Ishiyama-dera Temple (石山寺)

Ishiyama-dera Temple is a To-ji Shingon sect temple located at 1-chome, Ishiyama-dera, Otsu City, Shiga Prefecture. The Honzon (the principle image of the temple) is Nyoirin Kannon (the Bodhisattva of Compassion) and the founder was Roben. Along with Kiyomizu-dera Temple in Kyoto and Hase-dera Temple in Nara Prefecture, Ishiyama-dera Temple is one of the foremost Kannon Pilgrimages, being the stamp office for temple number 13 of the Saigoku Sanjusankasho (the 33 temples that are visited during the Kansai Kannon Pilgrimage) in western Japan. Ishiyama-dera Temple has been featured in various literary works including "Kagero Nikki" (The Gossamer Years), "Sarashina Nikki" (The Sarashina Diary) and "Makura no soshi" (the Pillow Book) and there is a lore that Murasaki Shikibu, the author of "Genji Monogatari" (The Tale of Genji), conceived the story line during her visit to Ishiyama-dera Temple for a sanro (a retreat (to a temple or shrine) for prayer). Ishiyama-dera Temple is also known for the Autumn Moon of Ishiyama which is one of the Eight Views of Omi.

The origin and history

Ishiyama-dera Temple is located near the southern tip of Lake Biwa on the right bank of Seta-gawa River which is the only river flowing out of that lake. The main hall is built on the top of a massive bedrock composed of wollastonite (the Ishiyama-dera Temple wollastonite) designated as a national monument from which Ishiyama-dera Temple derived its name (and, in addition, the Ishiyama-dera Temple wollastonite has been selected as one of Japan's 100 Geographical Conditions).

According to "Ishiyama-dera Engi" (a scroll painting of the history of Ishiyama-dera Temple), this temple was founded in 747 at the wish of the Emperor Shomu when Roben (the founder and administrator of Todai-ji Temple) enshrined Nyoirin Kannon which was the nenjibutsu (a small statue of Buddha kept beside a person) of Prince Shotoku at this location. On the occasion of building the Great Buddha of Todai-ji Temple, Emperor Shomu needed a large quantity of gold to coat the surface of the statue. The emperor ordered Roben to pray at Mt. Kinpusen in Yoshino for gold. It seems that Mt. Kinpusen was believed to be a gold mine in those days.
While staying at Mt. Kinpusen praying for gold, Kongo Zao (Zao Gongen) of Yoshino appeared in Roben's dream and said,
The gold in Mt. Kinpusen will be used to coat the earth when Miroku Bosatsu comes down to this world (in 5.67 billion years) (and, therefore, it cannot be used to plate the statue of the Great Buddha).'
There is a place in the south end of a lake in Shiga County, Omi Province where Kannon Bosatsu (Kannon Buddhisattva) comes.'
Go there and pray.'
Roben visited Ishiyama following the revelation in his dream where he was led by Hira Myojin personified as an old man to a massive bedrock. Roben enshrined the 6-inch gilded bronze statue of Nyoirin Kannon that Prince Shotoku always kept by him and built a thatched hut. 2 years later, gold was indeed output in Mutsu Province whereby the era name was changed to Tenpyo-shoho. The prayer in accordance with the esoteric Buddhism practice performed by Roben thus produced a good result but, for some reason, the statue of Nyoirin Kannon became stuck on the bedrock. It is said that Roben was consequently obliged to build a hall to shelter the statue of Nyoirin Kannon which became the inaugural structure of Ishiyama-dera Temple.

Starting in 761, under the authority of the Ishiyama-dera Temple Project Office, extension of the hall and maintenance of the temple building were subsequently conducted. According to the Shoso-in Monjo (Shoso-in Temple archives), staffs including the bushi (sculptor of Buddhist statues) from the Todai-ji Temple Project Office (the office installed for the construction of Todai-ji Temple) were sent to the Ishiyama-dera Temple site whereby its construction was underway as a state project. It is said that the reason for the construction of Ishiyama-dera Temple receiving such a high level attention also had in part to do with its close proximity to Hora-no-miya which was built by Emperor Junna and Emperor Koken. The molded statue of Nyoirin Kannon, the principle image of the temple as well as the statues of her attendants Kongo Zao and Shukongoshin were produced between 761 and the following year. It is said that the 6-inch Nyoirin Kannon statuette treasured by Prince Shotoku was placed inside the hollow cavity of the statue of the principle image.

Thereafter, the history of Ishiyama-dera Temple up to the early Heian period remains unclear but, according to temple legend, some prominent monks such as Shobo and Kangen came to the temple as its head priest. Both Shobo and Kangen were monks associated with Daigo-ji Temple. Ishiyama-dera Temple and Daigo-ji Temple were located close to one another and it is considered that Ishiyama-dera Temple began to become esotericised around this time.

It is said that the grandson of SUGAWARA no Michizane and the third head priest Shunyu Naiku (priest) (890 – 953) was responsible for the restoration of Ishiyama-dera Temple. Naiku is the abbreviation of naikubu-juzenshi (the ten selected excellent priests for Buddhist services in the Imperial Court) who, being beside the emperor, performed incantations for health and safety of the emperor's body and stayed close to the emperor. While being a high priest, Shunyu had firmly declined offers for the various positions but was known as Naiku and was also referred to as Ishiyama Naiku or Fugen-in Naiku. The reason for that reference was that, being physically disabled, Shunyu was unable to seat himself properly and, to compensate for his disadvantage, studied diligently and left an enormous amount of literary work. Many of his remaining handwritten books in existence today at Ishiyama-dera Temple are referred to as 'Nioi-no Shogyo' (the Fragrant Scriptures) that are collectively designated as a national treasure. Around this time, it became popular among court ladies at the Imperial Court to visit Ishiyama-dera Temple which was described in "Kagero Nikki" (The Gossamer Years) and "Sarashina Nikki" (The Sarashina Diary).

The present main hall was reconstructed in 1096. It is believed that Todai-mon Gate and Taho-to Pagoda were built in the early Kamakura period donated by MINAMOTO no Yoritomo and it is considered that the physical appearance of Ishiyama-dera Temple that is seen today was completed around this time. Since Ishiyama-dera Temple has never been subjected to fires caused by war, its numerous valuable cultural properties such as architecture, buildings, Buddha statues, Buddhist scriptures and documents remain in existence today.

Ishiyama-dera Temple and literary works
Ishiyama-dera Temple is known to be featured in numerous literary works.

In Section 208 of "Makura no soshi" (the Pillow Book) (Volumes 1 - 3, Japanese Classic Literature Systematic Edition), it says, 'Temples are Minamihokke-ji Temple, Kasagi-dera Temple and Horin-ji Temple (Nishikyo Ward, Kyoto City). Ryozan is where Sakyamuni Buddha resides but they are affecting.
Kokawa-dera Temple and Sofuku-ji Temple.'
The description of court ladies visiting Ishiyama-dera Temple appeared in an entry for July 970 in "Kagero Nikki." The daughter of Takasue SUGAWARA who wrote "Sarashina Nikki" had a retreat at Ishiyama-dera Temple in 1001. It is considered that Murasaki Shikibu conceived the idea of "the Tale of Genji" at Ishiyama-dera Temple. Legend has it that, on the full-moon night of August 15, 1004 during her retreat at Ishiyama-dera Temple, Murasaki Shikibu got the idea of the chapters of 'Suma' and 'Akashi' whereby the 'Room of Genji' was built in the main hall of that temple.

In "the Diary of Izumi Shikibu" (Chapter 15), she wrote, 'I have visited Ishiyama to divert my mind from sadness.'
It described her relationship with Imperial Prince Atsumichi being on the rocks, so Izumi Shikibu took refuge in the temple to comfort her discontent.


Main hall

The main hall is a building complex consisting of the shodo hall (the inner shrine), ainoma (the room connecting shodo and raido) and the raido hall (the worship hall). Structurally, the main hall consists of two buildings of Yosemune-zukuri (a square or rectangular building, covered with a hipped roof) including the shodo hall of seven ken wide by four ken deep (ken is an architectural term representing the number of intercolumniation space between two columns and not a unit of distance) and the raido hall of nine ken wide by four ken deep that have been interconnected by the ainoma of one ken deep, presenting a convex plane view. The shodo which was burnt down in 1078 and subsequently rebuilt in 1096 is the oldest architecture in Shiga Prefecture. In naijin (the inner sanctuary of the temple), there is an enormous zushi (a cupboard-like case with double doors in which an image of (the) Buddha, a sutra, or some other revered object is kept at a temple) where the principle image Nyoirin Kannon is enshrined. Ainoma and the raido hall were constructed in 1602 as gifts from Yodo-dono (Lady Yodo). The eastern end of ainoma is referred to as the 'Room of Genji' (where Murasaki Shikibu wrote the Tale of Genji) where a statue of Murasaki Shikibu at work is placed. The raido hall was built in the kake-zukuri (overhang method of construction) style on the slope with a number of tall columns being erected at the front to support the floor. The main hall built in the kake-zukuri style is often seen at temples dedicated to Kannon (Deity of Mercy) such as Kiyomizu-dera Temple and Hase-dera Temple.

Tahoto Pagoda (Multi-Treasure Pagoda) (National Treasure)

Tahoto Pagoda was built in 1194 being the oldest tahoto pagoda that can be dated. The Statue of Dainichi Nyorai (Mahavairocana) by Kaikei is enshrined inside the pagoda.

Todai-mon gate (Important Cultural Property)

The gate at the entrance of an approach to the temple
The tile-roofed Todai-mon Gate was built in 1190 and subsequently went through major repair work around the same time that the raido hall in the main hall was constructed in the early Modern era.

Belfry (Important Cultural Property)

Kamakura period

National Treasure

Main Hall

Tahoto Pagoda (a multi-treasure pagoda)

Historical Records of the Han Dynasty, Annals of Han Gaozu Volume two, Biography Segment of Book four

Shiki Chinese history book Volume 96 and segment of Volume 97

Gyokuhen Volume 27

Segment of Shunjukeidenshikkai (the Compiled Annotations of the Spring and Autumn Classic and its Commentary) Volume 26

Segment of Shunjukeidenshikkai (the Compiled Annotations of the Spring and Autumn Classic and its Commentary) Volume 29


The Buddhist Scriptures handwritten by Shunyu Naiku, one Book of 73 Volumes (There was one book of 60 volumes when it became designated as a National Treasure in 1961 but the additional 13 volumes were subsequently found in the temple and were added to the former in 2002.)

Enryaku Kotaishiki

Segment of Ecchu-no-kuni Kanso Nokoku Kotai-ki (an accounting record of rice reserves in the official storehouse of Ecchu Province)

Segment of the 908 census register of Kuga Village, Kuga County, Suo Province

Important Cultural Properties

Wooden statue of Nyoirin Kannon sitting in half lotus position

The principle image of this temple
It is placed in an enormous zushi (miniature temple) at the back of the main hall. Being a hidden Buddhist image, it is on view only for a special exposition which takes place every 33 years and when the emperor accedes to the throne. Since the latter part of the twentieth century, the principle image has been on exhibit for special expositions in 1961, from April 10 to April 30, 1991 to celebrate the accession to the throne by Emperor Akihito and from August 1 to December 16, 2002 to commemorate the 1,250th anniversary of the founding of Ishiyama-dera Temple. The statue is approximately three meters tall. The statue of Nyoirin Kannon frequently has six arms but the principle image of Ishiyama-dera Temple has two arms and sits directly on the bedrock. It is presumed that the principle image was made around the time of the reconstruction of the main hall in the late Heian period. Various items including four gilt bronze statues of the Buddha and a gorinto (a gravestone composed of five pieces piled up one upon another) made of quartz crystal created in the Nara period were found inside the statue and they became designated as National Treasures as attachments to the host statue in 2003.

Shingi (a wooden core, used inside a clay or lacquer statue, or when casting a metal statue) of a molded statue of Kongo Zao

It was a supporting wooden core placed inside the molded statue (a statue made by molding its surface with clay). This particular wooden core was found inside the statue of Kongo Zao (Zao Gongen) that is the right attendant of the principle image. The statue of Kongo Zao per se was made in the Edo period but the wooden core goes back to the time that the original statue was created in the Nara period and thus making it scientifically invaluable.

The following is a list of the important cultural properties owned by Ishiyama-dera Temple.


Todai-mon Gate
Hokyoin-to Pagoda
Goei-do Hall (hall dedicated to the sect's founder)
Rennyo-do Hall
Inner Shrine dedicated to the thirty-eight deities
Kyozo (sutra repository)


Statue of Fudo Myoo (Acalanatha) with two children (Kimkara and Cetaka) in color on silk canvas
Entering Nirvana, in color on silk canvas
The Tale of Genji: The Story of Suetsumuhana (The Safflower) in color on paper (said to be painted by Mitsuoki TOSA)
Ishiyama-dera Engi (a scroll painting of the history of Ishiyama-dera Temple) (the pictures of Volume six and Volume seven were supplemented by Buncho TANI) Volume seven in color on paper.
Painting on columns of Tahoto Pagoda at Ishiyama-dera Temple


Wooden half-lotus postured Nyoirin kannon (the principle image)/ items stored inside the statue (four gilt bronze statues of the Buddha, a crystal stupa and a zushi (cupboard-like case with double doors in which an image of (the) Buddha, a sutra, or some other revered object is kept at a temple))
Wooden statue of Nyoirin Kannon in half-lotus position
Wooden statue of the seated Dainichi Nyorai by Kaikei (stored in Tahoto Pagoda)
Wooden statue of the seated Dainichi Nyorai (said to be the original principle image of Tahoto Pagoda)
Bronze statue of the standing Kanzeon Bosatsu (Note)
Bronze statue of the seated Shaka Nyorai
Wooden statue of the standing Jikokuten (Dhrtarastra), the statue of the standing Zochoten (Virudhaka) and the statue of the standing Bishamonten (Vaisravana)
Wooden statue of the seated Yuimakoji (Vimalakirti)
Wooden statue of the standing Bishamonten
Wooden statue of the seated Fudo Myoo (Acalanatha, one of the Five Kings of Wisdom)
Molded statue of the seated Shunyu Naiku (placed in Goei-do Hall)
Shingi (wooden core) of the molded statue of the standing Kongo Zao with segment of the mold, halo and items stored inside the statue
(Note) This statue of Kannon was stolen in 1948 and only its headless body was subsequently was found. The severed head of the statue remains missing.


Bonsho (large temple bell)

(Books and ancient documents)

Biography of Eizan Daishi
Kusharonki 22 volumes, Kusharonso 30 volumes and Kusharonjusho five volumes
The concept of Abhidharmakosabhasya in the Sarvastivada School written by 仙釈
Juju-ritsu (Ten-Reciting Vinayapitaka), Volume 52
Reading and Glossary of Daihannyakyo (Great Perfection of Wisdom Sutra), Volume two
Biography of Chisho Daishi
The Biaozhiji by Fuku Sanzo (Amoghavajra) Volume three
Bussetsu Jogojukyo
Hokke Gisho, seven Volumes
The Complete Buddhist Scriptures of Ishiyama-dera Temple 4,644 books
Ishiyama-dera Temple Azekura Shogyo 1,926 items
Incomplete book of Honcho Monzui
The Kenkyu Era Cadastral Survey records
The Record of a Pilgrimage written by Enchin

(Archaeological Reference)

Kesadasukimon dotaku (ritual bell with crossed band design)

Visitors information

Directions to Ishiyama-dera Temple

10-minute walk from Keihan Electric Railways Keihan Ishiyama-Sakamoto Main Line to Ishiyama-dera Station

Five-minute walk from West Japan Railway Company-Biwako Line Ishiyama Station

Five-minute drive from Meishin Expressway Seta-higashi Interchange and Seta-nishi Interchange (Parking available for 140 vehicles)

500 yen
8:00 - 16:30

Goeika (a Buddhist hymn)
I feel lighthearted thinking of the afterlife but the vow of the Buddha seems so grave in Ishiyama

Neighboring Fudasho (a temple issuing a talisman (amulet, ofuda) for pilgrims)
Saigoku Sanjusankasho (the 33 temples that are visited during the Kansai Kannon Pilgrimage)
No. 12 Iwama-dera Temple (Shojo-ji Temple) – No. 13 Ishiyama-dera Temple – No. 14 Mii-dera Temple (Onjo-ji Temple)

[Original Japanese]