Sanjusangendo (三十三間堂, Rengeo-in) is a temple in central/eastern Kyoto famous for its 1,001 Kannon statues. In this post, I’ll share photos I took at Sanjusangendo Temple, its history, info & tips for visiting, and a review of our experience at Sanjusangendo.
There are 1,0001 reasons to visit Kyoto’s Sanjusangendo Temple, but my photos here ain’t one. Okay, I know that’s a cheesy line, but it’s true. It’s also true that I wandered around the outside of the temple struggling for things to photograph so I wouldn’t just have a wall of text here. I had to look like a dummy taking the photos, so the least you can do is endure a dad joke or two.
Well, one of the reasons is pictured here, and that’s the temple hall itself, which at 120 meters is Japan’s longest wooden structure. Most people are probably not all that impressed by long wooden structures (I’m sure there’s a “dirty dad” joke in that, but I won’t go there), making the inside by far the most captivating aspect of a visit to Sanjusangendo Temple.
In the center of the main hall sits the centerpiece of Sanjusangendo Temple: a large wooden statue of a 1,000-armed Kannon. This figure is surrounded by 1,000 human-sized Kannon statues arranged in ten rows. In front of the 1,001 Kannon statues, there are 28 guardian deities said to protect Kannon and pious Buddhists who believe in Kannon.
All of the statues date back at least 700 years and are now classified as Important Cultural Properties, with the gigantic seated statue being a National Treasure of Japan. They are crafted of Japanese cypress, and all lacquered and gilded with gold leaf. Seeing the totality of these statues is breathtaking.
The official name of Sanjusangendo Temple is Rengeo-in Temple, but it’s more commonly known as the former. The temple was established by warrior-politician Taira-no-Kiyomori in 1164.
The original temple building was lost in a fire, but the building was reconstructed in 1266. That structure has remained unchanged for over 700 years, with four great renovations during that time to maintain the structure.
Of the 1,000 smaller statues, 124 statues are originals (having been rescued from…you guessed it…fire!) surviving from the Heian period in which the hall was built, with the remaining 876 statues being crafted over the course of 16 years during the Kamakura period.
Info & Tips
Sanjusangendo Temple is located across from Kyoto National Museum, with the Hakubutsukan-Sanjusangendo-mae bus stop (bus numbers 100, 206, or 208 from Kyoto Station). Alternatively, it’s a 5 minute walk from Shichijo Station on the Keihan Line, making it a convenient stop between Fushimi Inari and Kiyomizudera.
Admission costs 600 yen, with Sanjusangendo Temple being open daily from 8:00 a.m. until 5 p.m. (9:00 a.m. until 4 p.m. from November 16 until March 9), with the last admission being 30 minutes before closing time. We recommend consulting Sanjusangendo’s official website for hours before your visit to ensure accuracy.
Note that photography is not allowed inside Sanjusangendo Temple. I lambasted the anti-photo policy at the Daisenin subtemple in our Daitokuji Temple post, but I’m a reasonable fella. While I was incredibly disappointed that I couldn’t document the meticulously detailed Kannon statues, I respected the no-photo policy. Moreover, I think the motivations for Sanjusangendo Temple’s no-photo policy are pure, and it’s not simply a means of coercing guests into buying postcards (to my knowledge, none are even sold at Sanjusangendo Temple).
One final tip: because there are so many statues, it’s easy to view them as a mass, surveying the collective field of them. We’d strongly encourage you to slow down, and read all the English placards. Focus on specific Kannon statues and appreciate their subtle details and beauty.
We noticed a lot of people breeze past us as we visited Sanjusangendo Temple, and it’d definitely be possible to “complete” a visit in 10 minutes or so if your goal is seeing as much as possible in Kyoto. Try to spend at least 30 minutes in here (which is still a pretty quick visit), so you can actually absorb what you’re seeing.
Our Experience & Review
Since our visit to Sanjusangendo Temple, I’ve been thinking how weird it is that movie reviewers go to such great lengths to avoid spoilers, but the fine art of temple blogging is expected to be straightforward and spill everything. Is it because you readers don’t trust my judgment, or is it because the fear of the unknown temple is too much to handle? (Don’t answer that–it might hurt my feelings.)
I do realize there’s a bit of a difference. Nonetheless, can you imagine walking into Todaiji Temple for the first time without realizing what it contained, or visiting the Golden Pavilion without knowing what it is (okay, maybe that’s a bad example given the name)?
The same is true for Sanjusangendo Temple. I know because that was the case for Sarah. It was entirely by accident, but I had put together our itinerary for this particular day in Kyoto, and I forgot to tell her what Sanjusangendo Temple’s “hook” was prior to walking inside.
When we rounded the first corner and laid eyes on the sea of Kannon statues before us, Sarah stopped in her tracks. I did too, but her reaction was definitely more pronounced. She was awestruck, and for good reason: those statues are quite the impressive sight.
I’m not normally one to endorse lies or deceit, but in the case of Sanjusangendo Temple, that’s totally what you should do with your family if you’re the one who does all the trip planning. If they ask, just evade the question or tell them there are some ancient logs (which isn’t totally a lie).
While you can’t enjoy that same degree of surprise since I’ve spoiled it for you (sorry-not-sorry: if I didn’t, one of the many other trip planning resources you’re likely consulting for Kyoto would), what you can do is maximize the impact. Avoid seeing photos if you already haven’t, and try to go in fresh.
In a ‘review’ sense, I suppose I could knock Sanjusangendo Temple for being a one trick pony. While it definitely is, I think the fact that there are 1,001 individually-crafted Kannon statues each with their own unique details means you will spend significantly more time at Sanjusangendo Temple than you would at one of Japan’s temples that is highlighted by a large bronze Daibutsu.
Overall, we love Sanjusangendo Temple and would put it among the top 20 things to do in Kyoto. I think that these statues being the sole focal point of Sanjusangendo Temple represents a refreshing change of pace. While some temples in Kyoto have a few nice statues, there’s nothing else that is remotely comparable to Sanjusangendo Temple in all of Kyoto. It’d be perfect to slot into the middle of a day filled with more traditional Zen temples (unfortunately, there’s no easy way to do that with your itinerary) to mix things up a bit.
If you’re planning a visit to the Japan that includes Kyoto, please check out my other posts about Japan. I also highly recommend the Lonely Planet Kyoto Guide to determine everything you should see and do while there.
Have you visited Sanjusangendo Temple? What did you think of it? Were you impressed by the 1,001 Kannon statues, or did you feel the temple failed to impress? Would you recommend Sanjusangendo Temple to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting this temple interest you? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!