Recommended Shrines and Temples in 2023
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One place you can’t miss in Arashiyama!
What are the hidden charms of ‘Hōrin-ji temple’ – charms that are rare even in Japan?

Have you ever heard of ‘Kokuzō Hōrin-ji’ temple in Arashiyama, Kyoto?

Hōrin-ji, which is also lovingly referred to by it’s pet name of ‘Saga no Kokuzō,’ boasts a history of over 1,300 years, remains shrouded in silence even during seasons where it is thronged with tourists, and is actually a picturesque hidden gem of a tourist spot for those in the know.

At this temple there are plenty of unique attractions that you won’t catch sight of at other temples or shrines; peculiar events like ‘Jū-san mairi’ (‘13 shrine or temple visits’) and `Harikuyō' (‘memorial service for old needles’), as well as the only deity in Japan that is associated with electricity and radio waves.

This time around, we will show you the plentiful charms and features of the overlooked Hōrin-ji.

Hōrin-ji’s main hall
Hōrin-ji’s main hall

Hōrin-ji enveloped in greenery and serenity. In bygone days, this was the heart of culture and art in Japan.

Temple gate at Hōrin-ji
Temple gate at Hōrin-ji

First, I will tell you more about Hōrin-ji.

Hōrin-ji, which is situated in Kyoto’s Sakyo Ward, is a three-minute walk from Togetsukyō Bridge, a sightseeing spot. It’s not the easiest place to locate, but on the roadside close to the entrance there is a big sign that says ‘Hōrin-ji, as well as a paid parking lot.

View from a lookout area
View from a lookout area

While going through the temple gate and then mounting the stone steps lined with verdant greenery, the clamor emanating from around Arashiyama Station is soon draped in an unreal stillness. I was visiting early in the morning and saw several locals milling around the temple at an easy pace. Approaching the main hall, there was a space that looked like an observation deck from which you can get a panoramic view of the streets of Arashiyama.

Let’s have a look at the history of Hōrin-ji.

According to Hōrin-ji’s official site, the area at the foot of Arashiyama mountain was called ‘Kazune’ and flourished with the arrival of Chinese settlers. Industry and the arts advanced rapidly and the wealthy lives of the local residents at that times are chronicled in the Kojiki, the earliest historical record of Japan, and the Nihonshoki, the second oldest work of Japanese history.

In 713, the temple ‘Kadzunoidera’ was constructed by the Shingon sect’s Gyōki Bosatsu (High Monk) in this area. This is what present-day Hōrin-ji originated from. Subsequently, the area around here prospered even more
In ‘Makura no Sōshi (‘The Pillowbook’)’ by Sei Shōnagon, Hōrin-ji is mentioned as representative among Kyoto’s temples and shrines.

speaking of Arashiyama, it is renowned for its ‘Togetsukyō Bridge,’ which spans the Katsura River, but were you aware that this was originally called the ‘Hōrin-ji Bridge’ when it was built in 836 during the Heian period?

The name that it goes by now, the Togetsukyō, seems to have derived from the Emperor Kameyama during the Kamakura era, who caught sight of this bridge while going pleasure boating and composed in a poem that “It looks as if the clear moon were walking over the bridge.
This temple has deep ties to Japanese history and culture indeed.

Kokūzō Bosatsu is the principal object of worship, or idol, at Hōrin-ji. Kokuzō translates as ‘the universe’ or even ‘macrocosmos,’ and the belief is that everything in this world (tall things in nature) is enveloped therein, it bestows wisdom, and aids one in being superlative in arts and crafts.
Additionally, on either side of the main hall grounds at which the idol is situated are stone statues of an ox and a tiger, who have been installed as guardian lion-dogs. Kokūzō Bosatsu is considered the guardian deity of the direction of the Chinese zodiac signs for the ox and tiger, and it is said that this guardian endows fortune upon those born in the under those signs. This temple is recommended in particular to those who were born in the Year of the Ox or the Year of the Tiger.

  • Guardian ox at the grounds of the main hall
    Guardian ox at the grounds of the main hall
  • Guardian tiger at the grounds of the main hall
    Guardian tiger at the grounds of the main hall

The Endowment of Wisdom at ‘Jū-san mairi’ and `Harikuyō’

shall we have a glimpse at the unique events that are held at Hōrin-ji?

The idol Kokūzō Bosatsu is said to be s Buddha that imparts both wisdom and fortune. Come every spring and fall at Hōrin-ji, boys and girls reaching the age of reckoning at 13 participate in the ‘Jū-san mairi’ coming-of-age ceremony to receive blessings of wisdom and fortune from Kokūzō.

’The age of 13’ is recognized as the time when the 12-year Chinese zodiac has completed it’s cycle and the translation from childhood to adolescence begins. At this critical point in a young life, prayers are sent to Kokuzo, asking, `May you be blessed with wisdom, become a great adult, and live a happy life.’’

From time immemorial, offering hand-copied sutras has been the most respectful way to worship at the temple, so children who perform the Jū-san mairi write a single kanji character and dedicate it to Kokūzō as a ‘single kanji character hand-copied sutra.’ Each child writes their own favorite kanji, such as ‘智 (wisdom),’ ‘学 (learning),’ and ‘友 (friendship).’

Togetsukyō Bridge
Togetsukyō Bridge

Furthermore, there is one last important point about this event. Legend has it that ‘If you look over your shoulder before crossing the Togetsukyō, you will lose all the wisdom you have been granted by Kokūzō during Jū-san mairi.’ All the children cross the bridge stern-faced so they don’t look back after leaving Hōrin-ji.
That’s and interesting event, right?

And there is still the event called `Harikuyō' (‘memorial service for old needles’).

This event, held every February 8 and December 8, is said to have begun in the Heian era (794-1185), when Emperor Seiwa constructed a main hall for the storage of house discarded needles and issued an edict that ‘memorial services be held for needles used by the imperial family.’
So, the temple holds a memorial service for used needles from all over Japan, and on the occasion of the Buddhist memorial service in December, memorial services are again held for the needles given by the imperial family.

Worshippers who come to the temple to provide offerings insert large 30-cm needles with decorative threads into special konnyaku (jelly made from devil root). In doing this, they express their gratitude to the needle for its diligent work and pray for the improvement of their sewing skills.

In this event where people say ‘Let's put the needles that worked so hard into the soft konnyaku to give them a well-deserved rest’, I think you probably feel that it is a heart-warming one. It is a unique event, and I hope to participate in the memorial offering in the future, together with the sewing needles that have helped me over the years.

The Only One in Japan! Dendengū Shrine, a Shrine for the God that Protects Electricity and Electronics

At Hōrinji, the god of electricity and radio waves is enshrined here, which is rare thing, even for this world. The name of the shrine is ‘Denden-gū’. It is said to bring blessings related to the development and safety of electricity, radio waves, electronics, and other enterprises connected with electricity.

Although it seems like a recently established shrine, it actually has a surprisingly long history, dating back to the Heian period to approximately 800 AD.

In the past, Hōrin-ji had five Shinto shrines for deities associated with natural phenomena, one of which was Myojo shrine, whose main deity was the thunder god, Denden-myōjin. This god is what we now call the god of electricity and radio waves.

The temple was destroyed in a fire in 1864, but was reconstructed some time following the war, and a five-story pagoda called ‘Denden-to’ was built to the right of the temple gate, and ‘Denden-gū’ was constructed on the left side of the stone steps.


Two circular portraits in relief are carved into the stone wall behind Denden-to. On the right side of the tower is a portrait of Thomas Edison, the American inventor king, and on the left side is Heinrich Hertz, the German physicist who proved the existence of electromagnetic waves.

It is very rare to find portraits in relief of inventors and scientists from the West in a Japanese temple. This Denden-to was put up to commemorate those who were involved in the enterprises of electricity and radio waves, and Edison and Hertz, who laid the foundation for such developments, are depicted on the tower.


As I pass Denden-to and climb the stone steps, I find the Denden-myōjin temple on my left. The main deity here is Denden-myōjin, who is in charge of electricity and electronics.

This god is believed in by many enterprises in electricity-related fields, including appliance manufacturers, radio wave-related companies, and IT businesses throughout Japan.
The Denden-gū Grand Festival, usually held on May 23, attracts many from electricity-related companies all over Japan to pay their respects to the divine virtues of Denden-gū and pray for the safety and development of the industry.

The IT industry and communications technologies evolve further and further at an ever-increasing pace. Along with this, the effects that earthquakes, power outages, server downtime, and other electricity-related issues have on our lives is increasing daily. This god is one we will depend upon more and more in the future.


How’d you like it?

In Arashiyama, where many tourists mob the streets, Hōrin-ji is surrounded by a soothing serenity. In this issue, we have shown you some of the hidden charms of Hōrin-ji.

On top of the spectacular views of scenic Arashiyama, the unique events and the out-of-this-world god of electricity all merit a visit!

When you come to Arashiyama, be sure to cross the Togetsukyō on your trip!