Raizan Sennyoji Daihioin Temple: A 400-Year-Old Maple Tree, a 1,000-Armed Kannon Statue, & the Meditative Art of Shakyo
The city of Itoshima has long been admired as one of the most livable small cities in Japan. At just a 35-minute drive to Fukuoka’s major city of Hakata, nearly 100,000 people call Itoshima home, combining its easy big city access with the enviable charms of sparking blue coastlines, trendy cafes, a relaxed surf scene, artist workshops, and its photogenic seaside torii gate. While Itoshima’s admirable reputation can be attributed to its quality of life, an ancient site has been standing watch over this city’s prosperity for nearly 1,300 years.
Raizan Sennyoji Daihioin Temple, located halfway up Mt. Raizan, is a Buddhist temple complex with a world of wonders awaiting every corner, with its 400-year-old giant maple tree, a hill of 500-stone Buddhist disciples, and the 1,000-armed Kannon statue. Both local and visiting families, couples, and expectant mothers come to pray for successful childbirth, good marriage, and prosperity in life, with special prayers held in front of the Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, and a designated nationally important cultural property. Raizan Sennyoji Daihioin Temple also offers a chance to try shakyo, the meditative practice of tracing Buddhist sutra, which has been carried out by Buddhist monks and emperors since the eighth century. To prepare you for your visit, here’s the history of this ancient temple, its highlight attractions, and what you can do during your visit!
Raizan Sennyoji Daihioin Temple History
According to legend, Raizan Sennyoji Daihioin Temple was founded in 178 AD by Seiga Shonin, an Indian Buddhist monk. During the Kamakura Era (1185 –1333), 300 monk’s quarters were stationed throughout the mountain to house its priests, dedicated to Raizan Sennyoji Daihioin Temple’s devotion to imperial worship. It wasn’t until the Warring States Period of the Muromachi Era (1336–1573) that these quarters fell into ruin.
However, Raizan Sennyoji Daihioin Temple’s religious significance remained undeterred. In 1753, the present-day main temple was built by the lord of the Fukuoka Domain, who also planted the 400-year-old maple tree, which still turns an impressive hue of vivid scarlet-orange in November. Today, monks dressed in orange satin shuffle across the wood floors in white tabi socks, continuing their upkeep of this Important Cultural Property, welcoming visitors seeking prayer and contemplation in its halls.
If you’re with your family or expecting (a child), consider joining other visitors who come to Raizan Sennyoji Daihioin Temple to pray for safe delivery, marital longevity, and family safety. The temple’s monks can also perform these special prayers in front of the temple’s principal object of worship, the thousand-armed Kannon, which you can request at the temple’s upper Kannon-do Hall for a fee.
The 400-Year-Old Maple Tree, Autumn Leaves, and Garden of Raizan Sennyoji Daihioin Temple
For those seeking natural inspiration, Raizan Sennyoji Daihioin Temple abounds with an extensive Japanese-style garden of moss and stone surrounding the temple grounds. The 400-year-old maple tree, grounding the temple complex at its center, is the first thing you’ll see as you enter. Even at 400 years old, this natural monument of Fukuoka Prefecture has no less impressive showing of autumn colors as a phenomenal canopy of vibrant red shades.
While you can admire the tree on the temple grounds, one of the best views is from the hall deck. For a small fee, you can sit on the hall deck while also getting access to the rest of the inner temple complex garden, which includes a sandalwood tree believed to be 600 years old and central in the shape of the Chinese character for ‘heart.’
If you’re here in November, take your time to admire this dramatic autumn beauty or meander under nearly 200 other maple trees on the complex ground. In the summer, the entire garden becomes a refreshing palette of green moss, juniper, and purple azaleas around the central inner pond, marking yet another popular time to sit on the lower hall deck to admire the views.
While autumn and summer are perhaps two of the temple’s most popular times to visit, you shouldn’t miss an off-season visit, which provides a quieter, contemplative temple experience and shorter wait times to see the temple’s principal object of worship: the thousand-armed Kannon.
The Thousand-Armed, Eleven-Headed Kannon of Raizan Sennyoji Daihioin Temple
At the heart of Raizan Sennyoji Daihioin Temple is the Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy. This statue’s reputation literally precedes her, as Mt. Raizan is often referred to as “Kannon of Mt. Rai'' or “Raizan Kannon.” You’ll quickly see why once you see her for yourself: standing 4.8 meters tall, the crown of this wood-carved statue is befitted with ten heads and a halo of 1,000 arms, each with an eye carved on each palm behind her. This designated nationally important cultural property is believed to have been carved in the Kamakura Period (1192 – 1333) and has since been the principal object of worship for the monks here at Raizan Sennyoji Daihioin Temple.
A little patience is required to see the statue for yourself. Once you climb a corridor of wooden stairs to the upper Kannon-do Hall, a presiding monk will invite you into the hall waiting room, where the Kannon awaits behind massive wooden doors. Your wait time will depend on the number of visitors awaiting a viewing, and a brief introduction of the temple’s history, garden views you can see from the Kannon-do Hall, and the Kannon statue itself. Only then will the monk open the wooden doors. While photography is prohibited, you won’t likely forget her graceful face and elegant 42 hands in prayer form or holding beads before her!
During this unique experience, the monk will also share a tour through the Kannon-do Hall, which takes you inches past the Kannon statue for a rare opportunity to see an ancient religious structure up close.
The Kannon-do Hall also holds a collection of amulets dedicated to safe childbirth and successful marriages, which you can purchase from the presiding monk. Once you’ve admired the Kannon, follow the walkway behind the statue of 27 Buddhist statues that’ll lead you to your next view.
*Please note that we received special permission to photograph the Kannon statue and that regular photography is prohibited.
Visit the 500 Stone Deities of Buddha and the Temple Founder
Your temple visit doesn’t stop at the Kannon statue. Next, proceed behind the Kannon statue, where there is a corridor of stairs leading up to the final temple structure of your visit. Here, 500 rakan stone statues cover the hill. They represent the disciples of Buddha, each with their own uniquely carved expressions embodying a variety of emotions such as sorrow, anger, and joy. Sitting on the deck with the stone statues is yet another popular photo-opt for many visitors to the temple, who spend time looking for the stone statue they most closely resemble.
Behind you is the colorful Kaisan-do, also generally known as the Founder’s Hall, which typically houses the image of the founding head or Buddhist ancestors. This cedar construction is a rebuild from 1990, designed after the national treasure Fukuji Temple, Kyushu’s oldest wooden structure located on Oita’s Kunisaki Peninsula. Inside is a seated wooden statue of Seiga Shonin, another nationally designated important cultural property at Raizan Sennyoji Daihioin Temple. The statue stands 67 cm tall and holds a sutra scroll in his left hand and a rosary in his right, with parted lips as if in the middle of chanting a sutra.
This structure that houses the seated Seiga Shonin is more ornately decorated than the rest of the temple complex, saturated in gold with colorful paintings of the four heavenly kings painted on the pillars, the eight great bodhisattvas in mythical flame, and the twelve heavens depicted along the walls. Don’t forget to look up towards the upper panels, where the images of the four seasons are painted with a beautiful array of colors.
Shakyo: The Meditative Practice of Tracing Buddhist Sutra
While you’re at Raizan Sennyoji Daihioin Temple, take a moment to practice the Buddhist ascetic practice of shakyo. This act of tracing Buddhist sutra characters will not only help you to absorb the temple’s slow, meditative atmosphere but also take part in an ancient tradition practiced by monks and emperors alike since its introduction to Japan in the eighth century.
One of the famous shakyo sutras is housed at Daikakuji Temple in Kyoto, Raizan Sennyoji Daihioin Temple’s head temple. Nearly 1,200 years ago, Emperor Saga, under the recommendation of Kobo Daishi, the founder of the esoteric Shingon school of Buddhism, copied a scroll of the Heart Sutra to pray for sufferers of the Great Plague of 818. Since then, it’s believed to have miraculously ended the plague, extending the fame of the Heart Sutra and the shakyo practice itself.
Ask the front desk for your copy of the Heart Sutra, the very same sutra copied by Emperor Saga over a millennia ago. The slow, meditative process of tracing, letter by letter, the Buddhist scriptures is shakyo’s way of bringing us closer to Buddhist teachings and experiencing a moment of peace it often brings to its participants. Take your time transcribing each character in the temple’s hall that also faces the 400-year-old maple tree. After you’ve completed your task, deliver your completed sutra to the upper Kannon-do Hall, where monks will offer it to the thousand-armed Kannon before it is delivered to Kyoto’s Daikakuji Temple. A memorial service and prayer are held every morning at Daikakuji Temple to fully convey your prayers to Buddha.
Before you deliver your sutra, however, don’t forget to take your time to admire the garden views from the deck, where you can practice your new-found meditative state with the scenery before you.
The temple provides calligraphy pens, and the sutra paper costs 1,000 yen per roll.
Raizan Sennyoji Daihioin Temple: A Blend of Quiet Solitude, Reverence, and Nature
Raizan Sennyoji Daihioin Temple, with its reverent, spiritual aura, is one of Itoshima’s strongest testaments to Fukuoka’s ancient religious heritages that visitors can experience for themselves. Whether it’s the graceful face of the thousand-armed Kannon, the impressive 400-year-old maple tree, or the meditative practice of shakyo, there are many reminders of how Raizan Sennyoji Daihioin Temple has maintained its prominence over the last 1,300 years. So, while you’re visiting the relaxed beachside city of Itoshima, consider a spiritual venture into the mountains to find the calmest, more reflective version of yourself at Raizan Sennyoji Daihioin Temple, whether it be the golden hour of autumn, the electric greenery of summer, or any season in between
How to Get to Raizan Sennyoji Daihioin Temple
Raizan Sennyoji Daihioin Temple is approximately a 20-minute drive from Itoshima Station and a 40-minute drive (with tolls) from Hakata Station. Bus lines also service the temple from bus stops near Hakata (85 minutes) and Itoshima stations (45 minutes). If you’re visiting during the peak autumn season, the temple’s most popular time to visit, consider visiting earlier in the morning, which will allow plenty of time to admire the autumn colors and explore the temple complex before returning back to Itoshima or Hakata at the end of the day.
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