Shitennoji Temple: The Temple of A Prince

Japan is one of the few countries in the world that houses numerous shrines and temples. This may be attributed to the governing religion in Japan that dates back centuries. With religion such as Buddhism embedded in the history and traditions of Japan, these temples and shrines are important in preserving and continuing the culture of the Japanese people. At present, most of these shrines also serve as tourist attractions for visitors who are interested in how the culture of Japan has developed through the years. One of the temples in Japan that is quite well-known is Shitennoji Temple.

Facts: Hours, Entrance Fee/Ticket Price, and Proximity to Osaka Castle

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Considered as one of the oldest temples standing in Japan, Shitennoji is the first temple ever to be built by the state. Founded in the year 593, the construction of this temple was spearheaded by Prince Shotoku. He fiercely supported the introduction of Buddhism into his beloved homeland. Throughout the centuries, the buildings of the temple have been burned down numerous times. Nonetheless, the buildings were always reconstructed carefully to still look like its original design back in the 6th century.

Entrance is not free for all the temple grounds. Visitors can the outer temple grounds free of charge. However, there is an entrance fee for entering the inner precinct, the treasure house, and the Gokuraku-jodo Garden. The inner precinct has a courtyard covered in pebbles where a five-story pagoda stands tall. Visitors are allowed to enter and climb the pagoda. The Main Hall known as the Kondo is where Prince Shotoku is enshrined as a statue of Kannon.

Just a short walk away from the inner precinct lies the Gokuraku-jodo Garden. Its design was based on the descriptions of the Western Paradise of the Amida Buddha. On the other hand, the temple grounds also contains a treasure house, which consists of paintings, scriptures, and other valuable items of the temple showcased in themed, periodic exhibitions.

The name of the Shitennoji Temple was based on the Shitenno, which are said to be the four heavenly kings. Shitennoji was built in honor of these four heavenly kings. The temple contains four institutions that are meant to help the Japanese people obtain a higher level of civilization. Known as Shika-in or Four Institutions, these institutions are centered on the seven-building garan, which is basically the complex located inside the walls. The Shika-in includes a Kyoden-in or Institution of Religion and Education, a Ryobyo-in or hospital, a Hiden-in or welfare institution, and a Seiyaku-in or pharmacy. They are built to provide necessary to the Japanese people.

The garan is composed of a five-story pagoda, a main Golden Pavilion or Kondo that contains a depiction of the Bodhisattva Kannon, and a Lecture Hall or Kodo situated under a covered corridor that keeps three gates in places. These three gates are known as the Dava Gate, the Eastern Gate, and the Western Gate. Two other gates surround this central complex, namely, the Great South Gate or the Nandaimon and the Great East Gate or the Higashi-no-o’mon. On the western side stands the Great West Gate or the Nishi-no-o’mon. This gate is also known as the Gokuraku-mon. Further west stands the Eastern Gate, a stone torii, to the Gokuraku-jodo, also known as the Western Paradise or the Pure Land.

Souvenirs can be found and bought on the temple grounds of Shitennoji. These goods are sold every 21st of each month. It is easy to access Shitennoji as the temple is located near Shitennoji-mae-Yuhigaoka Station on the Tanimachi Subway Line. One other way of reaching Shitennoji is by getting off at JR Tennoji Station on the JR Loop Line and taking a 10-minute walk up north. It is also only a 15-minute walk coming from Osaka Abenobashi Station on the Kintetsu Minami-Osaka Line.

Its opening and closing time varies depending on the season. The temple is open from 8:30 in the morning until 4:30 in the afternoon from the month of April to the month of September. On the other hand, with the same opening time, the temple closes earlier at 4 in the afternoon from the month of October to the month of March. Shitennoji opens every day of the week.  

The Rich History of Shitennoji Temple

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Shotoku Taishi was the pioneer of building Shitennoji Temple. He played an important role in establishing Buddhism in the 6th century. Legend has it that Prince Shotoku was against the Monobe clan that aimed to eliminate Buddhism in Japan. The prince opposed this idea and carved effigies of the Shitenno, also known as the Four Heavenly Kings, in wood.

As the oldest temple in Japan that is officially administered, Shitennoji welcomes numerous visitors every year. At the age of 16, the prince who built this temple triumphed over the opposition of adopting Buddhism in Japan. It was a fight against two families, namely, the Soga clan and the Monobe clan. The Monobe clan, influential and powerful, supported the retention of ancient Japanese religion. However, the Soga clan, represented by Prince Shotoku, hoped to introduce and later on adopt Buddhism as it has been highly developed from India via China.

The prince devoted to long prayers and promised to build a great temple to honor the patron gods if he won the battle against the Monobe clan. Hence, the prince established Shitennoji on the land obtained from the enemy clan upon the formalization of his regency in the country in the year 593. Because of this, Shitennoji became the first official temple that was constructed on an imperial initiative. As a result, Buddhism was granted the status of state religion.

Because of his decisiveness of adopting Buddhism in the country, the prince was later on canonized after his passing. He was canonized as an incarnation of the Kannon Bodhisattva. At present, the temple is recognized as an important religious structure located in Osaka. For people who are interested in learning more about the temporal and spiritual history of Japan, visiting Shitennoji Temple is a must. Health and welfare are also linked to the temple since its founding as proven by its many institutions.

At present, the temple serves as the headquarters of the Washu sect of Buddhism. The treasure house of the temple also houses some National Treasures, which include swords that are believed to have belonged to Prince Shotoku. Another important piece of the treasure house is a replica of the Heian Period Hokekyo sutra. Other items inside the treasure house are documents, paintings, and sacred objects, all of which are on display in themed exhibitions.

Ceremonies and Festivals Held in Shitennoji Temple

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Being one of the most important temples in the country, Shitennoji holds certain ceremonies and festivals. These events include Shusho-e or Doyadoya that occurs every 14th of January and the Higan-e rituals that occurs in the spring and autumn equinoxes. On the 21st of each month, the temple also holds a flea market where visitors can purchase souvenirs among other items.

The Doyadoya Matsuri occurs every 4th of January in the city of Osaka. The festival marks the end of the 14-day worship, which is a tradition in Buddhism, that begins every first day of the year, which is New Year’s Day. It is held in Shitennoji because of the significance of the temple not just in the country but in Buddhism in Japan. Many consider this temple to be a stronghold for faith in Buddhism in Japan.

Young men hailing from various high schools in the area would gather and form groups near the temple during the event. They would run together into the temple almost naked except for their fudonshi, which is a traditional Japanese undergarment for men. Whilst the young men are running, the priests of the temple shall throw cold water at them as per the custom.

Take note that this custom is done in the month of January, when the weather is extremely cold. However, despite the cold plus the thrown water, the young men would still run with a smile on their faces. Once they get inside the temple, paper charms are released from the ceiling. The aim of the people would be to grab these paper charms as those who are able to grab one are considered victorious.

This custom can take up a whole day depending on the number of people participating. Victory slogans are usually shouted while people are participating in these events. One of the most common slogans shouted is “doya doya.” Another event occurs every 22nd of May, which is a music festival to commemorate Prince Shotoku. A Shitenno dance is performed as this kind of dance has been recognized as national intangible folklore heritage.

Another festival held in Shitennoji is the traditional Japanese star festival known as Tanabata. Held every month of July, a green tunnel made from bamboo and grass is created and decorated with several brilliant LEDs to make it look like the Milky Way. It is customary for visitors to write their wishes on a piece of paper and hang it up when they walk through the tunnel. It is said that the stars would be able to hear one’s wishes. Other events in this festival include a concert, a lecture on stars, and an astronomical viewing session.

One can also head to Shitennoji Temple during the fall or autumn season to celebrate the Shitennoji Wasso Festival. This festival lets visitors learn more about the history of cultural exchange that occurred back in the day between the Land of the Sun and ancient Korea.

Shopping at the Shitennoji Flea Market Morning and Night

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Every 21st of the month, Shitennoji holds a flea market within its temple grounds. This flea market is so popular that most people purposely time their visit with the opening of the flea market. During this day every month, visitors are welcomed by the flea market as they enter the temple grounds. Several stalls and kiosks selling various goods can be found inside the temple, along with throngs of people looking and buying these products.

Several types of souvenirs are sold at various stalls and kiosks. There is also a wide range of wares that one can find in this flea market. Worry not as these products come at a good price. Items such as traditional clothing like kimono, guitars, footwear, and even tableware can be found at this flea market. Some buyers can even bargain the prices of certain items.

Aside from material things, there are also a lot of stalls in the area selling scrumptious and tasty food. Some people may even smell these foods from far away. Most of these stalls tend to offer okonomiyaki, which is basically Japanese pancakes. Fried noodles can also be bought from some stalls. More often than not, foods sold in this flea market are those easy to eat. Some foods are great for people who love meat while others may be eaten by vegetarians.

Another popular food option inside the flea market is the red bean steamed rice. This is especially great for people who are heavy-eaters or are just famished. It is a popular dish so there might be a line after a while. A good tip would be to go there early to avoid the lines. As the flea market is hosted inside a place of worship, some people may also opt to offer prayers prior to proceeding to the flea market.

Visitors need not be religious in order to fully enjoy Shitennoji and its many features. There is a lot to learn just by visiting the temple itself. The atmosphere that it has also has an effect on guests of the temple. The Shitennoji Flea Market is also a great addition for people looking for souvenirs or mementos to remind them of their visit to Shitennoji. Be sure to time one's visit with the Shitennoji Flea Market.