Zentsuji Temple is regarded as one of Japan’s most sacred places. It is one of the top three pilgrimage destinations in the entire country, and is the birthplace and spiritual home of Kobo Daishi (774-835 AD) – a highly influential Buddhist monk who founded the Shingon sect of Buddhism, one of the major schools of Buddhism in Japan. The temple also plays an important part in the famous 88 temple pilgrimage (Ohenro) of Shikoku, which retraces Kobo Daishi’s own steps across the island as he underwent his spiritual training.
An insight into Japanese Buddhist history and tradition
The original temple was reportedly constructed between 807 and 813 AD by Kobo Daishi himself, after returning from his stay in China. The temple complex itself is extensive, spanning around 45,000 square metres, with a range of different architectural styles present. A particularly notable aspect of Zentsuji temple is its five story wooden pagoda, which is an impressive sight reminiscent of the famous Horyu-ji temple at Nara.
After entering the temple complex, the smell of incense and the gentle ringing of prayer bells immediately places visitors in a reflective mood, and the beauty and serenity of the buildings is an intense experience, even for those who are well-used to seeing Japanese temples.
Living history at Zentsuji Temple
Once on the temple grounds, it is difficult not to notice two gargantuan camphor trees in relatively close proximity. Their sheer size is boggling, with thick ropes the size of elephant trunks wrapped around their base. These mammoth camphors also serve as a good indication of the temple’s age. It is documented that Kobo Daishi himself enjoyed sitting under the shade of one of these large camphor trees, implying that it was already quite a substantial specimen back in his time. Since then, the tree he enjoyed relaxing underneath has been growing in the temple’s soil for over a millennium.
On the topic of soil, scoops of earth taken from each of the 88 Shikoku pilgrimage temples has been placed at this site, so that anyone visiting can immediately make their own miniature recreation of this spiritual journey. While it is no substitute for the arduous and lengthy (but presumably spiritually fulfilling) pilgrimage, it is certainly a good chance to visit one of the more sacred sites of the Japanese Shingon Buddhist tradition, particularly for people who only find themselves in Shikoku for a limited amount of time.
One interesting fact about Zentsuji Temple is that the temple grounds contain part of the remains of three pious Japanese emperors. This is indicative of the level of respect and religious significance Zentsuji has – the notion of emperors sending their remains to be interred at this temple is a powerful one, and looking out at the spot, knowing that there are relics of the past buried only a few feet ahead of you, is an intense experience for Japanese history enthusiasts.
Getting around Zentsuji
While extensive, Zentsuji Temple is not difficult to traverse. The locations are all mostly flat, with the notable exception of a scenic arched bridge across a small stream on one side of the complex. It can take several hours to fully explore everything the temple has to offer, especially when done at a leisurely pace.
How to get to Zentsuji
Zentsuji is a short train ride away from Tadotsu Station, which is easily accessible from both Takamatsu and Matsuyama, two of Shikoku’s bigger regional centres. From Tadotsu, travellers to Zentsuji can take the Dosan Line directly to Zentsuji Station, taking approximately 13 minutes and costing only 210 yen. It is also possible to take a train to Zentsuji Station directly from Okayama across the Seto Inland Sea, which takes approximately an hour.
After getting off at Zentsuji Station, the temple is a straight-forward walk ahead, guided by the top of the five-story pagoda, as well as the aforementioned road signs. Take a right turn (and subsequent left) at any point to get on one of the roads running parallel to the one directly out of the train station.
The walk from the train station takes approximately fifteen minutes, and there are plenty of signs to ensure that both weary spiritual pilgrims and curious sightseers are easily able to find the temple (just in case the tip of a giant wooden pagoda rising above the skyline wasn’t enough.)
Zentsuji is also accessible by car, and can be reached by using the Zentsuji interchange on the Shikoku Expressway. Driving from Tadotsu to Zentsuji takes approximately 10 minutes, driving from Okayama to Zentsuji takes approximately 70 minutes (across the scenic Seto Ohashi Bridge), while driving from Takamatsu to Zentsuji takes 43 minutes.
Official Website: http://www.zentsuji.com/english/
A travel writer and wildlife enthusiast currently based in Shikoku, Japan. Having previously lived in New Zealand, I'm especially interested in exploring places with a focus on ecotourism and the natural environment. Highlights of my experience in Japan so far include being mobbed by rabbits on Ōkunoshima, sleeping in a beachside Mongolian yurt on the art island of Naoshima, and countless trips around the many natural wonders of Shikoku.
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