“I am going to burn them with the flames of war and let the true Buddha be called forth from these ashes!”
— Oda Nobunaga
Imagine this. You’ve just consolidated control over most of Japan but there’s still a constant thorn in your side. Much to your chagrin, the warrior monks of Mt. Hiei continue to meddle in your affairs. Based in the mountaintop bastion of Enryaku-ji, this Buddhist collective has long held sway over the politics of Kyoto. In fact, many years ago, Emperor Shirakawa even went as far as lamenting that the only three phenomenon that he couldn’t control were the waters of the Kamo River, the roll of the dice and the monks of Mt. Hiei (talk about being influential).
The aforementioned scenario is exactly the predicament that the warlord Oda Nobunaga found himself in. Though he largely held dominion over Kyoto since the year 1568, the Buddhist citadel to the northeast on Mt. Hiei continued to pose a perplexing problem. The warrior monks arrogantly believed that their supreme religious morality allowed them to intervene in political affairs without fear of counterpressure. Safe in their fortified temple complexes, they haughtily thought that no one would dare call their bluff and put them in check.
The idea of aggressive monks might come as a surprise to travelers who have witnessed the kind souls who follow the teachings of Buddhism in Japan today. That said, many of the solemn adherents of the Buddha from yesteryear were little like their modern counterparts. Faced with the cruel world of the Warring States period (1467–1603), these monks had little other recourse than to become violent judicators of the Buddha’s law. Alas, power corrupts they say and the monks of Mt. Hiei were no exception. Privileged by absolute religious immunity, the devout Buddhists of Enryaku-ji quickly found they could impose on the capital without fear of repercussion.
Now, a normal man would likely deem that a site as sacred as Mt. Hiei’s Enryaku-ji was impervious to any and all sorts of reprimanding. After all, the sanctuary had been established centuries before to protect Kyoto from the fowl and nefarious energies that were thought to flow from the northeast. Unfortunately for the monks living on Mt. Hiei though, Oda Nobunaga was no normal man. In a break with just about every commonly held axiom of the time, the warlord decided that the entirety of the corrupt establishment needed to be purged so that the Buddha’s light could once again shine from Mt. Hiei.
For those who may be missing the significance here, understand that it’s really quite hard to overstate just how much of an ideological transgression Nobunaga’s savagery really was. The European equivalent might be something like putting the entirety of the Vatican to the torch. It just wasn’t a play that was even in the books. As the warrior monks of Mt. Hiei would learn though, Oda Nobunaga wasn’t a leader who played by the rules. Against the wishes of even his own top brass, he levied such a bloody massacre on the mountain that it would ultimately earn him the moniker of “the Demon King.”
On a fateful September night in the year 1571, Oda Nobunaga amassed a force that was 30,000 men strong and marched on the ancient Buddhist sanctum atop Mt. Hiei. Favoring a scorched earth strategy, the mad military genius set the entire holy mountain ablaze. All in all, the warlords’ forces butchered as many as 20,000 souls as well as burned around 300 buildings to the ground. Though the few survivors would thereafter be allowed to rebuild Enryaku-ji, it would never again be the same nor would there be any more meddling from the warrior monks.
Getting to Mt. Hiei & Enryaku-ji
In the interest of brevity, I’ve brushed over a lot of the minutia when it comes to Oda Nobunaga’s assault on Mt. Hiei. If you’d like to learn more, I suggest you check out the in depth exposé embedded above by The Shogunate. In the remainder of this article, I want to move on and focus on the present-day Mt. Hiei from a tourism perspective as well as what remains of Enryaku-ji’s former glory. To kick things off, let’s first talk logistics. As mentioned, Mt. Hiei is located to the northeast of Japan’s former capital. As such, you’ll first need to schlep your behind over to Kyoto.
Once you’re in the former capital, there are a number of ways that you can reach Mt. Hiei from the city’s center. One method involves approaching the peak from the Kyoto side whereas the other will require that you head over to Shiga Prefecture to make the ascent. Depending on the season, which of these two is easier can change greatly. From what I can tell, the Shiga Prefecture option is the more sound choice so I am going to go ahead and recommend that route. That said, do feel free to do a bit of digging online yourselves to see which is preferable for you.
To get to the cable car that will take you up to Mt. Hiei, you can either take the JR Kosei Line to Hieizan-Sakamoto Station or you can take the Keihan Ishiyama-Sakamoto Line to Sakamoto-Hieizanguchi Station. The former option involves fewer transfers for those coming from Kyoto Station whereas the latter will take you closer to the cable car. As always, just refer to Hyperdia or a similar service to do the heavy lifting with the train schedules. Regardless of what station you use though, you’ll either need to hoof it to the cable car or hop a bus if you’re not a strong walker.
Though you can technically hike up Mt. Hiei if you so desired, the real reason that one would want to visit is to see Enryaku-ji. Because of this, you’re going to want to take the cable car. While it will set you back nearly 2,000 yen, it’s money well spent when you consider how much time you’ll save. Note that you’ll also need to fork over an additional 1,000 yen to get into Enryaku-ji as well as a further 500 yen if you want to see the temple’s treasure hall. No one said supporting Buddhism would be cheap…
Mt. Hiei & Enryaku-ji Today
As far as temples go, the Enryaku-ji complex is about as big as they come. In fact, in all of my travels to date, I don’t think I’ve seen anything as grand as the sprawling grounds of Enryaku-ji. Split across three separate sections, exploring all of this temple will take you the better part of a day. As such, you really need to budget for enough time to be able to examine every nook and cranny. Though a major time investment, this mountaintop stronghold of Buddhism radiates spirituality and is well worth the extra hours.
The three areas that comprise Enryaku-ji are as follows…
- Todo (Eastern Pagoda)
This is the easternmost part of Enryaku-ji and is home to the temple’s most important buildings. Over a millenia ago, it’s from this very spot that all of Enryaku-ji sprung forth. Here, you’ll find the main hall (which is known as the Konpon Chu-do and is considered to be a national treasure here in Japan) as well as a number of other beautifully austere structures. Nearby, you’ll also find an impressive pagoda and a hall venerating the Amida Buddha, Finally, note that the Todo area is also home to the must-visit Enryaku-ji treasure hall too which houses the most jaw dropping collection of Buddhist effigies I’ve ever seen. While entering will run you an additional few hundred yen, you’d be a fool to pass it up!
- Saito (Western Pagoda)
Back towards the Kyoto side of Mt. Hiei, you’ll find Enryaku-ji’s second area, the Saito. While there’s actually a bus route connecting the Todo and the Saito, there’s a pleasant walking trail between the two that I suggest you follow. This path will take you past the mausoleum of Saicho, the Buddhist “saint” who founded Enryaku-ji in the early 800s (more on that later). Thereafter, you’ll encounter adjoined halls that were allegedly shouldered by the monk Benkei who was renowned for his immense strength. Just beyond, you’ll at last come to the Shaka-do which is the oldest building on the mountain. The structure was moved all the way from Nara Prefecture during the rebuilding of Mt. Hiei following Oda Nobunaga’s onslaught.
Located several kilometers north of Todo and Saito, the Yokawa area is often far less visited than the aforementioned duo. That said, if you don’t mind figuring out the buses or alternatively walking, I’d highly suggest that you make time for this more obscure portion of Enryaku-ji. While there are a number of buildings to checkout, I highly recommend that you not sleep on the Yokawa Chu-do. The building has been erected such that it protrudes out over the slope with the help of a number of supporting vermillion pillars.
Lastly, while exploring the vast grounds of Enryaku-ji, you’ll want to make a point to seek out the Ruri-do. Found down an obscure path somewhere in Saito, this little hall is the only structure that was not razed during Oda Nobunaga’s fiery purge. It’s a bit hard to find so keep an eye out for a pathway near the Saito’s Shaka-do hall.
Mt. Hiei & Enryaku-ji’s Founding
By now, it should come as no surprise that Enryaku-ji was and continues to be one of the most important temple complexes out there. Since its founding in the early 800s by the eminent monk Saicho, Enryaku-ji has been the head of the Tendai sect of Buddhism. Along with Shingon, which was founded by Saicho’s contemporary Kukai, these two branches of Buddhism represent Japan’s first forays into esoteric Buddhism. Both of the creators of these two schools studied extensively in China and brought back the secret teachings that they received from the monasteries there.
As the history books tell us, Saicho was originally an ordained monk of Nara’s popular Todai-ji (you know, that temple with the MASSIVE Buddha). One day, he inexplicably departed and headed north to Mt. Hiei. Though the exact reasons for his departure remain unknown, Saicho immersed himself in Buddhist text while on the sacred peak. Eventually, monks from Nara and other regions started flocking to Mt. Hiei and from this collective, the seeds of what would become Enryaku-ji were sown.
Now, one of the really intriguing tales about Saicho maintains that he carved a statue of Yakushi Nyorai, the Medicine Buddha. Thereafter, he lit an oil lamp before this effigy and prayed that the flame would never be snuffed out. To this day over 1,200 years later, the fire has not once ever been dosed. In homage of this mind-blowing quality, the lamp that holds this flame is now known as the Fumetsu-no-Hoto (lit. “Inextinguishable Dharma Lamp”). This means that even through Oda Nobunaga’s rampage, the monks of Mt. Hiei never let Saicho’s spark go out.
Despite its humble beginnings as a spiritual getaway for Saicho and the monks who followed him, Enryaku-ji and Mt. Hiei soon grew to incredible importance. This was thanks to the capital being moved to what is now present day Kyoto in the year 794. Since Mt. Hiei just so happened to be conveniently located at the northeast of the city (see this article on “the Demon Gate’’ for context — I don’t want to delve into Japanese geomancy here), Saicho quickly gained the attention of the court. Thereafter, Mt. Hiei and Enryaku-ji developed special privileges as protectors of Kyoto.
Given how important Mt. Hiei was to the city of Kyoto, it is all the more shocking that Oda Nobunaga did what he did. In an era without modern science, it was simply impossible to discern superstitious fiction from reality. Since leveling Enryaku-ji would allegedly expose Kyoto to the supposed evils that flow from the northeast, it’s really unthinkable that Oda Nobunaga was able to muster the courage to go through with it. Then again, the so-called “Demon King” did end up being betrayed in a manner similar to that of Julius Caesar so maybe those enigmatic geomancers were on to something…
Attractions Near Mt. Hiei & Enryaku-ji
While a trip to Enryaku-ji will take the better half of a day, there are a number of other great allures in the vicinity. Assuming that you’re properly planning and doing Mt. Hiei its due diligence, you can probably sneak in one or two of the following. That said, don’t try to do too many of these attractions as they will take away from your time on Mt. Hiei. As always, I’ll include some links for further reading for your reference…
- Mangetsu-ji’s Ukimido
I’ve mentioned this hidden gem before in other pieces but it’s the only surviving spot from Hiroshige’s “Eight Views of Omi” woodblock print collection. Pictured above, this hall juts out over Lake Biwa. While the present buildings are not the original and date only from 1937, they are faithful to the predecessor that was here for centuries.
- Shirahige Shrine
These days, this hidden gem is getting a lot more attention than it used to thanks to Instagram. While I visited back in 2019 as a pilgrimage for longevity, Shirahige Shrine is popping up lately on the Gram due to its torii gate that sits out in Lake Biwa. As far as I can tell, Shirahige Shrine is fulfilling a void that’s been left ever since the eternally popular torii at Itsukushima Shrine went under construction. Whether you are visiting for longevity-related reasons like I did or just want a killer selfie, this is one spot you shouldn’t sleep on!
- Omi Jingu
While a relatively modern establishment that was erected in 1940, this shrine is registered as an Important Cultural Property. Omi Jingu honors the Emperor Tenji who carried out a number of historic reforms and also helped to move the capital away from Nara and the omnipresent influence of the temples there. Though not a historic shrine per say, it is nonetheless quite picturesque.
In addition to the above attractions, which all fall on the Shiga Prefecture side of Mt. Hiei, there’s also Kurama and Kibune back in Kyoto. Depending on when you’re visiting, the cable car on that side of the mountain may or may not be operating. Because of this, there are times of the year that it’s simply not logistically sound to consider them in the context of an add-on to Enryaku-ji.
Until next time travelers…