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Mt. Hiei

The Headquarters of the great Tendai Buddhist sect

After Koyasan, we drove the long, long way to Kyoto. Or rather, it was a journey made long by our unfortunate decision to try and stop at a hotel in the nearby area first. What according to google was merely a 30 minute drive away turned out to be more like an hour drive through some of the most treacherous mountain roads any of us had ever experienced. The road was extremely narrow, steep, and lacking guardrails on the sides for much of it. Worse, when there was guardrails these showed large dents and breaks where cars had clearly hit them in the past. Driving such a road at 9 pm in darkness was taxing on us all, and when we arrived to find the hotel was old, somewhat rundown and overpriced, we decided to simply keep on going. We drove out of the hellish backraods back onto a main road, and from there, the drive to Kyoto was merely another 3 hours. We arrived just after midnight.

This time around, I didn't personally do any tourism in Kyoto. I just rested in my hotel and waited for my travel companions to have their fun - I had already been to the city before. What I really wanted to see was Mt. Hiei, which would come on our way out of the city the following day. Mt. Hiei was the other major mountain temple complex established in the 8th/9th century by Kukai's great rival, Saicho. Just as Koyasan was the headquarters of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, Mt. Hiei was the home of the Tendai sect - for many centuries, Japan's most powerful, rich, and influential Buddhist school.

While the synthesis established by Kukai won the day doctrinally, Saicho and his successors succeeded in another important arena - establishing connections and political alliances. By currying favor with the court in Kyoto, the Tendai sect was able to establish itself as the premier Buddhist training ground in all of Japan. In fact, for many years Mt. Hiei was simply the premier education facility, period. Any court noble, aristocrat, or minor member of the imperial house that wanted to avoid a traditional Confucian education in the rites went to Mt. Hiei to be trained in the many schools of Buddhist thought and doctrine. Far from an orthodox or dogmatic center, the Tendai sect thrived on open debate, and debating Buddhist scripture was even a central part of their curriculum. The Tendai sect at Mt. Hiei took everyone, irrespective of background, who wanted a decent education - male or female, poor or rich, it didn't matter.

In time, Buddhist monasteries all across Japan came to establish their own private armies of warrior monks. At its peak, Mt. Hiei wielded a private defense force of some 10,000 Buddhist warriors. Unfortunately, this strength proved its undoing. Percieved as an obstacle to the reunifaction of Japan by the first of three great unifiers, Nobunaga, Mt. Hiei was one day invaded and razed to the ground. Every temple and every warrior was destroyed (as well, we can imagine, as every monk that lived there). After that, the Tendai sect never recovered its strength. Today, the most influential Buddhist school in Japan is the Pure Land sect (Jōdo Shinshu), which follows a doctrine of Buddhist belief based on the worship of the Amida Buddha rather than the pursuit of enlightenment (in this life) that was the primary pursuit of the Tendai sect.

Nonetheless, as a great historical site Japan had naturally rebuilt some of the temple complex. I was very excited to see this temple which had once been the de-facto religious authority of Japan, alongside the spiritual ruler, the emperor, and the military ruler, the Shogun. So I waited until my companions were exhausted with Kyoto, then, we made the drive up together.

Along the way, we made a slight (if relevant) detour to another temple in Kyoto however to experience a temple lunch. I'm not sure what the name of the temple was - it was quite far from the city center, and not one of the more famous ones as far as I'm aware - but it accepted a last minute reservation, which was good enough for us. To get to the temple restaurant, we had to first find the temple itself, then walk through the pleasant temple grounds and a garden into a small building at the rear of the temple. There, we took off our shoes and entered a room with tables to the ground and tatami matts. We ordered the cheapest temple lunch option - a 3,600 Yen (28$ about) lunch. The price was unpleasantly large. But, the meal included something like 10 (tiny) courses of high quality, completely vegetarian traditional Japanese food. Each dish was thoughtfully and artfully prepared, and included one item representing (as far as we could tell) every flavor pallet.

The tofu was especially good, and had the richest, creamiest texture of any tofu I'd ever tried. The room had a nice view of the temple garden. I found myself thinking that if only the cost was 1/3rd what we'd paid, I'd happily have had such a meal every day. As it was, it would have to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. All things said, by the end, we were very satisfied with our experience.

After that, the drive up to Mt. Hiei was easy enough, and only took about thirty or forty minutes from the temple lunch. The views near the top were exquisite, showing all of Lake Biwa, Japan's biggest lake, and the mountains around it. To get to the temple itself we had to pass through a massive toll gate - quite an unpleasant surprise - and drive another ten or fifteen minutes. There, we found the temple complex and parked in the main parking lot. The lot was almost completely full - Mt. Hiei was clearly a popular tourist destination. Thankfully, the tourists this time were almost fully Japanese, and aside from a few Chinese visitors, we were the only westerners there.

Lake Biwa

Outside the complex was a gift shop and ice cream vendor, then, a gate where one had to pay about 1,200 Yen to enter (around 10$). Grumbling, we paid the fine - we were all starting to get fed up with having to pay to see holy sites - then entered. The path weaved upwards and was lined on both sides with a series of posters depicting, as far as I could tell, scenes from Saicho's life and from the founding of the temple.

A painting of Saicho (I think) crossing the ocean to China

A painting of the monks at worship

Saicho rowing to shore in China I suspect

This one just looks like a map

Passed this, we rounded out into an open area where the first temple stood. According to the inscription, I believe this temple was also traditionally the debate hall where Buddhist students would dispute scripture (though I may have been mixing up the buildings). Either way, I thoroughly enjoyed visiting the interior, which was teeming with Japanese visitors, monks selling charms and talismans (and Gashuin stamps, which I happily paid for), and a large row of Buddha statues at the back behind an altar. It felt inappropriate to take photos, as the temple was clearly an active site of worship, so I respectefully refrained from photographing all but the exterior of the building.

Side view of the first (and probably main) temple

Frontal view of the temple

Outside, there was a bell which many people lined up for and took turns to ring. Many parents were there, holding up there little kids so they could ring the bell while other families stood to the side and took photos. Then further below, the path led down an incline to where a second series of buildings stood. These seemed to be more practical in nature - a meditation training hall, a funeral parlor (I believe), and even a plaque dedicated to a world peace summit which had apparently occured on Mt. Hiei a few decades earlier. It was interesting to see the ways in which this temple managed to remain active and significant, at both the local and international level.

The bell outside the main temple. People lined up to ring it using a large wooden ringer.

Second complex below the first

Funeral parlor (I believe) at the second complex

Plaque comemorating the international peace summit that took place at Mt. Hiei

From this complex, one road led down, to what appeared to be the most historic temple on the premise (but which was, currently, covered in a rather simple and ugly white wall that appeared to be part of a renovation process), and another road led up to a pagoda overlooking the first. First I wandered down to see this building. Then, seeing that the building there looked a little out of sorts, I gave up on the plan.

This white building was either another temple, or, the local museum. I'm not sure.

There was a poster explaining the renovation process on the wall of the building

After, noticed a set of stairs leading directly to the pagoda. Infront of it was a set of trees apparently still in their autumn colors. The sight really took me surprise - especially since in the parking lot I had seen a number of Sakura trees still in bloom, despite the fact that the majority of Sakura had already falled in this area over a month ago. What kind of mountain was this, I wondered, where time and the seasons seem to only partially apply?

stairway to the pagoda, only sightly visible through the leaves

A more up-close view, from the bottom of the stairs

Naturally, seeing such a tempting looking sight I couldn't resist. I decided to climb up to visit it up close.

Pagoda from below the stairs

Pagoda as seen from the top of the stairs

Interior of the pagoda

At the top, the pagoda was quite a pretty structure - but nothing magnificent by Japanese standards. In fact, the whole complex surprised me with its plainness and small size. For a site with such historic significance, I had really been expecting much more. something on par, at least, with the sprawling size of the temple complexes at Koyasan. Mt. Hiei seemed, by contrast, almost like an afterthought to the former. I decided that the Tendai sect must have simply fallen out of favor and influence in a way that the Shingon sect had not. Or perhaps, it was simply eclipsed as a tourist destination by all the nearby temples in Kyoto. Once proud to stand so near to the capital, today perhaps it was more of a victim of its proximity to that glorious city.

Whatever the case, after seeing the pagoda I decided I had really seen enough for the time being. Given my time constraints, I did not even take the time to view the mausoleum of Saicho (which was down the road another five minutes and, quite cruelly, behind yet another toll road booth we'd have had to pay for. Come on Japan!). Yet, I left feeling grateful to see a religious site which, while not as glorious as some of the others I'd seen, still had a pleasantly alive feel to it. There is something to be said about a Buddhist temple where people can come with their families to take a photo with a guy wearing a large Buddha costume, in an atmosphere of familiarity and ease.


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