Sanjusangendo Temple

The 33 interval temple. Such a humble name for such an impressive place. It wasn’t a temple that I knew anything about before arriving in Kyoto but the impact it’s had on me will undoubtedly remain with me for a long time to come.

We just seemed to stumble upon it and in a city of around 2,000 temples and shrines, it would have been so easy to continue walking by without stopping. I can’t explain how pleased I am that we decided to pause at this one in particular, as it’s easily the most awe-inspiring temple I have ever seen.

From the outside, the Sanjusangendo Temple structure is the longest in Japan, measuring a length of 120 metres. During the Edo period, annual archery competitions required competitors to direct the arrow accurately from one end to the other. I’m not sure how successful they were as there is still plenty of evidence of archers who didn’t quite get their aim perfected.

The usual ritual of removing shoes over with, we were then told very insistently that no photos could be taken in the main hall and that cameras will be checked on departure. This suddenly piqued my interest. In a society where the mobile phone is mostly found hanging around your neck waiting for the next selfie opportunity, I was astonished and delighted to be told that everyone must put them away. An experience that was to be enjoyed and also savoured by allowing yourself to be in the moment with no distractions. Brilliant.

After a brief historical explanation from our guide Chiaki, I tentatively began walking into the main hall. I really had no idea what to expect. I turned the corner and tried to process what I was seeing. I had been told that the figures inside had all been handmade from wood and clad in gold leaf and depicted Kannon, the goddess of mercy. Already I had been impressed but when I saw the detail on each figure, I found it hard to comprehend how the carvers had managed to duplicate such an exact copy on each statue.

Despite being a Buddhist temple each statue reminded me of the Hindu God Durga as each had 42 arms holding something different, 11 heads to better witness the suffering of humans plus an intricate crown. Standing at the same height as a typical Japanese person, each statue was then stood on a lotus flower, as it was believed that us humans live underneath.

Once I had analysed the first few figures in my immediate sight I allowed my eyes to travel down the length of the temple. Incredible. Row upon row of identical, human-sized statues. Numbering 1,001 in total, it took 100 years to accomplish this feat, meaning that the original shogun who commissioned the temple was not alive to see the finished product.

The task of putting into words the feeling of surprise, beauty and awe is almost impossible. It was such a personally emotive feeling that it is hard to describe. To be honest, I would rather leave it unsaid and simply encourage you to go and experience it for yourself. And don’t worry, I’ve neglected to describe the whole temple so there’s still an element of surprise left for you too…