Enryaku-ji, located on top of Mt. Hiei, is a renowned temple established in 788 by Saicho (767 – 822), who is also known as Dengyo Daishi.
It was at first called Ichijoshikan-in, and its main hall was dedicated to Yakushi Nyorai, the same Buddhist divinity the main hall of Enryaku-ji enshrines to this day.
The temple soon won the trust of the Imperial Court as the one to protect the nation, and was granted the name of Enryaku-ji in 823. Enryaku is the Japanese era name from 782 to 806, which is the era in which this temple was founded.
What’s notable in this temple’s history is the education system Saicho introduced.
Monks lived and were educated for twelve years on Mt. Hiei, and this system produced a new wave of prominent monks who founded new sects now called Kamakura Buddhism, such as Jodo Buddhism founder Honen, Jodo-shin Buddhism founder Shinran, Rinzai Zen founder Eisai (or Yosai), Soto Zen founder Dogen, and Nichiren Buddhism founder Nichiren.
For this reason, Mt. Hiei is respected as the mother mountain of Buddhism, and is said to have had some three thousand temples on its mountainside at its heyday.
But at the same time, Enryaku-ji was notorious for its Buddhist militancy employing warrior monks for centuries, intervening even in warfare between warlords.
But this militancy came to an end when the temple sided with the Azai and Asakura clan against Oda Nobunaga, the powerful warlord who was on his way to reunifying the war-torn country.
In 1571, Nobunaga’s force slaughtered anyone and destroyed anything in their sight at Mt. Hiei, and thus this prestigious temple came to an end – until it was reconstructed under the patronage of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the lord who succeeded Nobunaga and reunified Japan.
Tokugawa Ieyasu, who overthrew the Toyotomi clan and founded the Tokugawa shogunate, also protected the temple.
Enryaku-ji is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto,” but it is located on the border of Kyoto Prefecture and Shiga Prefecture, and is actually on the Shiga side.
Though Enryaku-ji is a touristy site now, it also holds hard disciplines even now. Known in particular is Sennichi-kaihogyo, which an ascetic monk runs through Mt. Hiei one to two hundred days a year for seven years, with a period of chanting for consecutive nine days without eating, drinking or sleeping.
In more than a thousand years, only 50 monks have accomplished this feat, and those who have are admired as living Buddhas.
Enryaku-ji consists of more than 150 buildings on Mt. Hiei, and most of them are concentrated in largely three areas: Yokawa, Todo and Saito. Yokawa was developed by Ennin (Jikaku Daishi), the third head monk of Enryaku-ji.
Yokawa Chudo, the main hall of this area, was reconstructed in 1971. It’s said that it’s modeled on Kentoshisen, which is a kind of ship sent to China in the 7th to 9th period (the early generations of the head monks of Enryaku-ji, including Saicho, went to China to study Buddhism on these ships when they were young), and somewhat resembles Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto, too.
If you go 4km (2.5 miles) south from Yokawa, there’s Saito, and another 1km (0.6miles) to the south will take you to Todo. These three areas are connected by bus since the temple grounds are so broad.
Saito was opened by the second head monk Encho (Jakko Daishi). Saito’s main hall is Shakado. The mausoleum of Saicho is also located in this area.
Todo is the place where Enryaku-ji originated, and Konpon-chudo, the main hall of the whole temple, is the central piece of this area. The building of Konpon-chudo is a National Treasure, and in it “Fumetsu no Hoto,” the sacred fire burning ever since the temple was founded 1,200 years ago, is being kept in three lanterns in front of the statue of Yakushi Nyorai the hall is dedicated to.
Enryaku-ji is a huge temple worth taking a whole day to see around.
You can see the city of Kyoto if you look west from the top of the mountain, and Lake Biwa if you look east. You can enjoy the scenery from the cable cars on both sides of the mountain or the driveway leading to the top, but the view of Lake Biwa from the cable car on the east side is particularly noteworthy.
Where to eat around Enryaku-ji
If you want to have lunch at Enryaku-ji, it’s best to use Enryaku-ji Kaikan in Todo, the inn and restaurant run by the temple.
You can enjoy the great view from there. They serve shojin ryori (Buddhist cuisine) at this facility, but note that you need to make a reservation beforehand.
At Sakamoto, the beautiful temple town at the east foot of Mt. Hiei, we would like to recommend Tsuruki Soba. This soba restaurant was established more than 300 years ago and its delicious soba noodles have been loved by priests of Enryaku-ji. Its building built around 1887 is also impressing.
Where to stay around Enryaku-ji
Since there are cable cars on both sides of Mt. Hiei, you can stay at Kyoto or Otsu whichever you like when visiting Enryaku-ji.
If you like hot springs, using hotels at Ogoto Onsen such as Satoyumukashibanashi Yuzanso, Biwako Grand Hotel, or Biwako Hanakaido and enjoy the scenery of Lake Biwa will be one option.
You can also stay at abovementioned Enryaku-ji Kaikan on top of the mountain and feel the morning breeze in the sacred land.
Hoshino Resorts L’Hotel de Hiei on the mountainside of Mt. Hiei is the kind of luxury hotel ladies tend to like, and staying here will also be pleasant.
Enryaku-ji on Mt. Hiei and Kongobu-ji on Mt. Koya have been the top two leading temples in the history of Japanese Buddhism.
If you love Buddhist temples, Enryaku-ji is must-visit, but you must note that since it is a huge temple, if you plan to look around all of the three areas composing the temple, it will take an entire day.