What To Do At Zozoji Temple – A Guide To Tokyo’s Most Historic Temple

by Jacob Harris
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Have you heard about the hidden gem a stone’s throw away from the Tokyo Tower that will immediately transport you back to 1390’s Japan?

Zōjōji (増上寺) Temple is a historical landmark that serves as the primary place of worship of the Jodo sect of Japanese Buddhism in the Kanto Region and houses the Tokugawa family mausoleum with six Tokugawa shōguns entombed within it. 

Free of admission and open all year-round, the Zōjōji Temple is a great place to experience a more spiritual aspect of Japanese culture amidst the hustle and bustle of the city. From the moment you enter the temple grounds, you are immediately greeted by a relic that is over 600 years old, the Sangedatsumon (main gate). Its other main features include: The Tokugawa mausoleum, the Daiden (Main Hall), the Treasures Gallery, the Daibonsho (a 15- ton fully functioning bell), the Koshoden (Lecture Hall) Ceiling, the Ankokuden, and Jizō statues that hold a very compelling meaning behind them. Celebrate like a local (and with the locals!) if your trip happens to land on one of their festivals, but if it doesn’t, maximize all the available space you have to yourself! Nowhere else in the city can you unwind and capture beautiful traditional, Edo period architecture juxtaposed with the modern and iconic Tokyo Tower!

The Brief History Of Zojoji

Completed in the year 1393, The Zōjōji Temple serves as the main temple of the Jodo sect of Japanese Buddhism in the Kanto Region. Originally located in Kōjimachi, it was then moved to Hibiya, then to its current location during the Edo period in 1598 upon being selected by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder and first shōgun of the eponymous Tokugawa shogunate of Japan, as their family temple. The complex had over 120 buildings at its peak, but this number has since been greatly reduced primarily due to the destruction of World War II, Anti-Buddhist sentiments, and the decline of Buddhism during the Meiji period. It was restored after the war and has since had additional structures built inside it.

How To Get There

Transportation:

  • Via Subway: Alight at the Onarimon or Shibakoen Station on the Toei Mita Line (3-minute walk)
  • Via Subway: Alight at the Daimon Station on the Toei Asakusa and Toei Oedo Lines (6-minute walk). In front of this station, you’ll find a big temple gate, which will lead you straight to the temple.
  • Via JR train: Alight at the Hamamatsucho Station on the JR Yamanote and JR Keihin-Tōhoku Line (10- minute walk).
  • Via Shuto Expressway: 500 meters from the Shibakoen Exit

The temple grounds are open daily from 9:00 to 17:00 and are free of admission. The Tokugawa Mausoleum and Treasure Gallery, on the other hand, are closed on Tuesdays (except for national holidays) and are open from 10:00 to 16:00 (entry until 15:45) and 10:00 to 17:00, respectively. Admission is 500 yen for the former and 700 yen for the latter. Save 200 yen and get a ticket to enter both areas for 1000 yen.

Tips For Tourists

  • They do not allow visitors to enter before 9:00 AM because they hold morning services during this time.
  • English-speaking guides are available to assist you free of charge. 
  • If you prefer to explore on your own, fret not because descriptions of the buildings and shrines are also written in English.
  • Restrooms close at the same time as the premises.
  • Keep in mind that you are visiting a sacred area, so it would be advisable to act accordingly.
  • Don’t discount unconventional angles and areas (like parking lots) when looking for the best angles to capture the temple structures along with the Tokyo Tower!

Must-See Features

Sangedatsumon (三解脱門)

Literally translated to ‘Three Moksha Gate’ and often abbreviated to ‘San-mon’, Buddhists believe that passing through this gate relieves one from the three earthly states of mind: 貪 Ton (‘greed’), 瞋 Shin (‘hatred’), and 癡 Chi (‘foolishness’). Apart from its spiritual cleansing properties, what makes it so remarkable is the sheer amount of destruction it was able to survive against, in spite of being an ancient wooden structure… Did I mention that it was made of wood? As Tokyo’s oldest wooden building, this historical marvel dates back to 1622 and has survived many fires, earthquakes (Japan has a lot of them!), and wars, including World War II, which ruined all the other original structures of the temple. Speaking of marvel and surviving against all odds, fans of the Marvel franchise may find it interesting to note that the temple was the location of the funeral and yakuza fight scene of the film, ‘Wolverine’ (2013). 

Daibonsho (増上寺)

After passing through and being cleansed by the San-mon, you will find the Daibonsho, which aptly stands for ‘Big Bell’, as it is one of The Three Big Bells of the Edo Period. Weighing a staggering 15 tons, this big bell was built in 1673 after being recast seven times. The bell works and is tolled twice a day –six times each in the early morning and in the evening. 

Presidential Trees

Not too far from the Daibonsho bell tower, one can find Grant Matsu (グラーント松) or ‘Grant’s Pine Tree’ and Bush no Maki (ブッシュの槇) or ‘Bush’s Maki Tree’. These are two majestic trees planted by Former President Ulysses S. Grant (1879) and Vice President George Bush (1982), respectively, during state visits as guests of the nation.

Daiden (‘Big Hall’)

Renovated in 1974, combining traditional Buddhist architectural style with modern sensibilities, this main hall enshrines the main image (honzon) of Amida Buddha (made during the Muromachi Period) in between the image of Great Teacher Shan-tao (a patriarch of Jodo Buddhism in China) and Honen Shonin (founder of Jodo Buddhism in Japan) at its left. 

Treasures Gallery

One of the newer additions to the temple, the Treasures Gallery was completed in 2015. It contains a 1:10 scale model of the original design of the Tokugawa Mausoleum and the other structures in the temple complex before everything was destroyed during WWII. It also displays a number of artworks by renowned Buddhist scroll painter, Kano Kazunobu, as well.

Jizō Statues

After looking through the Treasures Gallery, you just wouldn’t be able to miss the hundreds of adorable statues decked out in red knitted hats and brightly-colored windmills that line the temple gardens (Sentai Kosodate Jizō). They are named after Jizō, the guardian deity of unborn children. Cute and vibrant as they may seem, they actually represent babies who have succumbed to miscarriages, abortions, or stillbirths. Parents adorn these statues and offer small gifts or piled stones in order to appease Jizō and ease the child’s journey to the afterlife. Bearing witness to a love that enables a parent to memorialize something as painful as burying one’s child is incredibly moving, to say the least. 

Tokugawa Mausoleum

Because the Zōjōji Temple served as the Tokugawa family temple, it subsequently housed the grand mausoleums, which became the final resting place of six shoguns, Imperial Princess Kazunomiya (wife of Shogun Iemochi), and the wives and children of other shoguns. 

Koshoden (‘Lecture Hall’) Ceiling

Lecture halls often denote stuffy or uninspired interiors, but this ‘Lecture Hall’ is anything but that. Anyone who would think otherwise need only look up to change his mind. 120 floral-themed paintings created by 120 different artists were each placed in coffers to create an artistic spectacle that can be appreciated both individually and as a whole. 

Ankokuden

Its name stems from Tokugawa Ieyasu’s Buddhist name, Ankoku and ‘den’, meaning ‘hall’. In it, one can find the ‘Kuro-Honzon’, or the Black Buddha Statue which is believed to have miraculous properties. Tokugawa Ieyasu was said to have brought this statue with him in numerous victorious battles. Today, people pray to it to bring success and ward of evils.

Important Dates

January 1: Hatsumōde (New Year’s visit) 

New Year’s Day is often regarded as the most important holiday in Japan and a ‘first visit of the year’ to the temple is a must for every Japanese. Purchase an omamori (an amulet with a prayer to bless you throughout the new year) for yourself or a loved one (or both!) and find out how your year will go through an omikuji (fortune prophecy on a paper strip). Tie negative omikuji predictions onto temple trees and leave them behind to prevent them from coming true. Now, that’s what I call a win-win situation! 

February 3: Setsubun / Tsuina-shiki

Setsubun, the day before spring begins, is the New Year’s Eve counterpart of the lunar calendar. Buddhists partake in the ritual of 豆撒きmamemaki (‘bean scattering’) to cleanse the past year of its negativity and ward off evil from the year ahead. Roasted soy beans and envelopes of cash, sweets, and gifts are thrown by priests as they exclaim: ‘福は内 Fuku wa uchi!’ or ‘Luck in!’ 

April 2-7: Gyoki-daie 

Gyoki-daie is a 6-day long festival to commemorate the death of Honen Shonin (the founder of Jodo Buddhism in Japan). Sutras are chanted throughout the day while a Bugaku (imperial court dance) is performed in front of the Daiden. View the Nerigyoretsu procession with its traditionally-clothed participants and be transported to another era. It begins at the Daimon Gate and ends in the Daiden. Sneak a peek at the Kyozo’s masterfully constructed octagonal shelves that store the sutras. Don’t miss your chance because this Edo period structure is only open to the public during this festival! 

April 8: Kanbutsu-e / Hanamatsuri

Temple visitors pour 甘茶 ama-cha (‘sweet tea’ made from fermented hydrangea leaves) on small Buddha statues decorated with flowers, as if bathing a newborn baby. This tradition, which originated in China, recreates the legend of Buddha being baptized by nine dragons with pure water in the garden of Lumbini. Complete the experience and watch a Lion Dance, which involves highly-skilled acrobats in the fluffiest lion costumes you’ve ever seen! 

July 15: O-bon Festival

The O-bon is a time for the Japanese to honor the spirits of their ancestors and their sacrifices through the Bon Odori (‘Bon Dance’) dance of joy. It also an opportunity to have family members who have lost touch to catch up with each other. To commence the festival, an Okuribi (‘sending fire’) ritual is performed to send the ancestors’ spirits back to their permanent dwelling place is under the guidance of fire. Fancy ceremonies are set aside to allow people to reflect on the significance of family, both in this life and in the next.

End of September: Higan Ceremony

Try something new and watch a traditional Takigi Noh (Mask Drama)! Even if you don’t speak Japanese, the beautifully-crafted costumes and backdrops bathed in ethereal, moody firelight is an experience in itself. Tickets range from ¥2000 to ¥8000. 

December 31: Joya No Kane

The Daibonsho is tolled 108 times—commencing on the 31st and continuing over the course of an entire day— to veer individuals away from indulging in the one hundred and eight earthly passions (煩悩 bonnou) in a ritual of purification. Talk about starting off the year with a clean slate!

Other Special Dates

  • January 15: Kurohonzon Prayer Ceremony
  • March: Higan Ceremony (Spring Equinox)
  • May 15: Kurohonzon Prayer Ceremony 
  • August 6: Peace Prayer Ceremony, the annual Japanese Vigil to memorialize the victims of the atomic bombs and to pray for world peace.
  • September 15: Kurohonzon Prayer Ceremony 
  • November: Juya Hoyo (Ten Nights of Prayer) 
  • December 8: 成道会 Jōdō-e (Bodhi Day) commemorates the day that the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, experienced enlightenment.
  • December 31: Butsumyō-e Ceremony, the names of Buddhas in the past, present, and future (especially Amida’s name for in Jodo Shu Buddhists) are repeatedly recited as an act of atonement for sins committed in the previous year. 

Nearby Areas To See

  • Gate of Daitokuin Mausoleum (0.2 km away) 
  • Hoshuin Temple (0.2 km away) 
  • Momiji Valley (0.2 km away) 
  • Shiba Park / Shiba Toshogu Shrine (0.3 km away) 
  • Tokyo Tower (0.3 km away) 
  • Tokyo One Piece Tower (0.3 km away) 
  • The Prince Park Tower (0.6km) 
  • Atago Jinja Shrine (1.1 km away) 

You just got yourself a bird’s eye view of the city atop the world’s tallest, self-supported steel tower? Drop by the Zōjōji Temple and immerse yourself in Japan’s architectural and spiritual roots because where there’s a shadow, there is depth. 

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