Chōmei-ji Temple

Chōmei-ji Temple

Eight-hundred-and-eight steps up to a breath-taking view

place Area: Omihachiman access_time Published: 2020.12.07

Name in Japanese: 長命寺
Pronunciation: chōmei-ji

Chōmei-ji is a Tendai temple located on the side of a mountain within the borders of Ōmihachiman. It stands on the southwest slope of Mt. Chōmeiji at 240 m above sea level. Eight hundred and eight stone steps lead up from the foot of the mountain to the main hall. It takes about twenty minutes of hard but rewarding climbing to walk up. There’s also a road up, although you still have to go up some steep steps from the carpark.

Mt. Chōmeiji rises on the shore of Lake Biwa, north of the city of Omihachiman. To the east of the mountain is reclaimed land that was once Lake Dainaka, a subsidiary lake of Biwako. Before the lake was filled in, Mt. Chōmeiji was an island, and there was a wharf at the foot of the mountain. This marked the entrance to the Chōmeiji River, a waterway to Azuchi, making it a key transportation point.

Chōmei-ji is the thirty-first temple of the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage, a pilgrimage of thirty-three Buddhist temples in the Kansai region related to the deity Kannon. In the past, pilgrims would land at the wharf below the temple after visiting Hōgon-ji Temple on Chikubu Island.

If you decide to walk, you first pass Hiyoshi Shrine on your left, and Kokuya-ji Temple on the right. The temple used to be the place where the rice levied from the temple territory was stored. As you go up the steps, you pass four subsidiary temples. According to records from 1692, there were once nineteen of these subsidiary temples, suggesting a very extensive temple complex. Halfway up the steps is a peculiar stone and wooden gate structure, but there’s no mountain gate as such.

The steps go up to the side of the main hall. In addition to the main hall on the south side, there are the Goma-dō and the three-storied pagoda to the right, and to the left, the Sanbutsu-dō, the Gohō Gongensha, and the belfry. You can enter and climb up into the belfry, which offers a spectacular view of the main hall and pagoda. The roof of the main temple is made of cypress or wood shingle. A little further away is the Tarobō Gongensha building. Megaliths are exposed in various parts of the precincts behind the main hall, which are thought to be a remnant of ancient worship of megaliths.

The name of the temple means ‘long life’. According to folklore, during the time of the 12th Emperor Keiko, the hero-statesman Takenouchi no Sukune prayed for longevity by carving the words “long life” in a willow tree. Sukune is reputed to have lived for 300 years. Later, when Prince Shōtoku came here, he discovered the characters carved by Sukune. While he was gazing at the tree in amazement, an old man with white hair appeared and told him to carve a Buddha statue from the tree and place it here. The prince immediately carved an eleven-faced Kannon. It’s said that the prince named the temple Chōmei-ji because of the longevity of Sukune. As the name suggests, it is said that if you visit and worship here, you’ll live a long life.

The actual year of construction and the circumstances of construction are unknown. Chōmei-ji first appears in a document dated 1074. In 1184, Sasaki Sadatsuna built the Sanbutsudō to mourn the spirit of his father Sasaki Hideyoshi, who died in battle. In the latter half of the Heian period, the other buildings were constructed, making Chōmei-ji into a big Buddhist temple. Throughout the Kamakura period, the temple was patronised by the Sasaki-Rokkaku clan, the military governors of Ōmi.

Chōmei-ji Temple has a wealth of documents from the Middle Ages onwards. According to these, the medieval Chōmei-ji Temple maintained its position as a separate temple of the west building of Enryaku-ji Temple on Mt. Hiei. In the Muromachi period, it prospered with the patronage of the Rokkaku clan. However, in 1516, the temple burned down in fighting within the Rokkaku clan. The temple buildings seen today were rebuilt from the Muromachi period to the early Edo period.