Ep. 075: Kimii-dera, the Temple of Three Wells

Number 2 on Japan's Saigoku Pilgrimage

Come along as I visit this intimate temple (between visiting two of Japan's largest holy sites) in this episode of


During the end-of-April, start-of-May "Golden Week" (Spring Break) of the year 2000, my buddy Gavin and I took in a number of amazing temples and shrines in Japan's Kii Peninsula, more-or-less south of Kyoto, starting at Ise Grand Shrine, one of the holiest sites in Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan.

Illustration of the story of Anchin and Kiyohime at Dojoji Station

From there we took a train around the peninsula, stopping at Dojo-ji on its west coast, site of one of Japan's most famous folk tales. It tells how a monk named Anchin spurned the affection of a woman named Kiyohime, and in wrath she turned into a white serpent. He hid from her under the temple bell, which she wrapped herself around and heated with her body, burning the monk to a crisp. The bell is still there, and both noh and kabuki plays tell the story to this day.

That same day we visited Saigoku temples #2 and 3 (we'll talk about #2 in this episode), then I made my first of several stays at Mount Koya (see Episode 032). Sadly, we stayed just for two nights, after which Gavin went back to his home in Kyoto, and I pushed on alone to the Nara area, seeing four temples in a day (Saigoku #6, 7, 8, and an "extra"), and staying that night on beautiful Mount Yoshino. Then back to Osaka the next day for Saigoku #5 and a train back to Tokyo.

One of Japan's greatest shrines; famed Mounts Koya and Yoshino; and seven pilgrimage temples plus a few others, all in a week! And back in Tokyo for a Cinco de Mayo party!

We'll see all those pilgrimage temples (and more!) in numerical order, but here we'll zero in on #2, Kimii-dera.

The Legend of Kimii-dera

In the year 770, a monk named Iko (described as a "Tang monk," who thus probably had the Chinese name Weiguang) had a dream: he saw a brilliant light shining upward from a mountain top, where Kannon (the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara) told him to gather medicinal herbs. (Some versions, though, dispense with the dream: they say he actually saw the light coming out of the hill, and headed for it.)

Anyway, he climbed up the hill, where he encountered a wonder: three wells (now named the Lucky, the Pure, and the Willow Wells) flowed out of the mountainside, with a small gold statue of the Thousand-Armed Kannon standing by.

A triple-shrine to the mountain's kami (Shinto gods)

Like innumerable monks before him, this prompted Iko to carve a Kannon of his own (instructed, some say, by a local Shinto god, who gave him as material a tree from a shrine's precincts) and placed the smaller statue inside. He built a hut halfway up the hillside, and another temple was born.

The rustic Daishi-do, a hall dedicated to Kobo Daishi, also festooned with cherry trees

The temple's name, then, means "The Temple of Three Wells in Kii," the old name of the prefecture today called Wakayama. (A waka is a Japanese poem, not dissimilar to a haiku. Also, if you've ever seen the Japanese bookstore chain called Kinokuniya, you've seen the former name of the province; the store's name means "The Kii Province Shop.")

Actually, the "three wells" thing is sort of a nickname; the temple's proper name is Kongobo-ji, or the "Vajra Jewel Temple."

Looking down a few of Kimii-dera's 231 stairs

The wells are apparently next to the stairs; I was too busy toiling up the 231 steps to notice them; though they have been described as "just a trickle," online photos of them indicate that two of the three are substantial enough to have been noticed.

Incidentally, every temple has a goeika or "pilgrim's song," a kind of chant with references to the temple itself. The goeika are in the form of a tanka, also similar to a haiku. But where the haiku has three lines, with five syllables, then seven, then five again, the tanka has five lines, like this: 5-7-5-7-7.

I don't have translations of these, so it would be rather tedious for you to just read gibberish at every temple. However, just to give you the "feel," here's the goeika for Kimii-dera:






I have transcribed all of those for the Shikoku pilgrimage (see Episode 039); you can see those on my Temple Guy page.

Iko Shonin and the Cherry Trees

The temple's Main Hall--and cherry trees

Iko the holy man was quite a guy; in fact, you could say he was a legend--or two!

You see, Nagusa-yama ("The Mountain of Distinguished Plants"), where the temple is located, has been named one of the 100 best cherry blossom spots in Japan (mad about numbered lists, I tell ya!). Sadly, it's famed for its early blossoming, so my May arrival was too late. Now, to account for all of those blossoms, it's said that either:

Iko went under the sea to visit the Palace of the Dragon King, where he taught for three years. In payment, he was given "a temple bell, a conch-shell trumpet, seven seedling cherry trees, and an official seal" (according to a guidebook to the pilgrimage), and they're in the temple to this very day! (Well, the cherry trees are, at least.)


The Dragon King's daughter (or perhaps his granddaughter, often seen in attendance on Kannon) rose up out of one of the springs and gave Iko the seeds or seedlings.

Either way, they came from water, and dragons--the lords of water. No mundane species, these trees! (Of course, I can't prove any of this!)

The Temple "Today"

A quick reminder: I visited this temple in May of 2000. When I tell you what the place "looks like today," please remember that that "today" was over two decades ago! (It's true for most of the places in Japan that I write about.)

The temple's fine tahoto (two-story "treasure" pagoda)

The temple stretches along terraces on a hillside; the one with the Main Hall has most of the buildings and activity, and is attained after a grueling climb of 231 steps. Then there are shorter stairways to take you up to another level.

My research tells me that a "New Buddha Hall" has been built to the right on the main terrace at the top of the steps. The 40-foot, 30-ton, gold-plated statue is the eleven-headed, thousand-armed form of Kannon, and was opened in its own hall in 2008. (I never had a chance!) It's so big they call it a Dai Kannon, a Great Avalokiteshvara.

The chopped-in-half Rokakku-do

Back at the very top of the steps is a funny little Rokakku-do, or "Six-Sided Hall." "Funny" because, though the roof is six-sided, the hall itself has been cut in half, so it has three of the usual sides, and a wall bisecting the space across a sort of "diameter." Inside are 33 images of Kannon.

The bell tower…

Turning left at the top of the stairs, we see the Main Hall dead ahead, adorned in cherry trees. Walking toward it, we pass a lovely little shoro or two-story bell tower, built in 1588 (and appearing to have been rather gaudily painted in more recent photos online), with a fine statue next to it of Kannon holding lotus leaves. Next, a quaint little Daishi-do, dedicated to Kobo Daishi of the Shikoku Pilgrimage (again, see Episode 039), apparently still retaining its raw-wood appearance. Up on the hillside is a precious tahoto from 1449, a two-story pagoda with a square base and round top (unfortunately repainted). And at last, the Main Hall (1751), containing numerous old statues, including an ancient Eleven-Headed Kannon, the honzon (main image) of this temple. (Sadly, it was closed when I was there).

…with a Kannon bearing lotus leaves next to it

The grounds also feature a number of small buildings, including various halls, some Shinto shrines, and the usual temizuya for washing hands and mouth.

The spoon pavilion

There is also a most unusual small pavilion. For a dollar or two you can buy a shamoji, a wooden rice paddle--a kind of serving spoon; the symbolism of this escapes me, though it may have to do with prosperity (rice) or marriage--both related to fertility. You write a prayer or wish on the paddle, then leave it in a rack, where (one presumes) it will be read by Kannon when she has time. (It is also a sort of public declaration of the intention, as it can be read by other visitors and the priests.) This is a common practice in many shrines and temples, but it's usually done on an image of a horse on a small five-sided plaque (called an ema). In ancient times, of course, one would donate an actual horse at a shrine, which might be sacrificed to the kami (gods). Today, the plaques--and at Kimii-dera, the spoons--are periodically gathered up and ritually burned.

A view of Waka-no-ura Bay from the temple grounds


That's nearly that! The temple is located in Wakayama City, capital of Wakayama Prefecture, and situated on Waka-no-ura Bay. (Waka waka waka!) It was once a castle town, with burial mounds dating from the 5th to the 7th centuries. The first castle, named Ota Castle, was destroyed in a siege in 1585, when the warrior monks defending it made a "final suicidal charge" against the attackers. A temple was built on the site (to cleanse it of the stink of warrior monks), and another castle then built on the same site--which was destroyed in Allied bombing in World War II. The concrete replica we see today was built in 1958.

Until next time, then, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!

A weary pilgrim (my buddy Gavin)


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In the next episode: For my next stop in China, I visited the island paradise of Putuo-shan, "home" of Guanyin (this same Avalokiteshvara). Come along and see Huiji Temple on the island's peak.