Sanjusangendo 三十三間堂

You know that feeling,when you’re doing something or you’re going somewhere and you can’t help but feel like you’re being watched? Imagine that – times a thousand. And one.

Sanjusangendo (Hall of 33 Pillars) is a part of the Tendai school of Buddhism, which is itself apart of Mahayana. The Hall itself is dedicated to Kannon, the goddess of mercy, and was commissioned by cloistered emperor Go-Shirakawa, but supported by Taira-no-Kiyomori. He was known as the first samurai to attain noble status and basically manipulated the Emperor to get promoted, turn said emperor’s son’s against him and showed nepotism by putting close relatives and allies in important government roles. He died in 1181 from a high fever, with legend saying his body was so hot that anyone attempting to get close to him would be burned. The Taira would be defeated in the Gempei War four years after his death, upsurped by the Minamoto clan.

The principal statue of Kannon sits in the centre of the hall, but most of the amazement comes from the 1000 statues flanking both her left and right. There are 500 statues either side of her, organised in ten rows of fifty, all identical despite being carved over a period of 100 years. The father-son team Unkei and Tankei were tasked with building the statues, along with the students of their school. Kannon’s seated image is confirmed to be a work of Unkei, and is considered one of his best (not bad considering he was an octogenarian at the time). The statues are carved of sacred cyprus wood, lacquered and were pieced together before being covered in gold leaf. All of them are Important National Treasures and Cultural Properties. 124 statues were made in the 12th century, and the remaining were carved after renovations, when the temple suffered a fire.

In front of the statues are 28 buddhist deities which can be linked to those in Hinduism, including Fuujin (wind) and Raijin (thunder). Most of these were carved in the Kamakura period, and are scarily realistic. These 28 are believed to guard Kannon and those who follow her. So don’t try anything funny – they are equipped with swords and death stares.

Sanjusangendo is also famous for an archery compeition called Toshiya. In old times, archers would come to the temple to show off their archery prowess by shooting arrows down the length of the temple to hit the target. Some competitions went on for 24 hours, with hundreds of thousands of arrows being fired. Some of the pillars still have pock-marks in them. Toshi-ya is still held on Coming of Age Day, when young women dressed in their best hakama would participate.

Unfortunately photography is forbidden inside the hall, so I don’t have any images to share. But believe me when I say that the it’s worth a visit. Yes it’s crowded but the sheer amazement of all these statues in one place makes up for it.

Sanjusangendo is closest to Shichijo Station on the Keihan Line and directly across the road from the Kyoto National Museum.

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