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Sanjusangendo Temple

Sanjusangendo, in eastern Kyoto, is a temple affiliated with the Tendai sect of Japanese Buddhism. Sanjusangendo is the popular name, meaning "Hall with 33 Bays." The temple's official name is Rengeo-in.


Sanjusangendo was founded in 1164 by order of the retired emperor Goshirakawa. The original temple was destroyed by fire in 1249; the present structure dates from its rebuilding in 1266.

The Kannon statues that fill the temple were carved in the 12th and 13th centuries by Tankei, a famous sculptor of the Kamakura Period. The central Kannon image dates from 1254.

What to See

At 120m (394 feet) in length, Sanjusangendo is Japan's longest wooden building. Simple and austere on the outside, the main attraction of Sanjusangendo is the inside, which is filled with 1,001 statues of Kannon, all beautifully carved from Japanese cypress.

The temple centers on a six-foot-tall statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. She has 11 faces and 1000 arms and has been designated a National Treasure. The central Kannon is flanked by 1,000 more life-sized Kannons, who are covered in gold leaf and stand side-by-side several rows deep. These statues have 40 arms, each of which are said to have the power to save 25 worlds.

Sanjusan means "33," which is the number of spaces between the pillars that support the long, narrow hall. This number was chosen for a reason: Kannon can assume 33 different shapes on her missions of mercy. So, because there are 1,001 statues of Kannon in the hall, 33,033 shapes are possible. People come to Sanjusangendo to look for the likeness of a loved one among the many statues.

In the corridor behind the Kannons are statues of 28 Japanese deities who protect the Buddhist universe. They represent Kannon's disciples and embody various virtues. Finally, there are two traditional Buddhist temple guardians: Raijin, the god of thunder, and Fujin, the god of wind.

Sanjusangendo is also known for the Toshiya (archery contest) that takes place behind the temple each January. Traditionally, the contest is a ritual exercise intended to show young participants that an adult's life requires patience and self-control.

Quick Facts

Names:     Sanjusangendo, Sanjusangen-do, Rengeo-in
Type of site:     Tendai Buddhist temple
Dates:     Founded 1164; rebuilt 1266
Address:     657 Sanjusangen-do Mawari-cho, Kyoto, Japan
Phone:     075/525-0033
Hours:     Apr-mid-Nov: daily 8-5; mid-Nov-Mar: daily 9-4
Cost:     ¥600
Photos:     Prohibited inside the temple.
Bus:     100, 206 or 208 to the Sanjusangen-do-mae stop. The temple is to the south, just beyond the Kyoto Park Hotel.
Walk:     20 minutes from Kyoto Station
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