Stone Pagoda Uji is on a small island in the Uji River. Uji is a city on the southern outskirts of the city of Kyoto.
Though the Tale of Genji—also called Genji Monogatari—is one of the first romantic fictions published, the location where the story was set is not the product of fantasy. Byodoin Temple in Uji, Kyoto is incredibly real and open for exploration. While recreating the adventures of Genji might not be doable, a stroll throughout the gardens, viewing the artifacts and national treasures will certainly become a highlight in any traveler’s trip through Japan.
Byodoin Temple History
The main temple was built in 1052 by the Regent Fujiwara no Yorimichi. His father, Michinaga, had gifted him with a villa, but Yorimichi decided to go bigger. Much bigger. Though the temple architecture utilizes the Jodo sect style, some variations were made to expand upon the grandeur. Various components echo Chinese design, like the curved roofs with resplendent bracketing and joinery.
In 1053, Amidado or Phoenix Hall (Hou-do) was completed. It is called Phoenix Hall because of the images of the mythical bird. Two phoenixes also adorn the outside ridgepoles of the hall as part of the theme. As for the name “Amida-do”—that pertains to the seated Amitabha Tathgata statue (also called Amida Nyorai). The famous sculptor of the Heian Period, Jocho, not only created this marvelous statue, he made it so it was the most extravagant of its time.
Fitting for a temple that is so visually breath-taking! The hall has also featured on the backside of the 10 yen coin since 1951. As if Byodoin wasn’t popular enough, in 1968 a half-sized replica of the temple was constructed in O’ahu, Hawaii, in the Valley of the Temples.
Surprisingly, numerous fires and natural calamities had destroyed much of the temple grounds over the years, but the Phoenix Hall remained unscathed. Hou-do is one of the rare surviving artifacts of the Heian period. Should you wish to learn more about the temple in depth, you can take a tour for 300 yen that will fill you in on the amazing history surrounding the Phoenix Hall.
Beneath the Hou-do is the treasure hall, a subterranean collection of important cultural property and displays written in multiple languages about Byodoin Temple’s remarkable past.
Unlike many temples and shrines around Japan, Byodoin is independent. A sole Buddhist sect is not responsible for maintaining the building. Rather, the Jodo-shu sect and the Tendai-shu sect manage the surroundings. The word “Byodo” in Japanese means “equal.” Because of the belief that everyone has equal opportunity to reach enlightenment, Byodoin adopted the word as its name.
Byodoin Temple World Heritage Site
Byodoin Temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and forms part of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Otsu Cities) listing. Byodoin Temple isn’t only a historical prize that has been preserved for over a thousand years, it is home to many national treasures. The first is Hou-do itself, because of the awe-inspiring paints on the walls and doors. There are also 52 wooden unchu kuyo bosatsu statues that you can find. These figures, made of lacquered wood and detailed with metallic foil, are said to depict Buddhist saints holding clouds. Many statues festooning the space also show saints dancing, playing instruments and holding sacred possessions. Though they surrounded the seated Nyorai Buddha, the sight of them is almost as stunning as the focal point of the room.
Jocho added unique details to many of these dancing and floating figures. A favorite is the monk poised on a cloud with his hands in prayer position. His folds in his clothing have been outlined with silvery foil that shifts in the light.
In the Kannon-do, the Buddhist temple section, you need to check out the wooden eleven-faced standing kannon statue.
Amida Nyorai Seated Statue
Located within the Hou-do, the statue is around 3 meters tall. The shimmering statue is lacquered wood covered in gilt. Wondering why the Amida Nyorai is elven-like ears and spiralling locks? The statue actually has over 32 physical features that separate it from any other Amida statue. These characteristics also define the pictured being as something divine and superhuman.
Another splendour is the Raigo paintings on the doors of Phoenix Hall. Because the paintings are one of the earliest examples of Yamato-e, they are something to behold.
The Temple Bell
One of the reasons for going to the temple is to study the carvings on the bell. The common bell will have the ryuzu, or dragonhead sculpture, that sits atop the bell facing in the opposite direction of the striking zone. Byodoin Temple’s bell has the dragonhead and striking zone facing the same way. Moreover, the bell is decorated with carvings of phoenixes and celestial beings amongst lotus flowers, save for the very top, which is studded. The balance of these images is so exquisite, you can get lost in them.
Byodoin Temple Gardens
A sliver of the Land of Happiness from Jodo-shu sect teachings right in the heart of Uji. The garden is not traditional Japanese but hints at Jodo-shiki. A large pond reflects the image of the temple, and there are dozens of trees and flowers throughout the area. The wisteria plants around the temple are over 250 years old. Getting the chance to view the blossoms in spring, along with the cherry blossoms and azaleas, is a wonderful treat.
Should your trip of Japan bring you to Kyoto for temple-going and other cultural experiences, Byodoin Temple needs to make an appearance on the travel itinerary. Not only are the grounds absolutely resplendent no matter the time of year, the area is highly accessible. You will learn a lot in the museum and see a truly unique temple that emanates the romance and beauty of the Heian period.