Dojoji Temple

Japan Temples: Dojoji Temple, Kii Peninsula

Dojoji Temple & Legends 道成寺

Jake Davies

Dojoji is an ancient Buddhist temple located in Hidakagawa, now part of Gobo city on the Kii Peninsula in Wakayama Prefecture.

Though it is a very old temple, founded in the early 8th century, and has some highly ranked statues and artworks, what makes it a notable place to visit and in fact why it's a household name, is a story connected to the temple made famous as a Noh, Kabuki, and Bunraku play, titled Musume Dojoji, or simply Dojoji.

Dojoji Temple, Wakayama, Japan.
Entrance steps leading up to the Niomon gate at Dojoji Temple, Wakayama Prefecture
Dojoji Temple, Wakayama, Japan.
A priest at Dojoji Temple retelling the legend of Dojoji using emaki

History of Dojoji Temple

The classic tale with supernatural elements is one of a spurned woman taking revenge and over the years has evolved many variations but all are based on the two main characters of a Buddhist priest named Anchin and a beautiful maiden named Kiyohime.

The oldest known version of the story is in a collection of Buddhist "miracle stories" from the early 11th century called Honcho Hokke Reigenki.

The Noh play Dojoji was based on an earlier and longer piece called Kanemaki in the 14th century, and is considered one of the great Noh plays though it is unsure who wrote it.

It is also very unusual for a Noh play, as it has a large on-stage prop - a giant bell. In the 17th century with the establishment of the new performing art of kabuki, the noh story was adapted and quickly became very popular even up until today.

Many variations and parodies also ensued. Bunraku puppet theatre was also established in the Edo Period, and used many of the same stories as kabuki in its repertoire, but whereas kabuki was based in the cities, bunraku travelled around more remote villages.

There are three different bunraku plays based on the Dojoji legend. However, the version of the story I relate below comes from none of these theatrical versions, rather from a version put down in the 15th century, known as Dojoji Engi, and in the form of emaki, picture scrolls.

Emaki have been in use since the 11th century, unrolled from right to left, a sequence of pictures, often with text, were used to "read" a story, and were used by priests to sermonize and to teach a largely illiterate population. Here is a synopsis of the story.

Dojoji Temple, Wakayama, Japan.
Ema (votive tablets) with pictures of Kiyohime and Kami Naga Hime, Wakayama Prefecture
Dojoji Temple, Wakayama, Japan.
National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties on display at Dojoji Temple

Dojoji Story

In 928 a young, handsome, monk by the name of Anchin was on pilgrimage to Kumano in the south of the Kii Peninsula. In the mountains between Dojoji and Kumano he was invited to stay the night in the home of the village headman who had a beautiful daughter named Kiyohime who became infatuated with Anchin and begged him to stay with her.

Anchin insisted that he must continue on with his pilgrimage, but to appease her he promised that on his return journey he would once again come and stay at her home. Some time later however, she heard from some travellers that Anchin had bypassed her village on his return journey and she became enraged to the extent that her face took on the appearance of a serpent and she chased after him.

Dojoji Temple, Wakayama, Japan.
Heian Period statue of Senju Kannon, Dojoji Temple

When Anchin crossed the Hidaka River he heard of Kiyohime's pursuit and asked the ferryman to not carry her across, but when she reached the banks her anger increased and she transformed completely into a giant serpent and swam across.

By now Anchin had reached Dojoji Temple and begged the priests to hide him. They suggested he hide inside the big bronze temple bell, but when the serpent arrived she wrapped herself around the bell, burst into flames and heated the bell till it was red hot and Anchin was burned to a crisp. She then committed suicide.

The postscript to the story is that the head priest at Dojoji had a dream in which two "angels" appeared and told him they were reincarnations of Anchin and Kiyohime. They then flew off in opposite direction indicating that their relationship was severed.

I chose this version of the story because if you visit Dojoji nowadays you can see a "performance" of the story being told using a copy of the original picture scrolls. If you contact them in advance they can even provide it in English. It is also possible to see the same thing with a lesser known legend-tale connected with founding of  Dojoji Temple, the Legend of the Long Haired Princess, Kami Naga Hime.

Dojoji Temple, Wakayama, Japan.
Hondo (Main Hall) of Dojoji Temple, built in 1347

At some time in the late 7th century a baby girl was born to a local fishing family. The baby girl was born with no hair, and no matter what the parents did to try to alleviate the situation none would grow.

Around the same time a strange light appeared in the sea off the coast and from then on the fishing boats always returned empty. Thinking that the appearance of the light and the daughter's strange condition were related, the mother went off to investigate and discovered a tiny statue of the Buddhist Goddess Kannon at the bottom of the sea.

She took it home and began praying to the statue everyday, and lo and behold the baby girl's hair began to grow and grow, and grow until she became a beautiful maiden with very long, black hair.

Stories of her beauty reached as far as the capital and a courtier, Fuhito Fujiwara invited her to the capital whereupon he adopted her into his family and she was given the name Miyako Fujiwara.

In 697 she became a consort to Emperor Mommu, the 42nd, and subsequently gave birth to a son who would become the 45th, Emperor Shomu. Emperor Mommu ordered the establishment of Dojoji in 701.

Many visitors come to Dojoji to see the sites made famous in the Dojoji legends, but many come in spring as the temple now has the reputation as the first place in Wakayama where the cherry blossoms arrive.

The statue of Kannon is a "Hidden Buddha", only being shown to the public for 33 days once every 33 years. The temple is home to numerous other statues dating back to the Heian Period, three of which are registered as National Treasures, the rest being Important Cultural Properties. The Treasure Hall where these and other objects are on display is quite unusual in that everything is well lit and photography is allowed.

The oldest extant building is the Main Hall, dating back to 1347. The Niomon (guardian gate) was built in 1694, and the three-story pagoda in 1763.

Dojoji Temple, Wakayama, Japan.
Three-storey Pagoda at Dojoji Temple, built in 1763

1738 Kanemaki, Hidakagawacho
Wakayama 649-1331
Tel: 0738-22-0543
info[at] (English OK)

The temple grounds are free to enter 24 hours a day. From 9am to 5pm, every day of the year.

There is a 600 yen entry fee to enter the Treasure Hall and to listen and watch an etoki, a telling of a story using the emaki picture scrolls.

Access - how to get to Dojoji

Dojoji Temple is a five minute walk from Dojoji Station on the JR Kisei Line.

It is about two hours from Osaka from Tennoji Station via Gobo Station from where it is 2 minutes on the Kinokuni Line train to Dojoji or 1 hour from Wakayama city also with a change in Gobo.

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