Ep. 097: Stone Mountain Temple

Ishiyama-dera, a short walk outside of Kyoto

I have been twice to beautiful Ishiyama-dera, Shiga Prefecture's "Stone Mountain Temple." Learn about both visits in this episode of--


The first time I saw Ishiyama-dera was in November of 2000, on the second day of a two-day visit to the area to see four of the 33 Kannon temples of Kansai, the Saigoku Sanjusan Reijo. This one was number 13 of that pilgrimage.

Wollastonite puts the "stone" in "Stone Mountain." This is the "Cave of Ishiyama-dera."

The second visit was more extreme: I walked there from Tokyo, nearly 300 miles to the north! Actually, I was walking to Kyoto on the then-400-year-old Tokaido Highway (I spoke briefly of this in Episode 036), but since Ishiyama-dera was near the route, I thought, "Why not?" That was on October 8, 2001, nearly a year later.

To avoid burying you in unnecessary details, I will generally combine words and pictures, treating both visits as one.

Some History--and Legend

Roben (or Ryoben) (Wikipedia)

The temple was founded by one Roben (or Ryoben, 689-773) in 747, by order of Emperor Shomu (reigned 724-749). It was this Roben who in 728 founded Todai-ji (then called Kinshosen-ji), later to be the home of Nara's Big Buddha (see Episode 089), for the same emperor.

One story of the temple's founding is this: Shomu instructed Roben to find gold for the construction of the Great Buddha of Nara. Praying in Yoshino (a site of mountain ascetic practice), Roben was instructed by the local god to go to the future site of Ishiyama-dera, taking with him a statue of Kannon that once belonged to Prince Shotoku (574-622), one of Buddhism's founders and primary patrons in Japan. There, another vision instructed him that the needed gold would be found in Tohoku (northeastern Japan). After informing the emperor of this fact, and having the truth of it confirmed by the emperor's minions, Roben planned to move on--but the Kannon statue refused to budge! Roben decided to build a temple for it on the spot. And that became Ishiyama-dera.

Temple roofs

Another legend says that the infant Roben was snatched up by an eagle and dropped in a pine tree in front of what is now a side hall of Todai-ji, one which has performed an esoteric ceremony involving fire and water in a tradition unbroken since 760. (This would work better if he was born in nearby Shiga Prefecture, as one tradition holds; if he was born, as is more likely, in Kanagawa, that eagle had a mighty long flight!)

Anyway, the displaced Roben (the legend continues) was then raised as a monk, not meeting his own mother until 30 years later. His mother, they say, had placed a Kannon (Avalokiteshvara) amulet on her baby, and recognized it when, as a pilgrim to Nara, she met the mature monk her baby had become. (Historical records do seem to indicate that Roben was raised from infancy as a monk; the rest is unverified. Never mind that the story says he was raised in the temple which he later founded.) Roben was also a known associate of the Chinese Master Ganjin (Jianzhen), whom we met in Episode 047.

The Temple's Site Inspires Literature

The temple is located a long stone's throw from Lake Biwa, Japan's largest freshwater lake, which we'll be seeing more of as we continue our pilgrimage. It's elevated above the lake on a formation of something called Wollastonite, a white-ish rock, a sort of superheated limestone, that I had never heard of but which everyone seems to think is a pretty big deal. But it's pretty, for sure.

The location is far enough from Kyoto to be beyond its impact, but close enough to visit if you had the time and inclination. (I myself walked into Kyoto the day after my 2001 visit. Google Maps makes it about 3-1/2 hours on foot.) For this reason, in the Heian Period (794-1185), it became a prime destination for excursions, especially by ladies who were otherwise rather restricted in their movement.

Murasaki mannikin in a chicken-wire cave

One of these was Murasaki Shikibu, of whom I've spoke several times (specifically in Episodes 036, 087, and 091). As the story goes, on a seven-day visit here in August of 1004, viewing the full moon inspired her to write her great masterwork, Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji), considered by many to be the world's first novel. One of my "guides" in my travels, Ed Readicker-Henderson, author of The Traveler's Guide to Japanese Pilgrimages, writes of this book,

As a story, Genji seems to run several hundred pages too long, with absolutely nothing happening and far too many characters moaning about how sensitive they are and how wet their sleeves are from crying, but as a catalog of the concerns and fashions of an era a thousand years removed from ours, the book can hold anyone's interest.

Well, not anyone's, Ed. But he and many others say that Genji's place in Japanese literature is comparable to that of Shakespeare's in English.

Hot destination that it was, Ishiyama-dera also features in such classic works as Makura no Soshi or The Pillow Book, a sort of diary by the court lady Sei Shonagon, written during the 990s and early 1000s; and the Sarashina Nikki or Diary of Lady Sarashina, an 11th-century lady-in-waiting.

Let's move on to a quick trot through the temple.

What to See Today

For this visitor, three main features stand out at the temple.

I'm actually standing in the road as I take this picture of the Nio-mon.

First is the Nio-mon--yes, another Two Kings Gate, this one called the Todai-mon or "Great Eastern Gate." It sits right on the road, just a football field away from the national highway that runs along the west bank of the Seta River to where it flows out of Lake Biwa. The gate was originally built in 1190 as a gift from Minamoto no Yoritomo (ruled 1192-1199), founder and the first shogun of the Kamakura shogunate, but was extensively refurbished around 1600, at the same time the hondo (main hall) was built. The two raw-wood kings are stupendous.

"The two raw-wood kings are stupendous."

Passage to the magnificent hondo takes us uphill, past numerous fine, smaller halls, some even named as separate temples.


The hondo. Note the "Murasaki Room" on the right.

The hondo itself was first built in 761-762, but that building was destroyed by fire in 1078. What we see today is the replacement (probably with repairs) built in 1096, making at least part of the structure the oldest building in Shiga Prefecture.

The honzon (main image) enshrined there is a wooden statue of a Nyoirin ("Wish-Granting") Kannon, whom we've seen before, carved when the hondo was rebuilt. It sits cross-legged solidly on the temple's bedrock and is over 16 feet high! (Though some sources put it at under ten feet, the temple's website says 16.) As the website explains, this statue is usually hidden in a cabinet, to be shown only once every 33 years (remember, 33 is Kannon's number: eight in each of the four directions, plus one in the center). The rest of the time, a "substitute" sits in front of the cabinet.

The last regular showing was in 2016, so the next time should have been in 2049. But there was a loophole: It is also shown the year after a new emperor is enthroned, so it was in fact on display from March to August of this year. (Emperor Naruhito acceded to the Chrysanthemum Throne on May 1, 2019, when his father abdicated.) Other special events, such as founding anniversaries of the temple, may also prompt special showings (when the crowds go wild--at nearly $5.00US a pop, over and above the same for entering the temple grounds!)

The temple's honzon, "borrowed" from their website

The number of arms on a Nyorin statue can vary; this one is said to be quite unusual in that it only has two! (Six or sometimes four are not uncommon.) A 2002 examination of the statue uncovered four gilt-bronze statues inside, Buddhas dating to the Asuka Period (538-710). Three of them are believed to be the oldest statues of Buddha crafted in Japan. Writing on the cabinet in which they were stored (within the larger statue) said they used to be kept in a previous honzon that was destroyed in the 1078 fire that demolished the hondo. They also seem to have been repaired around the 13th century.

As you face the exterior of the hall, there is a sort of alcove to the right called the "Murasaki Room" (or "Genji Room"). Inside it, a mannikin of the Genji author is seated in Heian-period garb. This, of course, is entirely fanciful, but still rather apt.


The tahoto is featured on Japan's 4-yen postage stamp.

The third notable feature of the temple is its tahoto or "Treasure Stupa," a two-story pagoda with a square base and round top--symbolizing earth below and heaven above--as described in Episode 032. This one was also sponsored by Minamoto no Yoritomo in 1194, at the time of the refurbishment of the Nio-mon. This makes it the oldest tahoto in Japan with an identifiable age. (The lovely bell tower, too, may have dated to that same project.)

The tahoto among rocks and red leaves

What makes this building spectacular, though its architecture is fine, is its setting, amongst the rocks and (at the right season) red leaves of Ishiyama-dera. It is an indescribable sight, and I wish my pictures could do it justice.

The bell tower is of an age with the gate and the tahoto.


Well, I had two more temples to see on the day of my first visit, and miles to walk on the day of my second. So I'll have to leave you. Until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


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In the next episode: A Tibetan-style temple in the Tang capital of China, and a quick peek in at the famed Terracotta Warriors.