Yoshino Kimpusan-ji : Must Visit one of the Oldest Temples in Japan, Yoshino Nara


Now, my love talk on Mt. Yoshino in Nara Prefecture continues, but this time, I would like to talk about Kinpusen-ji Temple, which is said to be the centre of Mt. Yoshino’s faith.

During my study of the Master’s of Fine Arts degree, I was researching Japanese religious beliefs and traditional Japanese colours.

Most of the Japanese colours have traditionally named from the expression of the grace of nature.

Thus, I decided to visit in Kyoto for shooting autumn leaves for my artwork project. However, while I was researching, I have found this Yoshino area too. Then I was more interested in the spiritual aspects of ancient religion.

Luckily, when I was planning to visit Yoshino, I found a special autumn event for night service at the Kinpusen-ji Temple. Only twice a year, spring and autumn, they open the principal deities to the public. Usually, those deities are prohibited from visitors.

Well, I thought, I really must go!
It’s Shugendo temple. And night service with only candles in the second-largest wooden structure temple!!

You have no idea how I was excited to join this service when I found about it.

And I must tell you, I am fascinated by Shugendo too.

However, I must introduce about Shugendo anyway. If you don’t know about it, it’s quite hard to imagine why it is so special.

What are Shugendo and history of Kimpusan-ji?

Yoshino Kimpusan-ji
Photo credit: Kimpu-makie from Kimpusan temple website
Yoshino Kimpusan-ji

When I introduce Mt. Yoshino, I think the most famous image it is cherry blossoms, approximately 30,000 cherry trees.

But I haven’t been to cherry blossom season yet. I don’t know how beautiful the cherry trees on Mt. Yoshino are, and I do not think that the beauty of the cherry trees will not well represent by photos unless I see them with my own eyes.

I am eager to go to the cherry blossoms in the future. However, Mt. Yoshino originally began as a mountain practice religion before the cherry blossoms.

Anyhow, it’s quite essential to know the history of the place, where you are going to visit, rather than not only from Wiki page. I translate the history from the Kimpusen-ji Temple’s website to refer more.

The area from Mt. Yoshino, Yamato Province, to Mt. Omine-san Jogatake was formerly known as Kimpusen, a well-known sacred area from ancient times.

In Mt. Kimpusen, EN no Gyoja Jinhen Daibosatsu enters ascetic practices in the late 7th century and is given the Kongozao Daigongen, the principal deity of Shugendo.

EN no Gyoja carved the deity into a mountain cherry tree, and the statue is enshrined at Mt. Sanjogatake (currently the main hall of Ominesan-ji Temple) and Mt. Yoshino, now the Zao-do main hall of Kimpusen-ji Temple.

It is said to be the founding of Kimpusen-ji Temple. But in 1874, Shugendo was banned by the Meiji Government, and Kimpusen-ji Temple was temporarily closed.

Then Kimpusen-ji Temple was reestablished as a one of the Tendai Sect Buddhist temple. In 1948, the Kimpusen Shugen Honshu sect was founded mainly in Zao-do Hall (National Treasure) and had been its grand head temple to this day.

The sango (literally, “mountain name”), which is the title prefixed to the name of a Buddhist temple, is Kokujikusan (Mt. Kokujiku) and is the central mountain in the universe.

In 2004, as one of the “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range,” the main hall of Kinpusen-ji Temple, Zao-do Hall and Nio-mon Gate were registered as UNESCO’s World Heritage Site.

金峰山寺 http://www.kinpusen.or.jp/guide/index.html

What is Shugendo? The Unique Ancient religion in Japan.

Photo credit: Mitsumasa Tateishi by Shugendo Wiki

Now, Yoshino is said to be the birthplace of Shugendo, but here I want to explain Shugendo.

Shugendo is a unique Japanese religion in which Buddhism is incorporated into the ancient Japanese mountain worship, which aims to attain enlightenment through ascetic practices in the mountains.

I think it’s probably better to refer to Kimpusan-ji’s website which explains about Shugendo well, but it’s my translate.

Shugendo is establised as a unique Japanese folk religion that was founded by mixing ancient Japanese mountain worship with Shinto, foreign concept Buddhism. However, its centre is practical.
As can be seen in the expression of practice and experiments, but it can be said that it is a way to break into Miyama Yukoku Valley, to train oneself, to develop spiritual power.
En no Gyoja, who is known as the founder of Shugendo, said, “Ascetic practice is most important during tough times. If you are distracted by your own suffering, you will be the one who delivers the results.”

To do so is to master the doctorin of En no Gyoja, and to attain Gensho is not simply to acquire power and divine protection, but to ultimately to achieve the enhancement of one’s mind (aspiration for Buddhahood). It can be said that the way to experience and enhance the spirit of each by one’s own body is a kind lesson for all.

Besides, EN no Gyoja is called “En no Ubasoku” because he was able to stay at home all his life, but Shugendo maintains the principle of zaike (living at their own home) based on the tradition of the founder. Ubasoku is a lay believer. In other words, Shinzoku Ikkan, a way to live in Buddhism while maintaining the lifestyle of lay believers, and Shugendo’s principal doctrin belongs here.

I personally am fascinated by Shugendo. I don’t know why but if I were a man, I definitely would do this Shugendo practice! And if there is such a thing as a past-life, I might have done then.

I feel so excited when I see them doing chanting sutra.

Special night service within candles is a spectacular experience!

Yoshino Kimpusan-ji
Photo credit from : Kimpusanji-website

OK, about chanting a sutra. I should explain about the deity of this temple here for a start.

The Zao-do Hall is the second oldest wooden building in Japan, in which the temple’s main deity, Kingo-Zaio-Gongen, is enshrined.

The temple’s deity, Kongo Zao Daigongen, has three statues enshrined in the main hall, Zao-do. This door is usually closed, so you can’t see it on a regular visit. However, the curtain will be opened twice a year, once in spring and autumn as a night service with only candles’ lights.

I have joined this special night service twice, once with my friend and another time was with my husband.

Again, I attach the explanation in English about Kimpusan-ji deity in English by my translation.

Firstly I introduce the reference from Kimpusan-ji website:

The principal deity enshrined at Kinpusen-ji Temple is Kongo Zao Daigongen. More than 1,300 years ago, EN no Gyoja entered 1,000 days of training on Mt. Kimpusen Uegatake and was deeply moved by Gongen-butsu.
Gongen means to appear temporarily, and the original Buddha’s Shaka Nyorai represents the past, Senju Kannon represents the present, and Miroku Bosatsu represents the future.
It appeared by vowing to save the living things from the past, present and future three generations.
Kimpusan-ji website: http://www.kinpusen.or.jp/niomon/index.html

The Zao-do Hall is the second oldest wooden building in Japan, in which the temple’s principal image, Gongen-sama, is enshrined.

The Zao-do Hall is the second oldest wooden building in Japan, in which the temple’s principal image, Gongen-sama, is enshrined.

Just Spectacular, You will Never Experience Elsewhere!

Yoshino Kimpusan-ji

I participated in this night viewing in the autumn of 2012.
When I first-time stay at the Yukawaya-Inn, the managing director told me to go there about 15 minutes before at 8 pm then we could sit right in front of the monks.

It was just spectacular, and then I really wanted my husband to come with me one day.

Then I took my husband there with me in 2014. Everyone, gather quietly in front of the main hall, Zao-do Hall, and wait until they come in two rows followed by one of the monks. We were there 15 minutes before as we directed by Yukawaya’s manager, Yamamoto-san.

Then we took off our shoes in turn and sit in front of Gongen. We could sit down just in front of where the monks would chant (thank you Yamamoto-san, you were right, you should sit in front!).

At first, the sutra started quietly. Then the gong of the dora sounded, and then they brew the horagai (Snail shell). Gradually, the sutra is stronger like transformed into suitable for mountain worship than the ordinary Buddhist sutra chanting.

You can feel the mountain worship practice voice, it expressing Shugendo’s hardness, toughness and power in their chanting sutra. It’s totally different from Zen sutra. It’s rare to be so nervous with listening to the sutra.

It was just incredible experience that you were in a totally different world.

My husband was just impressed, and during the service, he whispered to me, “Fxxking awesome!! MY FXXKING GOD!!”, so many times.

We off course sat right in front of the deities.

Again, it’s just spectacular!

During the night service, there was a mank’s sermon, and he described the Gongen deity;

“Gongen-sama mourns the world’s evil and has appeared in such a scary manner to warn people. Firstly, Gongen-sama appeared as Shaka Nyorai with a soft face, but his figure told people that it would not affect people in this world. So then Senju Kannon appeared next time, but it was not appropriate again. And when En no Gyoja wanted Buddha to beat away evil more strongly to Miroku Bosatsu who appeared next time. Finally, the earth cracked and thunder appeared at sight was called ‘Zao Gongen.”

Indeed, the wind seemed to blow up a cloak, his brows and eyes were lifted up, his teeth, his hair was red and upright, and the sight of an enormous Buddha standing with a red flame on his back, all raised in the light of a candle was indescribable.

Spectacular moring service
Except for the special night services period, it is possible to participate in the morning service. These night services are only available twice a year but still, attend the daily morning service. You can freshen up in the morning with powerful mountain worship Shugendo sutra chanting.

Quiet and Private Morning Sutra is Still Special!

Yoshino Kimpusan-ji

The morning sutra practice opens every morning even for high seasons in the spring and autumn. And I also went with my best friend in Japan in low season, late summer. It was raining on this day, and there were just her and me.

I also sprained my ankle so that I couldn’t sit on the floor. We sat in a chair and participated. There was not powerful than night service, but I felt the chanting of the sutra in a loud voice was still magnificent.

I recommend that you go to this morning’s sutra practice, and you don’t need to make any reservations, and anyone can attend it.

I hope this article makes you interested in Yoshino where preserves Japan’s ancient religious perspective powerfully, which you would never experience elsewhere.

I prefer Yoshino than Kyoto for this point, as well as my husband really wants to go back in the spring one day.