Yoshino Kinpusenji: An Incredible Must-Visit Ancient Temple in Nara

The Yoshino mountain is basically a sacred mountain and a place of religious significance in Japan, as I have written in a previous article about why you should visit Yoshino. In this article, I’d like to share my extraordinary experiences at Kinpusanji Temple, which is the centre of faith on Mt. Yoshino.

During my Master of Fine Arts degree studies, I was researching Japanese religious beliefs and traditional Japanese colours. Thus, I was particularly interested in the spiritual aspects of ancient religion and the basic knowledge of Japanese religious practices, which I hadn’t been taught in school in Japan.

As part of my research, I decided to visit Kyoto to capture autumn leaves for my artwork project. However, during my research, I came across the Yoshino area as well.

Luckily, when I was planning to visit Yoshino, I came across a special autumn event for the night service at Kinpusen-ji Temple. Only twice a year, in spring and autumn, they open the principal deities to the public. Usually, these deities are off-limits to visitors except for these special occasions.

Well, I thought, I really must go! Kinpusenji Temple is a Shugendo temple, that combines Shinto and Buddhism, and the night service involves mountain practices. The service was held with only candles in the second-largest wooden structure temple in Japan.

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

And I must tell you, I am fascinated by Shugendo as well.

Discover why Nara Yoshino should be your next destination over Kyoto. Explore the hidden gem of Yoshino, only 2 hours by train from Nara city centre. Uncover its rich history, breathtaking scenery, and why it’s a must-visit on your Japan itinerary.

What is Shugendo And The History Of Kinpusen-ji?

Mt. Yoshino is located in Nara, approximately a 2-hour train ride from Nara city, but you may arrive faster if you take the express train. Mt. Yoshino is famous for its cherry blossoms, with approximately 30,000 cherry trees. During the cherry blossom season, many people visit here, making it the high season. I haven’t been there yet, but I hope to visit during the cherry blossom season soon.

Mt. Yoshino’s history is quite old, and let me share a bit from the Kinpusenji website here:

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.

Kinpusenji 金峰山寺 website

What is Shugendo?

I also found some explanations of Shugendo here, which I then translated into English.

Shugendo is a unique Japanese religion blending nature worship with Buddhism, Taoism, and Onmyodo. Derived from the practices of ascetic training (“shu”) and experience acquisition (“gen”), it involves intense ascetic practices in mountains to attain supernatural abilities, viewing everything as sacred. It aims to reclaim ancient spiritual power by venerating nature. Yoshino, a significant historical site, was strongly influenced by Shugendo, driving many pivotal events in Japan’s history.

Translated by Google: 吉野ビジターズビューロー

I’m personally fascinated by Shugendo. When I visited the temple and attended the night services or morning service (I went with my best mate in late summer, so there was no night service), I felt really excited and strangely connected. If past lives exist, I’m sure I was one of them (must have been a man then).

Special Candlelit Night Service: A Spectacular Experience!

The primary structure of Kinpusenji Temple, known as the Zaodo, holds the designation of National Treasure.

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

Inside the Zao-do hall, three statues of the temple’s deity, Kongo Zao Daigongen, are enshrined. These three structures sit there and are closed off by huge doors during regular visits. However, it is opened at least twice a year, once in spring and once in autumn, for special night services illuminated only by candlelight or during Kinpusenji’s special occasions.

I have participated in this special night service twice, once with my Australian friend and another time with my husband. I have attached my translation of the explanation about the Kimpusan-ji deity in English, sourced from the 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.

Old version of Kimpusan-ji website (new version is here: http://www.kinpusen.or.jp/english/)

I participated in this night viewing in the autumn of 2012. When I first stayed at the Yukawaya Ryokan, the managing director, Mr. Yamamoto, told me to go there around 7:45 pm, 15 minutes before the 8:00 pm start, so we could sit right in front of the monks. He was right; it was the best place to sit, and it was simply spectacular, blowing my mind away. At that time, I wished my husband was there with me to share that incredible moment.

Then I took my husband there with me in 2014. Everyone gathered quietly and queued up in two rows, just like the first time, at 7:45 pm in front of the main Zao-do Hall as directed by Yamamoto-san. Then at 8:00 pm, we went in followed by a monk very quietly.

We took off our shoes at the front and sat in front of the three Gongen statues, just in front of the monks who were going to chant (thank you, Yamamoto-san, you were right; it’s the best position to sit!).

At first, a few of the monks blew the horagai (a large snail shell), and the sutra started quietly. Then the gong of the dora sounded, and again they blew the horagai. Gradually, the sutra grew stronger and faster, transforming into a style more suited for mountain worship than the ordinary slow and gentle Buddhist sutra chanting.

We could feel the voices of mountain worship practice, expressing Shugendo’s toughness and spiritual power in their sutra chanting. It was a stark contrast to the normal Zen sutra chanting heard in other temples. You may feel a bit of anxiety or nervousness listening to this sutra.

It was an incredible experience that transported you to a completely different world!

My husband was thoroughly impressed (though he couldn’t sit in the kneeling position, so he sat cross-legged and actually if you can’t sit in kneeling, you have to sit right back with a chair). During the service, he whispered to me, “Fxxking awesome!! MY FXXKING GOD!!”, so many times hahaha.

I replied to him, ‘I told you so!’ every single time he whispered.

During the night service, the monk delivered a sermon describing the Gongen deity:

“Gongen-sama manifests to admonish the world’s wickedness, appearing in a frightening guise as a warning. Initially, Gongen-sama appeared as Shaka Nyorai with a gentle countenance, but the form conveyed that it would not adequately influence people in this world. Subsequently, Senju Kannon appeared, yet this manifestation proved inadequate as well. Upon En no Gyoja’s request for a more forceful expulsion of evil, Miroku Bosatsu appeared. Finally, the earth cracked open, and thunder resounded, marking the appearance of ‘Zao Gongen.’

Indeed, the wind appeared to lift his cloak, his brows and eyes were raised, his teeth and hair stood upright and red, and the sight of an enormous Buddha standing with a red flame on his back, all illuminated by candlelight, was indescribable.

Daily Morning Service Is Still Special

At the third visit, the night service was unavailable outside of special occasions. However, we were able to join the daily morning sutra practice, which is open to everyone. Thus, we woke up a bit early and went with my best friend in Japan in 2018 during late summer. Since I had sprained my ankle before coming to Japan, I couldn’t sit on the floor in a kneeling position, so we sat in chairs and participated. While not as powerful as the night service, the loud chanting of the sutra was still magnificent.

I recommend attending the morning sutra practice as well; no reservations are needed, and anyone can join. Anyway, I hope this article sparks your interest in Yoshino, which preserves Japan’s ancient religious perspective powerfully, an experience you won’t find elsewhere. I prefer Yoshino over Kyoto for this reason, and my husband really wants to go back in the spring one day.

The main building of Kinpusenji Temple, the Zaodo, has been designated a National Treasure. It houses three huge statues of Zao Gongen

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