Kannonshō-ji Temple

Kannonshō-ji Temple

Climb up to a castle temple with magnificent views

place Area: Omihachiman access_time Published: 2020.12.07

Name in Japanese: 観音正寺
Pronunciation: kan non shō ji

Kannonshō-ji is a Buddhist temple of the Tendai sect in Azuchi, Ōmihachiman. It’s located at 370 m above sea level on the south side of Mt. Kinugasa, which has a height of 433 m. The mountain is also the site of a ruined castle, Kannonji Castle, which took its name from the temple. The temple is the thirty-second of the thirty-three temples of the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage around the Kansai region. In the past, pilgrims would walk here from Chōmei-ji Temple, also in Ōmihachiman.

Mt. Kinugasa is a significant mountain, and for hikers, it’s an enjoyable climb. If you allow yourself plenty of time, you can visit the temple and explore the ruins of the castle in a single visit. A hiking trail comprised largely of stone steps goes up slightly to the west of Kyōrinbō Temple. You can also hike to Kannonshō-ji starting at Kuwanomi Temple near the Azuchi Archaeological Museum. The route follows a long series of stone steps, arriving in the middle of the castle ruins. You can then descend the mountain to get to the temple.

For those visiting by car, there are separate roads up from the southwest and northeast of the mountain. If you take the southwest road, you still have to climb a significant number of steep steps up to the temple. From the northeast, there’s a walk along a largely level trail from the carpark.

The temple is located on a narrow shelf in the mountainside. At the entrance is a belfry and an unusual little statue of Daruma mounted on a millstone. Two very large Niō temple guardians flank the pathway. Various buildings line the right of the path leading towards the main hall which faces towards the entrance. On the left of the path is a statue of Prince Shōtoku, founder of the temple, and a large, seated Buddha. Beyond them is a magnificent view to the southwest overlooking the plain of southern Ōmi and the bottom half of Lake Biwa. There are several pretty ponds in the precincts with colourful carp.

The path to the northeast is also worth following for a short distance. It passes by an impressive stone wall climbing up the steep slope. It’s a remnant of the castle that shows how formidable it once was. A little further is a torii gate and the huge rock which represents the “inner temple”.

The history of Kannonshō-ji Temple

According to folklore, Prince Shōtoku visited this area in 605 and worshiped a thousand-armed Kannon that he carved himself. However, there are two stories about this.

One is that Prince Shōtoku built a temple at the request of a half-fish, half-man that he met when he visited this area. This creature was reborn as such because in his previous life he was a fisherman who made a living by killing. So he begged Prince Shōtoku to make him into a Buddha. In response to this wish, Prince Shōtoku built the temple and made the thousand-armed Kannon as its principle image. A mummy of the creature was said to have been kept at the temple, but it was lost in a fire in 1993.

The other story goes that when Prince Shōtoku Taishi visited this place, he saw a celestial man dancing on a huge rock. He named the rock Tenrakuishi and carved five Buddhas. Next, Prince Shōtoku drew a thousand-armed Kannon with the water that springs up on the mountain, at the direction of gods Amaterasu Omikami and Kasuga Myōjin. Deities Shaka Nyōrai and Dainichi Nyōrai then appeared and revealed that the prince was to carve a thousand-armed Kannon from a sacred tree, which he did. Then he built this temple with the huge stone as its inner temple.

These stories are reflected in the temple’s modern logo, featuring Prince Shōtoku and a fish tail.

The actual date of its construction is unknown, but it already existed in the Heian period in the 11th century. On Mt. Kinugasa, where Kannonshō-ji Temple is located, there was Kannonji Castle, the residence of the Sasaki Rokkaku clan, which ruled the southern half of Ōmi Province from the Kamakura period.

After Rokkaku Takayori made Kannonji Castle his residence, the temple prospered greatly under the patronage of the Rokkaku. According to temple records, at the peak of its prosperity, there were three main temples with seventy-two subsidiary temples. However, when Rokkaku Sadayori was the owner and when Rokkaku Yoshikata expanded Kannonji Castle from 1558, the temple area on the mountain was gradually incorporated into Kannonji Castle, and the temple was finally moved to Kannondani at the foot of the mountain.

The temple had just moved, when Rokkaku Yoshikata and his son Yoshiharu, were defeated by Oda Nobunaga in the battle of Kannonji Castle in 1568. They abandoned the castle, retreating to Kōka, and the temple was burnt down in confusion of the defeat. However, in 1597, Kannonshō-ji was rebuilt on a large scale. In the Edo period, Kannonsho-ji prospered as one of the thirty-three pilgrimage temples of western Japan. In 1841, it had ten subsidiary temples, but in the Meiji era, all except Kyōrinbō Temple were abolished. This later became independent, and it’s still there at the foot of the mountain today.

In 1880, when the Kannon Hall was to be rebuilt, the old structure was relocated as the main hall to Nenshō-ji Temple in Kōra. Then, in 1882, the Keyaki Palace of Hikone Castle was relocated to Kannonsho-ji as its main hall. In 1993, it was destroyed by fire. Since the temple is high on a mountainside, there was no possibility of fighting the fire. The hall and the thousand-armed Kannon were lost. The main hall was rebuilt in 2004.

The new thousand-armed Kannon statue is the work of Buddhist master Matsumoto Myōkei. The old principal image was less than 1 m tall. Its replacement is a huge sitting statue 3.5 m high, with a total height of 6.3 m including the halo. The statue is made from 23 tons of sandalwood imported from India. Export of sandalwood was banned, but the chief priest of Kannonshō-ji Temple visited India more than twenty times, and after repeated negotiations, export to Japan was approved as a special measure.


place 2, Ishidera, Azuchichō, Ōmihachiman, Shiga Prefecture