suiko and Crown Prince Shotoku fulfilled Emperor Yomei’s deathbed wish by building the temple in 607 CE. The temple was dedicated to Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of healing in honor of the prince’s father.

When the temple was originally commissioned by Prince Shōtoku, it was called Wakakusa-dera, a name that is still used sometimes in official documents. Because of its location, it was also referred to by locals as Ikaruga Temple.

The original temple was lost to fire after being hit by lightning in 670. The massive blaze swept through the temple grounds, leaving “not a single building” standing, as it is recorded in the ancient Chronicles of Japan (Nihon Shoki).

The temple was reconstructed around 711, but the layout was slightly re-oriented. From its conception, Hōryū-ji was considered by the royalty as its protector and thus it always enjoyed protection of the Imperial family.

Early Heian period (794 – 1185) brought new additions to Hōryū-ji, including the dedication of several new halls in the Eastern and Western compounds. In addition, during the Kamakura period (1185–1333), a cult consisting of followers of Prince Shōtoku rose to prominence in Japan and Horyū-ji became an important site for veneration of the long-dead prince.

Ritual practices dedicated to Prince Shōtoku increased in number during this time. A memorial service for the late prince, called the ceremony of Shōryō-e was introduced in the early 12th century and it is still practiced at the temple to this day. According to records during the time of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Hōryū-ji’s annual stipend used to be around 1200 koku. The Koku used to be a unit of measure in feudal Japan, which used to the amount of rice needed to feed one person for a year.

Political shifts in Japan during the early years of the Meiji period (1868 – 1912) brought new challenges for Hōryū-ji as Shinto was instated as the official state religion in 1868. This resulted in government confiscation of many Buddhist lands, strict government supervision and categorization of Buddhist temples, and a steep decrease in financial support for Hōryū-ji itself.

At the outset of the Meiji period, the new government cut the temples annual stipend to 250 koku and later reduced it further to just 125. One of the first laws of the new government , separating Bodhisattava and Kami, set off widespread pillaging of Buddhist temples.

Due to the lack of resources during the early Meiji period, the monks at Hōryū-ji decided to donate many of the temple’s treasures for museum display. They were able to secure compensation for this donation, improving the financial situation of the temple. With the destruction of Kofuku-ji in Nara during the Tokugawa period (1603 – 1868, Edo period), there was a time when it was also considered to burn down the pagoda at Hōryū-ji. Fortunately for us, because of the residential clusters around the temple and the collateral damage it would cause, it was left to be.

Over the years the temple fell into a bad state from centuries of neglect. The outer areas began to be used to house cows and horses. Around the time of Meiji Restoration, people living in the vicinity of Hōryū-ji called it a bimbotera, meaning “poor temple.”

A restoration project was initiated after the Second World War and by 1985 most of the temple complex was repaired. During the restoration, older paintings of the temple were used to determine the original layout of the complex, and many of the living quarters built during the intervening years were demolished.

In 1993, Hōryū-ji Temple was registered as Japan’s first UNESCO World Heritage site under the name of Buddhist Monuments in the Hōryū-ji Area. I hope I have not bored you with all this data, but it was essential to understanding why the Japanese hold this temple to so high importance.

Nandaimon, South Main Gate

Lets now move on to explore the beautiful structures inside Hōryū-ji. The broad avenue of majestic pine trees along Hōryū-ji Sando led us straight to this elegant eight-pillar gate. This is the South Gate and it leads visitors into the temple grounds. This gate was once situated near the Middle Gate but was moved when the temple was expanded. Fire destroyed the original structure in 1435, but it was rebuilt shortly afterwards in 1438.

The Hōryū-ji Central Gate was undergoing repairs during the time of our visit. The entrance was thus free during that period.

As I mentioned before, the grounds of Hōryū-ji house the world’s oldest surviving wooden structures, conveying images of Japan as it existed more than 1,300 years ago, during the Asuka Period. The main compound is laid out on a north-south axis with the main entrance facing south. The four main components, the pagoda, the Main Hall, the Lecture Hall and the Middle Gate and the South Gate, are aligned symmetrically through a central axis.

The temple complex is made up of two areas, the Sai-in in the west and the Tō-in in the east. The Sai-in Garan or western part of the temple contains the Kondō (Main Hall) and the five-story pagoda. The Tō-in area holds the octagonal Yumedono Hall (Hall of Dreams) and sits about a 100 meters east of the Sai-in area. The complex also contains monk’s quarters, lecture halls, libraries, and dining halls.

A corridor with a colonnaded interior and walled exterior surrounds the temple complex on all four sides. Dating back to 990, the sheltered walk way exhibits the use of Chinese style window openings and plaster exterior walls. The pillars in the temple complex bulge slightly in the middle, a feature known as entasis.

Entasis is an architectural style that features curvature of columns where the body of the structure appears to bulge or bend outwards to compensate for an optical illusion, where a physically straight column would appear narrow at its feet appearing to be weak. It is quite possible that this was influenced by the architecture of ancient Greece.

Hōryū-ji Kondō

The Kondō, located side-by-side to the Pagoda in Sai-in, is one of the oldest wood buildings extant in the world. The hall has two stories, with roofs curved in the corners. The first story has a double roof. According to records, this was added later in the Nara period with extra posts to hold up the original first roof because it extended more than four meters past the building.

The Kondō is the main hall of the temple. It is comprised of an enclosed porch and an altar that is contained within a space that is 3 x 2 bays. While the main altar faces south, less important statues face the other cardinal directions to stress the importance of radiating towards all directions. The Kondo also uses wood columns that utilize a slight entasis and support a cluster of brackets that are required to carry the weight of the large roof structure that is further burdened with the use of tiles as opposed to the traditional roof material of choice, wood or thatch.

The exterior wood decoration includes dragons, a water deity thought to protect against fires. The railings on the second level are carved to represent swastikas, and they join inverted V-shaped support posts, both typical features of the architecture of the Asuka Period.

The interior of the Hall is made to resemble the Buddhist vision of paradise via brightly colored murals on all four walls. There are 12 distinct panels and depicting scenes with the Buddha and bodhisattvas.

Hōryū-ji Pagoda

The five-story pagoda standing adjacent to the main hall was built during the Asuka period (593–710) to house the site’s main relics. It is the oldest pagoda of this type in Japan and one of the oldest surviving wooden towers in the world. The pagoda is five stories tall and contains various important Buddhist scriptures and relics. Its central pillar, over 35 metres tall, is confirmed via a Dendrochronological analysis to have been felled in 594.

Partially supported by a main central column, the cantilever brackets branch out from outer columns to support the weight of the roof. The roofs of each level curve upward and diminishing in size as you go up.

The central pillar rests three meters below the surface of the massive foundation stone, stretching into the ground. At its base, a relic believed to be a fragment of the bones of the Buddha is enshrined. Around it, four sculpted scenes from the life of the Buddha face in the four cardinal directions. Access to the interiors of the pagoda is restricted.

A unique feature of the pagoda are the scythes attached to the uppermost roof. Lightning was once considered a celestial monster, so swords and implements with sharp edges were added to the pagoda as it was said that this would prevent the celestial monsters from alighting on them. 

At the base of the Five-storied Pagoda are a series of Buddhist tableaux dating from 711 which are shaped like caverns and contain 97 clay figurines. The four sides of the tableaux represent famous scenes from the story of the Buddha. On the east side, Yuima, a layman, is engaged in a religious dialogue with Monju, the bodhisattva of wisdom. On the north side, the Buddha is passing from this world into Nirvana, mourned by his weeping disciples.

The agonized faces of his devotees are depicted in the scene, as well as a doctor taking the Buddha’s pulse. The west side shows the division of the relics of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, when his remains were distributed among eight tribes after his death some 2,500 years ago. On the south side, Maitreya, the Buddha of the future known as Miroku Bosatsu in Japanese, has achieved enlightenment and is giving a sermon.

Daikodo, Lecture Hall

The Daikodo, or Lecture Hall, aligns through the center with the Nandaimon, or Great South Gate, and the Chumon, the Middle Gate along the main central axis. This is the only time the plan of the complex differs from the typical Chinese monastery plan, because usually all of the buildings are aligned symmetrically.

It is believed that the reason for offsetting the plans of the Kondo and pagoda was to allow the viewer to see both simultaneously, rather than as a sequence of buildings and because the proportions of the two buildings in addition to the colonnade offered a pleasing composition of varying heights and widths.

The Daikodo was rebuilt in 990 CE after the original was destroyed by fire. Inside it are two bodhisattva statues – Nikko and Gekko – either side of a figure of Yakushi Nyorai.

Kudarakan Nondo

The Great Treasure Gallery was built in 1998. The center of the building contains a hall which enshrines a statue of Kudara Kannon, and there are galleries to the east and west of the central hall. These two galleries house many important artifacts including a statue of Yumechigai Kannon, the Tamamushi no Zushi altar, the Lady Tachibana altar, and statues of Prince Shotoku. Photography is not allowed inside.

By this time the heat had taken a toll on us. We took shelter under the shade of large tree sipping on a chilled plum drink. After resting for a bit we began our exploration of the To-in area.

This internal gate links the Sai-in with the To-in area of the complex. It is a about a five-minute walk from the Western Precinct.

Shōrō Bellfry

The first interesting structure we came to face in the Eastern Precinct was the Bell House. It is constructed in a trapezoidal form known as hakamagoshi (spreading skirt). Within it hangs a Nara-period bell that has the words “Chūgū-ji” engraved on the inside, indicating that it has been in the possession of at least one other temple over its more than 1,000-year existence.


A few paces ahead, you can find the Chugu-ji, which was founded as a nunnery in the seventh century by Prince Shōtoku. Chūgū-ji used to be the palace of Hashihito, mother of Prince Shōtoku. After her death it was converted into a temple. Later, it was converted to a nunnery by the nun Shinnyo in the late Kamakura period. Originally standing three hundred metres to the east, it was moved to its present location in the Muromachi period. In this temple, there is a famous Miroku Buddha, which is designated as a national treasure.

Chugu-ji is a small temple but worth a visit for its elegant statue of a sitting Buddha, Hankashii Bosatsu, who crosses the right leg over the left and show a classic and gentle smile. From Chugu-ji, we moved towards the most popular building in the To-in area – Yumedono.

House of Dreams, Yumedono

Yumedono is one of the main constructions in the Tō-in area, built on the ground which was once Prince Shōtoku’s private palace, Ikaruga no miya, where he lived until his death in 622. The scholar-priest Gyoshin Sozu commissioned its construction in 739 as a monument to Prince Shōtoku. Octagonal wooden halls were adopted in Japan primarily for use as memorial chapels and the Hall of Dreams is one such example. I have been to one another in Yakushi-ji in Nara where the ashes of Hiuen Tsang, the Chinese Buddhist monk / traveler, have been laid to rest.

The Hall of Dreams derives its name from a legend that a golden Buddha once appeared to Prince Shotoku in a dream. The hall also contains the famous Kuse Kannon, which is only displayed twice a year for about a month each during the spring and fall. This seventh-century statue of Kuse Kannon is one of Hōryū-ji Temple’s most mysterious treasures.

After exploring a few more buildings surrounding the Yumedono, we were ready to leave the Hōryū-ji Temple complex.

After walking out of the temple complex, we went into the Heiso Hōryū-ji Store to try some Kakinoha Sushi. Kakinoha-zushi (or Persimmon leaves sushi) is different from what you may know as “sushi.” It is wrapped neatly like a present, and is a local cuisine inherited in Nara. Its history dates back to Edo period. In ancient times it used to be prepared only using mackerel. Today it comes with a variety of fish options. The Kakinoha-zushi served in Nara and Kyoto generally have mackerel or salmon.

Japanese legend says that Prince Shotoku, son of the emperor Yomei, built the temple so that he could pray for his father’s recovery from illness. Today, the temple can be identified as the headquarters of the “Shōtoku” sect, and is a popular site for pilgrimage.

As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hōryū-ji is also an attractive site for tourists. Excavations done in 1939 confirmed that Prince Shotoku’s palace, the Ikaruga-no-miya, occupied the eastern part of the current temple complex, where the Tō-in sits today.

By itself, the main complex of Hōryū-ji is a perfect example of the temple planning of the Asuka period. It incorporates much of Chinese planning and construction techniques, and the location placed it out in the plains away from the hustle and bustle of the city center of Nara.

According to the temple’s website, it is currently home to over 180 of Japan’s designated National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties, and was the first structure in Japan to become a World Heritage Site. Hōryū-ji also still holds frequent events in a variety of locations in the complex, and many of its structures are open to the public.

Thanks for reading! Please leave your comments if you enjoyed my story or follow me on my journey as I visit Nagasaki to understand the pain that shocked the entire world.

Who built Hōryū-ji

Prince Shotoku

When was Hōryū-ji built

607 CE

Admission Fees to enter Hōryū-ji

¥1,500 (Adults)

Timings for visiting Hōryū-ji

8:00 – 17:00 (Feb 22 – Nov 3)
8:00 – 16:30 (Nov 4 – Feb 21)

Hike to Uguisuno-taki Falls

I have been to Nara Park several times. The ever popular Tôdai-ji temple and Kasuga-Taisha shrine are always crawling with inquisitive tourists, but today Mani & I wander beyond these cultural landscapes into the Kasugayama Primeval Forest. The natural environment of Kasugayama is an integral yet invisible part of the shrines and temples in Nara Park. The park is so large you could easily wander into the Primeval Forest, without even knowing it.

Kasugayama Primeval Forest is a primeval forest spread over 250 hectares, near the summit of Kasugayama. It contains around 270 different kinds of trees. Hunting and logging have been prohibited in the sacred forest since 841 CE. As a result, the forest backdrop of the shrines that you see today have remained unchanged since the Nara period, retaining the authenticity in spirit and feeling from yesteryear.

I had been looking forward to hike to Uguisuno-taki Falls for some time now, but the wet weather in Nara kept preventing me. Eventually the rains gave way this week and we took the opportunity to hike up the Wakakusa mountain. After a quick meal at the college cafeteria, Mani & I walked towards Todaiji from where the trail starts.

The hike to the Falls is about 10 km round trip, from the base of Wakakusayama. You can find the trail somewhere between Todai-ji and Kasuga Taisha which leads into the woods. A signboard is present at the start of the trail, so it won’t be tough to find. 

None of the busybee tourists flock this trail. It was only after maybe half an hour that we we came upon a group of cheerful elderly ladies, trudging back towards the city. They greeted us with smiles and “Konnichiwa.” I always find the friendliest of people on hikes. Maybe its the mountain air or the excitement from conquering the hike. 

There are some Snake warning signs along the path so be careful.

Deep into the forest, we found some lovely looking Japanese beautyberry shrubs. It is a deciduous shrub, most notable for producing purple berries during fall. These fruits are not toxic but also not edible for humans. They serve as al alternative food to the birds and deer in the forest.

Halfway up the mountain the woods become thicker and the trees become taller. With the thick forest of pine trees surrounding me, I felt like a tiny little ant. There was silence all around us except for the sudden chirping of the birds. It was a welcome break from the increasing number of temples I had been visiting of late. The inside of the forest is dim even in the daytime as sunlight is not able to penetrate through the tall trees.

The waterfall lies at the northeastern end of the Kasugayama primeval forest. The fall does not lie along the main trail so you will have to follow the directions provided along the way. There are proper signs that will tell you once you have reached the exit point to get to the waterfall. From there you have to descend down from the main trail. The path becomes very narrow here and at some curves, are a bit tricky to negotiate in the wet mud. After about 15 minutes of descent, we reached the waterfall at around 2:30 pm.

Mobile internet services might be intermittent at several points of the trail

Uguisuno-taki Falls has been a popular local spot since the Edo period (1600-1868). It takes its name from the popular Uguisu bird, also known as the Japanese bush warbler. The Uguisu, with its camouflaged colors, is more often heard than seen. Its distinctive breeding call can be heard throughout most of Japan from the start of spring. Since the Edo Period, the Japanese have anticipated the first calls of the bush warbler as it heralds the coming of spring in Japan.

We spent some time at the base of the falls, capturing some photos of the surrounding area. It is not a grand waterfall. It would be about 8 meters in height and due to the season, the water was a little more of a trickle. However what is interesting is that the water flow never dries up here. Still it was a nice place to sit down and relax. The water at the base of the fall was very very cold.

By 3:30 pm we started our walk back. The way back was much faster. We were quickly out of the wooded area where the skies were much more visible. In the late afternoon, the Sun had sprayed the forest with a golden glow.

Once you are out of the woods, it feels quite pleasant walking on the pebbled path. Surprisingly I didn’t notice any deer in the area, though this isn’t very far from the Nara Park where they can be found loitering in abundance.

After walking for about an hour, we were back at Nara Park in front of the glowing, brown Wakakusayama, slated to be burned in a couple of weeks as part of the Yamayaki festival. Every winter on the fourth Saturday of January, Wakakusayama’s slopes are burned during the spectacular Wakakusa Yamayaki festival.

I love to be able to experience wilderness areas in peace.The Uguisuno-taki Falls is not a very big waterfall, but the hike alone is gratifying in itself. It is the only waterfall in the vicinity of Mt Kasuga. The trail to Uguisuno-taki continues beyond the waterfall and I hope we can come back another day to continue on that path and see where it goes.

Thank you for reading. Please leave me a comment or ask away if you need any information for hiking to the hidden waterfall.