Sanjusangen-do Temple (三十三間堂)

Sanjusangen-do Temple is a Buddhist temple located in the Higashiyama Ward of Kyoto City. It is officially known as Rengeo-in Hondo (the main hall of Rengeo-in Temple). The site is an external sub-temple of the Myoho-in Tendai sect Temple, also in Kyoto's Higashiyama Ward, by which it is owned and administrated. It was originally a Buddhist temple built by the Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa within his villa and the principal object of veneration is Senju-Kannon.


The site was originally where retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa constructed Hojuji-dono Temple to serve as his villa.
Rengeo-in Hondo (the main hall of Rengeo-in Temple) was built within the extensive precinct of Hojuji-dono Temple and this now goes by the name 'Sanjusangen-do Temple.'

TAIRA no Kiyomori completed the temple under the order of the Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa on January 30, 1165. At the time of its construction, it was a full-scale temple complex with numerous structures including a five-story pagoda, but it suffered a fire in 1249. Only the main hall was rebuilt in 1266. This hall is now named 'Sanjusangen-do Temple' and, when rebuilt, the exterior was adorned with vermillion lacquer and the interior was decorated with rich colors. The building is of a traditional Japanese architectural style.

The name 'Sanjusangen-do Temple' means '33 ken Temple' and derives from the fact that the structure has a layout of '33 ken, 4 men' (33 ken (lengthwise bays), surrounded by eaves on 4 sides). The number '33' has a connection to the deity Kannon and Buddhist texts such as the Lotus Sutra describe how she can present herself in 33 different forms in order to save the sentient beings of the world.

In the Edo period, the archers of various clans established an archery tournament known as Toshiya along the western side of the main hall (approximately 121m). Continuing this tradition is the 'Sanjusangen-do O-mato Zenkoku Taikai' (national archery competition at Sanjusangen-do Temple) held at the 60 m archery range on the western side of the main building on the same day as the 'Yanagi-no-Okaji' Buddhist ritual (mid January). The sight of adult female participants in full furisode kimono performing archery frequently makes its way onto the television news. The event is generally referred to as 'Toshiya,' but the 60 m long range of today's archery competition is somewhat different to the original Toshiya.

The following legend is associated with Sanjusangen-do Temple. The retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa suffered from headaches for many years.
When he made a pilgrimage to Kumano Sanzan and prayed, Kumano Gongen commanded him to 'pray to the Yakushi Nyorai of Byodo-ji Temple (Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto City).'
When he visited Inaba-do, a monk appeared to him in a dream and told him 'In your previous life, you were a monk from Kumano named Rengebo who was reincarnated as an emperor in reward for his good deeds.
However, Rengebo's skull sank to the bottom of the Iwata-gawa River and a willow grew from the eye socket - it is this that causes your head to become painful whenever the wind blows and moves the skull.'
It is said that when the retired emperor made the Iwata-gawa River (now the Tonda-gawa River) be investigated, it was just as he was told and his headaches were finally cured after he encapsulated the skull inside Sanjusangen-do Temple's statue of Senju-Kannon and used the wood of the willow tree to construct the beams. It is also said that the 'Rengeo-in' main hall was named after the monk Rengebo from whom the emperor was reincarnated. This legend led to the temple being revered as 'Zutsu-fuji no Tera' (or 'The Headache Preventing Temple') and its popular name 'Zutsu-zan Heiyu-ji' (Recovery Temple of Headache Mountain).

The Origin and Structure of the Name 'Sanjusangen'

The name Sanjusangen-do Temple derives from the building's layout of '33 ken, 4 men.'
This means that the structure consists of 33 ken (lengthwise bays), surrounded by eaves on all 4 sides. Although is in fact the main inner core (moya) of the temple that is 33 ken long and, from the outside, the building itself is 35 ken.

The unit 'ken' is not a measurement length but an architectural term that represents the number of bays (space between two pillars) within a temple or shrine. The space between two pillars in Sanjusangen-do Temple is not a fixed distance, nor does it correspond to any of the currently used Kyoma, Chukyoma or Inakama measurements. One explanation states that 1 of Sanjusangen-do Temple's ken (space between two pillars) is the equivalent of 2 of today's ken (12 shaku) to make the entire length of the hall approximately 120 meters (33 x 2 x 1.818) but this is incorrect both in terms of the length of the space between pillars and the number of pillars (however, it essentially matches the actual external length of approximately 121 meters).


Hondo (main hall) (National Treasure) - Kamakura period, hip-and-gable roof with formal tiles

Taikohei (Important Cultural Property) - Features a roof with formal tiles, constructed using funds donated by Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI

Nandai-mon gate (Important Cultural Property) - Features a formal tile gable roof, built by Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI

National Treasures

Hondo (main hall)

A wooden seated statue of Senju-Kannon (wooden canopy attached) - The principal object of veneration is enshrined in the centre of the hall. The statue is 335 centimeter tall. One of Tankei's later works created in 1254.

Wooden statues of Fujin (wind god) and Raijin (thunder god) - Created during the temple revival stage of the Kamakura period. Enshrined on the right and left sides of the inside of the hall. It is also said that these humorous statues of Fujin with his bag of wind and Raijin with his drums were the inspiration for Sotatsu TAWARAYA's "Fujin Raijin zu byobu" (folding screen depicting images of Fujin and Raijin).

Wooden standing statues of the Twenty-eight Attendants of Senju-Kannon - Created during the temple revival stage of the Kamakura period. These stand side by side in front of the one thousand statues of Senju-Kannon (of the 28, the 4 statues of each of the Four Heavenly Kings surround the main deity). The Twenty-eight Attendants are the followers of Senju-Kannon and include familiar deities such as Nio (two Deva Kings) and the Four Heavenly Kings as well as those not so well-known figures, which include Basusennin and Mawara-nyo. The realistic representation of an emaciated old Basusennin is known to be highly representative of Kamakura period sculpture.

Cultural Properties

Nandai-mon gate


1,001 wooden standing statues of Senju-Kannon

Statues stand on tiered altars 10 deep in two 50 row sections to the right and left of the principal deity with one more standing behind to make a total of 1,001. These measure approximately 166 - 167 centimeters in height. The majority were crafted during the temple revival stage of the Kamakura period but the collection also includes 124 Heian period statues that escaped the fire of 1249 (in addition to one statue added during the Muromachi period). It is not known who created the Heian period statues, but over 200 of the Kamakura revival era statues bear the inscriptions of their makers, which include Tankei as well as sculptors of renowned schools of Buddhist statuary such as the Keiha school, Impa school and Empa school, and make it clear that the most prominent Buddhist statue artisans of the era participated in their creation. Of the 1,001 statues, 5 have been deposited with the National museums of Tokyo, Kyoto and Nara. One of the two standing statues of Senju-Kannon that serve as the principle objects of veneration at Hyogo Prefecture's Choko-ji Temple is in the style of those of Sanjusangen-do Temple and it is assumed to have been relocated from the hall.


657 Mawari-cho, Sanjusangendo, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture


Take the Kyoto City Bus No. 206 from JR Kyoto Station for 5 minutes and alight at Hakubutsukan Sanjusangendo-mae bus stop where the temple can soon be reached on foot.

Alight at the Keihan Electric Railway Shichijo Station and walk for 5 minutes.

A carpark is available for visitors and is free for up to 40 minutes (as of 2007).

Nearby Landmarks

Kyoto National Museum
Toyokuni-jinja Shrine (Kyoto City)
Chishaku-in Temple
Myoho-in Temple
Yogen-in Temple
Hoko-ji Temple ('Kokka-anko' temple bell)
Kyoto Women's University
Kawai Kanjiro Memorial Museum
Hyatt Regency Kyoto

[Original Japanese]