Did you know that Byodoin temple was built to represent the “ultimate afterworld” ?

During Heian era(794-1185) people dreamed of living happily in the afterworld rather than this life. In 1052, Byodoin temple was built by the most prestigious aristocracy at that time. It is completely representing the afterworld that they longed to live.

But, how on earth could this kind of thought grab people’s heart?
Just knowing a few stories will make your experience completely different! Please check the articles!

Read in Japanese






Commemorative photo at Byodoin Temple Kyoto

Commemorative photo at Byodoin temple(平等院での記念撮影)

"Tips" to enjoy the Highlights

1. Historical background of Byodoin Temple / Brilliant afterworld longed for by prestigious aristocracy!

☆Uji - Soothing resort fascinating people in all ages

The main hall of Byodoin also known as “Phoenix Hall” miraculously stands in Uji, just as it did when it was first built almost 1000 years ago.

Uji was a popular resort area among the aristocratic families who were key players both in politics and culture at that time.
It is 100 years before the establishment of the first Samurai government and the era when the noble aristocracy seized all the power.

In fact, Byodoin was originally a villa of a powerful aristocrat called "Michinaga Fujiwara". It was converted to a Buddhist temple by his son "Yorimichi Fujiwara" in 1052. This is the start of this place as a temple.

Photo of soothing atmosphere of Uji area Kyoto

Soothing atmosphere of Uji (宇治の落ち着きのある雰囲気)

☆The end of the world is coming soon!

The year 1052 when Byodoin was established had a special meaning for the Buddhists. Do you know why?

It was exactly 2000 years after the death of Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. People feared that Buddhism would lose its power and the world would plunge into chaos.

☆Longing for happiness after death?

In that situation, the “Pure Land philosophy” spread widely. It’s a way of thinking that made people dream of going to the Pure Land to live happily in the afterlife because there was no chance to be saved in this life.

Though, how on earth could this kind of thought grab people’s heart so widely? Could you imagine it?

I think the short life span was one of the factors to boost their desire to go to the Pure Land. Around the 11th century, the Japanese life span was only 30 years or so. Without the well-advanced technology and science that we have today, natural disasters and diseases killed many more people.

In other words, the death was much closer and more familiar in their daily life. Because of these circumstances, people started to devote themselves to the Pure Land philosophy.

☆Reaching the top! But still…

As I already mentioned, the founder of this temple, Yorimichi Fujiwara, was in an outstanding position at the court aristocracy at that time.
Well then, can you guess how the Fujiwara clan took power?

The answer is ... they schemed to produce an Emperor from their clan by a marriage of convenience.

For example, Michinaga Fujiwara married 4 of his daughters off to the emperors and eventually had 3 grandsons who became Emperor. His son Yorimichi also held great power in the same way. These two generations were the peak of the clan’s power.

But even such powerful persons seemed to fear the death and were devoted to the Pure Land philosophy. Byodoin was the ideal afterlife world which the most prestigious aristocracy desired to go to, constructed by the best techniques of that day.

Let’s explore the brilliant Pure Land together!

Photo of Michinaga Fujiwara, Heian aristocracy of Japan Kyoto

Michinaga Fujiwara (藤原道長) Kikuchi Yōsai (1781 - 1878) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Read in Japanese (1.平等院の創建ストーリー / 最強貴族が夢見た きらびやかな死後の世界)





実は平等院も元々は強大な力を持っていた貴族「藤原道長」の別荘でした。 1052年、息子の「藤原頼道」が仏教寺院に変えたのが平等院の始まりです。


平等院が生まれた1052年は仏教の世界においてとても大きな意味のある年でした。 何故だかわかりますか?

その年は仏教を開いた釈迦が亡くなってちょうど2000年。 仏教がすたれ混沌とした世になってしまうと、人々が恐れおののいていた時代でした。


このような状況で人々の間に広まったのが「浄土信仰」。 「この世で救われないのなら死んでから浄土で幸せに暮らしたい」という考え方です。

けれども、いったいどうしてこのような信仰が広く人々の心を掴むことになったのでしょうか? その理由、想像がつきますか?

一つの理由として、その時代の人々の寿命の短さがあったのではないかと私は思います。 11世紀頃、日本人の寿命はたった30年ほど。 今日のような進んだ医療技術のない時代、自然災害や病で今よりもはるかに多い人々が亡くなっていました。

言い換えると、その頃の人々にとって、死は私たちよりはるかに身近なものであり、常に隣り合わせで生きていたのではないでしょうか。 このような状況もあって、人々は浄土信仰を深く信じるようになっていったと考えられます。


前述のように、平等院を作った藤原頼道は当時の貴族の中でも抜きん出た存在でした。 では、その藤原氏はどうやって権力を握ったのでしょうか?


例えば、藤原道長は4人の娘を天皇と結婚させ、そこに生まれた孫のうち3人が天皇となりました。 道長の息子である藤原頼道も同じようにして強大な力を持ちました。 この二世代が藤原氏の全盛期を作ったのです。

けれども、彼らのように絶大な権力を持っていた人であっても、やはり死は怖かったようです。 死後の世界への強い思いを持っていました。 平等院は当時、最も有力だった貴族が最高級の技術を駆使して作り上げた理想の死後の世界だったのです。


2. Houou-do & Pure Land style garden / A keyword is “Phoenix (Houou in Japanese)”

☆Doesn't it dawn on you?

Byodo-in is the temple that is even famous to Japanese people.

And if you are already in Japan, I guess you have often seen it somewhere…

There is a temple building called “Phoenix Hall”, that has phoenix figurines on top of its roof.
Doesn’t it dawn on you?

You can see the building on 10 yen coins and the figurine on 10,000 yen bills. Now check them out!

The Phoenix hall was chosen to be depicted on the coin because it is a valuable and beautiful hall which still remains after 1000 years.

The Phoenix printed on 10,000 yen bill is an imaginary bird which was respected in ancient China. It is said that it appears as a sign of happiness.

Photo of 10 yen coin, Byodoin Temple's Hououdo building depicted to it

10 yen coin and Phoenix hall(10円玉と鳳凰堂)

☆Palace of Paradise

A pair of brilliant Phoenixes are face-to-face on the roof. The graceful face of Amitabha Buddha is seen through a window, and it shines in the morning sun. This symmetrical panoramic view of the Phoenix Hall is so elegantly reflected on the water surface, it looks like a palace floating on a pond of the Pure Land, because this Phoenix hall represents an image of the Pure Land.

The end of Heian era (11~12century) nobles hoped to be reborn in the Pure Land after their death. Therefore such temples representing the Pure Land were actively built. Byodo-in temple is also one of them.

Phoenix figurine on the roof of Hououdo, Byodoin Temple in Kyoto Japan

Phoenix on the roof (鳳凰)

☆Phoenix flew down on Aji-ike pond

If you had bird’s-eye view, you would find Houou-do just like a Phoenix spreading its wings. The corridors as two wings of a phoenix stretch to the right and left from the central hall (Cyu-do). It makes the whole building look elegant.

But those corridors actually are not connected to the central hall, and they don’t have enough height for people to stand and walk. It means that the corridors are not practical at all, they are just decorations. And this hall also has another corridor as a tail extending from the back of the central hall.

Don’t you think how extravagant it is?!

This Phoenix hall is built on the center of the island in Aji-ike pond.

So it is a characteristic building which was taken account of its design and not be seen anywhere else. I really wish I were a bird!

Photo of tail of phoenix at Byodoin temple Houdoudo Building Kyoto Japan

Tail part of the Phoenix (鳳凰の尻尾部分)

☆Pure Land Garden

The pure land garden was made considering itself as paradise. It expresses the people’s longing for the Pure Land.

Please make a reference to the linked article for more details. >> link to the Garden History article

Photo of Garden of Byodoin Temple Kyoto representing the pureland

Garden (庭園)

☆Flowers in the precinct

Seasonal flowers, such as cherry blossoms, azaleas and water lilies are growing in the Byodo-in precinct.

Above all the best flower is wisteria. Byodo-in temple is also well known as a wisteria spot in Kyoto prefecture.

We can see gorgeous wisterias hanging down from the big trellises every year from the middle of April until the beginning of May. The length of each bunch of flower is over one meter, they are about to reach the ground.

It is awesome!!

Lotus flower in early summer, Muromachi camellia in winter, these were grown up from the old seeds which were excavated in the bottom mud of Aji-ike Pond.

When maple tree leaves turn their color in autumn, we will be able to see the beauty of the Pure Land in a different way!

This is a MUST SEE in Japan. Please go on to Byodo-in temple in Uji city from Kyoto city.

Photo of Wisteria at Byodon temple Kyoto

Wisteria (フジ)

Read in Japanese (2. 鳳凰堂と浄土庭園 / キーワードは鳳凰!?)


平等院はとっても有名! 日本人なら誰でも知っています。

「鳳凰堂」と呼ばれるお寺の屋根の上には「鳳凰」の像が。 ピン!ときましたか?

ヒントは10円玉と、一万円札。 さあ、確かめてください!




屋根の上に輝く二羽の鳳凰、窓から見える、朝日を受けた阿弥陀さまの上品なお顔。 左右対称に建てられた優雅な鳳凰堂全景。 それはあたかも極楽の宝池に浮かぶ宮殿のように、その美しい姿を水面に映しています。 それもそのはず、この鳳凰堂は極楽浄土を表現したものです。

平安時代末期(11~12世紀)、日本では極楽往生を願う信仰が広まっていて、このような仏堂が盛んに建てられました。 平等院もその中の一つです。


鳳凰堂は、まるで翼を広げた鳥のようです。 中央の中堂から左右に伸びる渡り廊下が翼を表しています。 この渡り廊下がこの建物を優雅に見せているのです。

しかし、この渡り廊下は中堂と繋がっておらず、また人が立って歩ける高さもありません。 これらは美しさを求めて造られた、ただの飾りです。 そして、背後に別の渡り廊下、尾に当たる建物が続いています。



このように、鳳凰堂はデザインを重視した他にはない特徴ある建物です。 ああ、鳥になって空から見てみたい!






中でも一番すばらしいのが藤の花。 平等院は京都の藤の名所としても有名です。

毎年4月中旬から5月初めまで、大きな藤棚に見事な藤の花を見ることができます。 花穂は1m以上にもなり、地面に届きそうです。



日本に来たなら、平等院は必見! 京都からちょっと足を伸ばしてぜひ、宇治を訪れてくださいね。

3. Houshokan museum / More impressive than the main building!?

☆Let's experience the Pure Land!

When you visit Byodoin Temple, of course you will enjoy viewing splendid buildings and strolling around the beautiful garden. But I highly recommend that you set aside plenty of time for the Byodoin-museum “Hoshokan”. There is so much to appreciate!

There are five exhibition rooms in the museum and you can see many national treasures including a pair of phoenix, a temple bell and others. In addition to that, the best thing about visiting the museum is that you can see what the Pure Land is like, which Japanese people dreamed of 1000 years ago.

Out of the five rooms, I'd like to explain about the 4th room "Room of the door painting" and the 5th room "Room of the worshiping Bodhisattvas on clouds" in this article.

Houshokan Museum brochure of Byodoin Temple Kyoto

Hoshokan Museum brochure (鳳翔館)

☆Would you like a magnificent lineup? (Room of the door Painting)

In Buddhism, there is a so called Kuhonraikozu(九品来迎図) painting. Literally ‘kuhon(九品)’ means nine levels, ‘raiko(来迎)’ means the coming of Amida Buddha to welcome the spirits of the dead, and ‘zu(図)’ means painting.

It depicts the scene where Amitabha and bodhisattvas praying on the clouds come to followers on the deathbed and accompany them to the Pure Land.

And there are 9 levels of ascension depending on how many good deeds or bad deeds the person did in one's life.
The lineup and speed of ascension differ from one level to another.

The point is that the action of accumulating many good deeds deserves a special welcome from Amitabha and many bodhisattvas.
The lowest level has no one to welcome. What a lonely ascension.

In the museum 4 levels of ascension are selected and displayed out of 9 of the Kuhonraikozu.

When I saw them, I was surprised to see that there are no big differences among 4 levels in terms of the members welcoming. Yes, Even a lower level has a magnificent line up. It is said that it doesn’t depict the exact teaching of Buddha…Why?

The reason of this is unknown. But I found two possible reasons so far.

1. Founder's (Yorimichi's) taste theory. "The more members, the cooler the painting. " He wanted to make all the pictures vivid and luxurious.

2. Founder’s (Yorimichi's) anxiety theory. Killing living creatures is out of the question in Buddhism, but he often enjoyed hunting with other nobles. Even he was the person who held big power during “this life”, “the lonely ascension to the next world” might have scared him.

Maybe there might be another explanation. What do you think about that?

☆What is the dream team for you? (The room of Worshiping Bodhisattvas on Clouds)

The statues of Bodhisattvas riding on clouds are arrayed in this room. When you enter this room, you will suddenly get an eyeful of affectionate looks.

Actually, when we entered this room, one of my friends said  "Wow! I felt as if I wandered into outer space!"  I wonder if you would feel like him.

Anyway the atmosphere of this room is awesome indeed.

Some of the Bodhisattvas play musical instruments and others dance in the air. Each of them has a different face and expression and it looks like it's going to move at any moment.

Each statue was sculpted from cypress. I was amazed to see these delicate and elaborate artworks were already crafted 1000 years ago! And I also think their faces are so enchanting.

Which one is your favorite? If you could organize it, what would be the dream team of ascension for you?

The room of Worshiping Bodhisattvas on Clouds in Houhokan museum at Byodoin temple Kyoto

The room of Worshiping Bodhisattvas on Clouds (雲中菩薩像の部屋)

Read in Japanese (3. 鳳翔館 / 実は本堂より面白いかも?!)


平等院に行ったらもちろん素晴らしい建物を観たり美しい庭を散策したりして楽しみますよね。 でも鳳翔館を観る時間をたっぷりとっておいてください。 見どころたっぷりです!

まず鳳翔館には5つの部屋があり鳳凰1対や梵鐘(ぼんしょう)を含む国宝などを観る事ができます。 それに加え、ここで一番素晴らしいのは千年前の日本人が夢に見た極楽浄土を感じられることです。



仏教では九品来迎図というものがあります。 文字通り訳すと「九品kuhon」は9つのレベル、「来迎raiko」は阿弥陀如来による死者のお迎え、「図zu」は絵のことです。 それは阿弥陀如来や雲中菩薩たちが死に際の信者のところに迎えに来て極楽浄土に連れて行ってくれる様子を描いた絵です。

極楽浄土への上昇には9レベルあり、信者がこれまでの人生でどれだけ良い行いや悪い行いをしたかでどのレベルかが決まります。 極楽浄土へ向かうスピードやお迎えの人数もそれぞれのレベルによって違ってくるのです。

つまり人生で徳を積めば積むほど(レベルが上がり)阿弥陀如来や菩薩からよりスペシャルなお迎えをしてもらえるということです。 一番下のレベルだと誰もお迎えに来てくれず寂しく極楽浄土に向かわなければなりません。


そして、その4種類の絵を観た時驚きました。というのはレベルが違うはずのそれぞれの絵を見比べても阿弥陀如来や菩薩のお迎えに違いが見当たらないのです。 そう、一番下のレベルの絵にも豪華メンバーのお迎えが描かれている。これは本来の仏教の教えとは違う・・・。 なぜ?


①頼通の好み説 仏教の教えは関係なく、いっぱいいて賑やかなほうが絵としてなんか素敵!彼はただただ鮮やかで豪華な絵が好みだったのかも知れません。

②頼通の切実な願い説 仏教では生き物を殺すなんてもってのほかと言われております。 しかし頼通は貴族たちと頻繁に狩猟を楽しんでました。 この世で権力を意のままにした頼道も、こんなことをしていたら「一人寂しくあの世に向かわなければならない」ととても不安になったのかも知れません。

他にも説があるかもしれません。 あなたならどう考えますか?


この部屋には雲中菩薩像たちが飾られています。 部屋に入った瞬間に愛くるしい表情をした菩薩たちが視界一杯に入ってきます。

実際、私たちがここを訪れた時友人の一人は「おぉ!なんか宇宙空間に迷い込んだみたいだ」なんて言っていました。 あなたもそんな風に感じるでしょうか。 とにかくこの部屋の雰囲気はなんか特別なんです。

音楽を奏でる菩薩たちもいます。踊りながら宙を舞っているような菩薩たちもいます。 それぞれが別の顔を持ち、別の表情を浮かべ、今にも動き出しそうなくらい躍動感にあふれています。

それぞれの菩薩像は1本の杉の木から彫られて創り出されています。 こんなに繊細で複雑な作品がすでに1000年以上前に生み出されていたことにも驚きます。 そしてどのお顔も魅力的!

あなたのお気に入りはどの菩薩さまですか? もしあなただけの「極楽お迎えドリームチーム」を結成するとしたらどのメンバーを選びますか?




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