Ailsa’s Travel Theme: Wood


This is Sanjūsangen-dō, a Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan that at 390 feet (120 meters) in length is the largest wooden structure in Japan. Built in 1164, its name translates to “Hall With Thirty-three Spaces Between Columns,” which describes the 33 sanjusan (bays) between the building’s support pillars, a traditional method of measuring the size of a building. A deeply spiritual place, it is also houses an amazing collection of traditional Japanese religious art.

Sanjūsangen-dō is dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist divinity believed to assist distressed humans and lead them to enlightenment. According to Buddhist belief, Kannon is said to assume any of thirty-three forms in which to be of assistance, giving traditional resonance to this long, narrow building’s 33 bay design.

Sanjūsangen-dō7Retired emperor turned religious man Go-shirakawa commissioned the building of the original temple (called Rengeō-in) in 1164. A fire destroyed Rengeō-in in 1249, and the main hall was faithfully reconstructed in 1266. An annual archery competition known as Tōshiya has been held on the temple grounds since the Edo period of 1606.

Like many places in Kyoto, the temple complex has a hushed, serene feel, and the area outside of the temple features a serenity pool, wash basin, traditional bibbed monuments, and a post where people can write well-wishes on slips of paper. The entire area is walled, and punctuated by massive gates painted in vivid orange, nearly everything made from wood.

While the exterior of this temple is indeed impressive (I couldn’t fit the whole structure into a single frame) it’s what’s inside that makes Sanjūsangen-dō a must-see Kyoto destination. After entering the building from a side entrance, you stroll down a long hallway that features paintings and artifacts describing the temple’s rich 850-year history. One of the more fascinating exhibits tells the story of a legendary duel between famous warriors Miyamoto Musashi and Yoshioka Denshichirō fought outside the temple in 1604.

Sanjūsangen-dō Temple15But turn a corner and you are met with the intense sight of 1000 life-size sculpture of the Thousand Arm Kannon, each nearly six feet tall. These statues are situated in 10 rows and 50 columns on both the left and right sides of the main temple, flanking a larger, 11-feet tall Kannon seated in the middle. 124 of these statues were rescued from the 1249 fire while the remaining 876 statures were built in the 13th century. In front of the 1000 Kannon stand 28 statues of guardian deities, each with its own unique story and distinctive facial expressions.

Amazingly, each of these Kannon statues are made from wood (Japanese cypress), then lacquered and covered with gold leaf. Subtle yet cleverly strategic interior lighting reflects off the statue’s gold leaf finish, bathing the room in a pale golden aura.

The sight is truly mesmerizing, almost surreal, and one of the most impressive of my trip to Kyoto. However, be forewarned that photography is expressly forbidden inside the main temple. Of all the temples I visited in Kyoto, Sanjūsangen-dō had the strictest No Photography policy, and there are many signs saying as such. In fact, if you’re even suspected of snapping a pic, temple guards will ask to see your camera so they can check. (That said, I took all of the exterior shots you see here, while pics of the interior were providing by the generosity of the Internet.)

So cool that itchy shutter finger once inside the main temple, and just soak in this truly one-of-kind sight. Stunning in every way, put Sanjūsangen-dō near the top of your must-see list when visiting Kyoto.

Sanjūsangen-dō8Check out the gallery after the jump!

About Stephen Kelly Creative

Hi, I'm Stephen Kelly, a writer, editor, photographer and graphic designer living in beautiful San Francisco, CA, USA. Amongst the things I love are writing, photography, movies, music, fitness, travel, Batman, all things Australian, food and fun, all of which I hope to reflect in this here blog. Welcome aboard ... now let's get busy!
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12 Responses to Ailsa’s Travel Theme: Wood

  1. andy1076 says:

    I understand the reason behind respecting and honoring a temple, by not taking photography but. At the same time, would it not benefit the temple to bring in tourists? 🙂 amazing photos!

    • Hi Andy … and thanks for visiting. I thought the same thing. Many of the other temples in Kyoto allow you to take photos (although some are so dark inside it’s hard to get a good exposure). Dunno know why this one is so strict.

  2. kayrpea61 says:

    You bring back wonderful memories of visits to Kyoto and Nara. All my photos from there are pre-digital. Thank you for sharing, Stephen.

  3. Lovely photos, Stephen. I always appreciate your sharing the benefits of your ability to travel, as I have been kept to my home now mostly for a number of years due to short income. You open an eye on the world for me.

  4. viveka says:

    Stephen, excellent post and stunning gallery – wood, it’s an amazing material … my grandpa was a woodcarver – he did even an altarpiece in oak. Kyoto is one my bucket list .. have decided to back, but not this year. Thanks for all the background information – excellent job.

    • thanks, viveka. i want to branch into more travel writing this year, and this was my first stab at that.
      yah, my uncle had a great hand with wood working, and he built a number of things in their home. that’s a wonderful talent to have!

      • viveka says:

        Good luck with what ever .. you decide to do with your blog – what I have landed in so fare, has been very existing and I’m sure it will stay that way. *smile

  5. pommepal says:

    The photography police came down on me in SYDNEY!!!! when I was taking sneaky photos inside one of the cathedrals. I already had a couple so we just slunk away before they asked us to delete them…

    • I know! They’re downright militant at St. Mary’s. I’ve been able to snap pics in Photo Restricted areas of the Art Gallery Of New South Wales … you just gotta take ’em when the guard is not looking or when they can’t see you.

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