Rokuharamitsu-ji, a Shingon sect temple, is off the main tourist trail but it well-worth visiting for its superb collection of Heian and Kamakura period sculptures, some of them carved by the master craftsman Unkei (circa 1150-1223) and his sons.
Rokuharamitsu-ji, which translates as "Practice of Perfection in the Six Realms of Existence" is the 17th temple on the 33 temple Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage.
Rokuharamitsu-ji was founded in 951 to pray for recovery from an epidemic by Kuya (903-972), an itinerant monk active among the poor. Kuya was said to be the second son of the Emperor Daigo and was known for his dances of joy while repeating the name of the Amida Buddha (Nembutsu).
The temple was situated at a crossroads called Rokudo no Tsuji at the western edge of what was once Kyoto's largest cemetery, the Toribeno. The temple would tend to the bodies of the poor, who were dumped at the entrance to the cemetery, as their families had not the means for cremation and burial within.
The temple and surrounding area prospered after the powerful Taira (Heike) clan established its military base and clan mansions in the vicinity. However with the defeat of the Taira by their rivals the Genji (Minamoto) clan in 1183, the whole area, including the temple, was burnt to the ground.
Rokuharamitsu-ji was rebuilt, but on a much smaller scale than before, a fraction of its previous size.
The temple later enjoyed the favor of the powerful warlords, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, but with the promotion of Shinto at the expense of Buddhism at the beginning of the Meiji Period, Rokuharamitsu-ji fell into disrepair until the buildings were completely renovated in 1969.
Rokuharamitsu-ji Temple consists of various buildings including the Hondo (Main Hall), Kannon-do (Kannon Hall) and the Treasure House. Parts of the Hondo are thought to date from 1363, making it one of the oldest buildings in the Gion area.
The small garden holds a statue of Kannon and at the northern edge of the temple grounds is a shrine dedicated to mizuko ("water children" who died at birth) and their guardian Jizo.
A stone lantern in the grounds references the tragic story of the Taira general Kagekiyo and his lover, the courtesan, Akoya. Akoya killed her two children and herself, after Kagekiyo refused to believe she was innocent of his betrayal to his Minamoto enemies.
Rokuharamitsu-ji Images & Sculptures
The main image or honzon at Rokuharamitsu-ji is an Eleven-headed statue of Kannon, said to have been carved by Kuya himself. It is shown only once every 33 years with the last time in 2003.
The Treasure House holds a number of important statues by the master sculptor Unkei and his sons. Chief among them is the Nembutsu Kuya, by Unkei's fourth son Kosho, depicting Kuya, wearing straw sandals, carrying an antler-topped staff and beating a metal gong. From his mouth issue six small Amida figures on a wire representing the six kanji of the chant "Namu Amida Butsu" (南無阿弥陀仏; I take refuge in Amida Buddha).
Other statues depict Taira no Kiyomori, the leader of the Taira clan dressed as a monk, a 10th century image of Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of Healing and statues of Unkei and his eldest son Tankei carved by Unkei.
An 11th century standing image of Jizo holds a coil of real hair referencing the story of a woman who offered her hair in lieu of payment for prayers to heal her sick daughter. A petition that was successful.
Rokuharamitsu-ji Temple Access
Rokuharamitsu-ji (in Japanese)
Kyoto 605 0813
Tel: 075 561 6980
Open 8 am to 5pm.
Entrance to the Treasure House is 600 yen.
Buses #100 (Raku Bus), #12, #46, #202, #206 and #207 all pass by Gion.
A visit to Rokuharamitsu-ji can be combined with trips to Maruyama Park, Ryozen Kannon, Kodaiji Temple, Yasaka Shrine and Kiyomizudera. The Okazaki museum area and Heian Shrine are to the north across Sanjo dori.
Kiyomizu-Gojo on the Keihan Main Line is the nearest rail station.
Rokuharamitsu-ji's main festivals include Obukucha on January 1-3, when tea made from plums and seaweed is served, referencing Kuya's dispensing of the healing tea during the epidemic that led to the temple's founding. Other important events take place in August with prayers connected with the Daimonji Festival and in December when there is a recreation of Kuya's ecstatic dance (空也踊躍念仏厳修), classified as an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property.
Further information on Rokuharamitsu-ji can be found at sacredjapan.com