Hieizan Enryakuji is the head temple of the Tendai sect of Buddhism in Japan, and its vast temple area stretches out across Mt. Hiei. The temple is said to have been founded in 785, at the end of the Nara Period, by a monk named Saicho (767-822), who scaled Mt. Hiei and erected a small hut. Enryakuji is an extremely prestigious temple that has reigned supreme in the Japanese religious world for some 1,200 years and has produced founders and high priests of each sect of Japanese Buddhism.
Saicho, the founder of the Tendai sect of Buddhism, was born in 767 in present-day Otsu City, Shiga Prefecture. At the age of 14, he was initiated as a monk and given the name "Saicho." He then traveled to the capital at the time, Nara, and devoted himself to rigorous asceticism and study. After undertaking the full monastic precepts, Saicho became a fully ordained monk in the official temple system but he abandoned the path of advancement at a large temple. In 804, while continuing his training on Mt. Hiei, Saicho decided to go to China to study the Tendai Doctrine in more depth. Upon his return to Japan, Saicho worked hard to spread the Tendai teaching based on the "Lotus Sutra" that all people can become Buddhas. As a result, in 806, two monks were authorized by the state and the Tendai sect was officially recognized. After his death, Saicho was given the posthumous title "Dengyo Daishi" by Emperor Seiwa. "Daishi" means "great leader who teaches and guides others" and this marked the first time in Japanese history that someone was honored with such a title.
Enryakuji is not a single structure, but rather the collective name for around 100 halls scattered throughout 1,700 hectares within Mt. Hiei. The mountain is divided into three areas: "East Pagoda" in the east, "West Pagoda" in the west, and "Yokawa" in the north—each with its own main hall. East Pagoda is the birthplace of Enryakuji and is centered around the Konpon Chudo, the root main hall of the temple. The Konpon Chudo is the largest of all the Buddhist halls contained in the East Pagoda, West Pagoda, and Yokawa, and is the main building of Enryakuji. It was originally built in 788 by Enryakuji's founder, Saicho, as the Ichijyoshikanin Temple, and enshrines Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of healing and medicine, as its principal deity. Other significant buildings in the East Pagoda include the main lecture hall, which enshrines the ancestors of the various sects of Buddhism.
West Pagoda is the area centering on the main hall, Shakado (Tenpōrin-dō). Shakado is the oldest existing structure in Enryakuji and is designated as a National Important Cultural Property. Originally the main hall of Enjoji in Mii Temple, Shakado was relocated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1595. Other structures include Jodoin, a mausoleum for Enryakuji's founder, Saicho, and Hokkedo (Ninai-do), a hall for ascetic practices.
Yokawa is the area centering on the main hall of Yokawa Chudo. Yokawa Chudo, is characterized by its stage construction giving it the overall appearance of a floating boat. The Yokawa area is also the location of Shiki Kodo (Gensan Daishi Hall), which is said to be where omikuji (fortune-telling papers) originated, as well as a building called Keishindo, where Monk Genshin, author of "Ojoyoshu," an influential medieval Buddhist text, lived in seclusion.
Getting there and around
Train to Kyoto
From JR Tokyo Station, take the Tokaido Shinkansen to JR Kyoto Station (approx. 2 hours and 18 min.)
From JR Nagoya Station, take the Tokaido Shinkansen to JR Kyoto Station (approx. 36 min.)
From Kyoto to Mt. Hiei
From JR Kyoto Station, take the JR Nara Line to Tofukuji Station. Transfer to the Keihan Main Line and get off at Demachiyanagi Station. Transfer to the Eizan Line and get off at Yase-Hieizanguchi Station. Transfer to the Eizan Cable Car and Ropeway and arrive at Mt. Hiei Summit Station.
Take Keihan Bus (Mt. Hiei Drive Bus) from Kyoto Station (65-70 min.)
Hieizan Enryakuji was registered as a World Heritage Site in 1994 and is one of the components of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto. The temple is highly regarded for its 1,200-year history and traditions, and along with Kiyomizu Temple and the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, is considered a World Heritage Site. Many buildings that comprise Enryakuji, including the national treasure, Konpon Chudo, are designated as Important Cultural Properties.
Arts and Crafts
Kokuho-den stores and exhibits numerous Buddhist statues, paintings, calligraphy, and other cultural properties that have been passed down at Enryakuji through the generations. Many of the items in storage are designated national treasures or important cultural properties of Japan, so a visit to Kokuho-den is bound to offer an intriguing insight into Enryakuji's history.
Temples & Shrines
Ruri-do is the only building on Mt. Hiei that escaped being burned down by Oda Nobunaga during his siege on the mountain. Its main deity is Yukushi Nyorai, the Buddha of healing and medicine. Ruri-do is said to have been built in the late Muromachi Period (1336-1573), and its architectural style is characterized by the Tang style, a rarity on Mt Hiei. Ruri-do is designated an Important Cultural Property of Japan.
If you are planning to visit Mt. Hiei by cable car or ropeway route, we recommend purchasing the "Hieizan Free Pass." This pass provides you with unlimited rides on the Eizan Railway (Demachiyanagi Station to Yase Hieizanguchi), Eizan Cable Car and Ropeway, Hieizan Shuttle Bus (travels between Mt. Hiei and Yokawa), Sakamoto Cable Car and Ejaku Bus (Cable Sakamoto Station to Hieizan Sakamoto Station) for one day and access to the many parts of Enryakuji Temple. Hieizan Free Pass is excellent value for money compared to purchasing individual tickets.