Japan Temples: Gakuen-ji Temple
Gakuen-ji Temple 鰐淵寺
Located high in the Kitayama mountains north of Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine in Izumo, Shimane Prefecture, Gakuen-ji was for centuries the biggest temple in Izumo Province. Though much reduced in size now and difficult to reach, Gakuen-ji is however well worth the effort to visit.
Gakuen-ji Temple's origins lie in the sixth century, which puts it among the oldest temples in the country.
During the reign of Empress Suiko, who ruled from 592 to 628, a monk, Chishun Shonin took water from the valley and used it to cure the Empress who was suffering from an eye disease. In gratitude she ordered the temple founded in 594. Another version of the legend, which actually seems more likely, is that Chishun prayed at the spot for the Empress's recovery.
The temple prospered and by the middle ages was a huge complex of buildings scattered around the steep mountain site. The most famous personage associated with Gakuenji at this time was Benkei, the strongman / warrior-monk famed as the companion of Yoshitsune and often compared to Little John of Robin Hood fame.
According to the story he spent a lot of time here undertaking ascetic training. A Benkei Festival is held every year at Gakuen-ji Temple in October to commemorate Benkei's journey from Daisenji Temple 100 kilometers away on Mount Daisen in Tottori from where he carried a heavy temple bell. This would seem to be a local version of the famous Benkei story from Kyoto wherein he carried a bell from a temple up to Enryakuji on Mount Hiei.
Though it is now much reduced in grandeur with only a handful of buildings remaining, and being in a difficult to reach location, Gakuenji is now starting to get more visitors, many of which are pilgrims.
Gakuenji is temple number three on the Izumo 33 Kannon Pilgrimage, an old pilgrimage route from before the Edo Period.
Gakuenji is also temple number 25 on the Chugoku 33 Kannon Pilgrimage, a much newer but much longer pilgrimage route. Finally Gakuenji is a part of the Izumonokuni Shinbutsu Reijyo a new pilgrimage route that combines 20 sacred sites in Izumo, both Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.
Even so, the chances are that you will encounter few, if any, other people on a visit outside of a sunny weekend, with the big exception being in late November when the grounds are crowded with thousands of visitors for the impressive display of autumn colors that fill the temple grounds and surrounding mountainsides.
From the car park, reached via a narrow and winding mountain road, its is still a ten minute walk along the cascading waters and steep cliffs of the narrow stream to the Niomon, the entrance gate containing a pair of fierce Nio, the temple guardians.
Just past here on the opposite side of the stream is the large and imposing priest's house. For many years uninhabited, a young priest has recently moved in and instigated an entrance fee that will hopefully raise enough funds to protect and preserve the remaining temple structures.
Gakuen-ji Temple is so remote, that some years ago while uninhabited, thieves drove a van in, broke open the treasure house and made off with some priceless statues. Worth noting at the priest's house is the Goseimon, a gate only for the use of members of the royal family or their emissaries. Crown Prince Naruhito visited here a few years ago.
After paying the entrance fee at the new ticket booth, and receiving the complimentary cup of tea, a long flight of steps lead up to the main hall. Up here is where most of the photographers will be in the fall colors season, overlooking the wooded valley surrounding the temple.
To the left of the main hall, behind a line of giant cedars, is an interesting shrine to Matarajin. A Chinese deity strongly associated with secret rituals of the Tendai sect to which Gakuenji belongs. The shrine was originally located in Izumo Taisha, but when all traces of Buddhism were removed from there in the seventeenth century in what is believed to be the first example in Japan of Shinbutsu Bunri, the separation of Buddhas and Kami, the shrine was disassembled and carried over the mountains and reconstructed here.
A final site worth visiting, and perhaps the most intriguing, is reached by a 500 meter path up through the forest. The Zao-do is a building clinging to the cliff face behind a waterfall. The pool down below is the origin of Gakuenji's name, gakuen being the Chinese reading of the characters that mean "crocodile pool" and according to the story Choshin accidentally dropped something in the pool and a crocodile rose up out of the water and returned it to him.
Access - Getting to Gakuen-ji
The easiest way to reach Gakuen-ji is by car. From either Matsue or Izumo Taisha take Route 431 to Hirata and then take Route 250 towards the coast at Uppurui Bay. It is well signed from there.
It is possible to take a bus from Unshuhirata station on the Ichibata Railway to the bottom of the mountain, and there are occasional buses to the village part way up towards the temple. The best way to reach it is by walking along the Chugoku Nature Trail, a well marked and maintained path that runs through Shimane. The trail from Gakuen-ji heads towards Izumo Taisha to the west or towards Ichibata Temple to the east.
There is a 500 yen entrance fee if the ticket booth is manned.
148 Besshocho, Izumo, Shimane 691-0022
Tel: 0853 66 0250