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Japan: Chomeiji Temple Has Been Overlooking Lake Biwa for 13 Centuries

Updated: Mar 8

Chomeiji Temple, located in Shiga Prefecture, Japan, has a rich and fascinating history. Founded in the early 7th century, this temple is one of the many significant sites in the Lake Biwa region and is one of the oldest Buddhist temples in the country. Its privileged location makes it a must-visit site in the region for photography.

Japan: Chomeiji, One of the Oldest Temples Has Been Overlooking Lake Biwa for 13 Centuries

© O. Robert

Chomeiji is notably known as the 31st temple in the Saigoku Kannon pilgrimage, which consists of 33 temples in total. This pilgrimage is one of the oldest and most renowned in Japan, dedicated to Kannon, the goddess of mercy.

Over the centuries, Chomeiji Temple has been respected and visited by many, including members of the imperial family and famous warriors. It is renowned for its impressive views of Lake Biwa's landscapes, as well as for its cherry blossoms in spring and its colorful autumn leaves.

The temple is also famous for its long series of stone steps leading to the main precinct, offering a breathtaking view of the surroundings (see below). It is a haven of peace and another source of inspiration for photographers interested in Japan's sacred sites.

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Chomeiji has undergone several major periods throughout its history, each contributing to the evolution of the temple and its structures. Here are some specific details:

1. Foundation and Early Years (7th Century)

The temple was founded in the early 7th century, although the exact date is not clearly documented. The history of Chomeiji Temple is closely linked to the legend of Princess Tama, who is said to have had a tragic life and whose spirit appeared in the form of a giant white snake. To appease her spirit, a monk named Gyoki is said to have carved a statue of Kannon, which became the main object of worship at the temple.

2. Nara and Heian Periods (710-1185)

During these periods, Buddhism and temples played a central role in Japanese society. The temple became an important stop on the Saigoku Kannon pilgrimage, one of the oldest Buddhist pilgrimages in Japan.

3. Kamakura Period (1185-1333)

This period marks a surge in the construction and popularization of Buddhist temples in Japan. Members of the imperial family and famous warriors of this era may have visited the temple, although specific names are not always mentioned in the archives I have been able to consult or in Japanese history books.

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4. Edo Period (1603-1868)

During this period, the temple underwent restorations and expansions, a common practice for ancient temples that had become highly respected and regarded places of worship during the Edo period. Many of them were restored at great expense in order to preserve the country's ancestral culture.

5. Modern Period (19th Century to Present)

Chomeiji Temple continues to be a site of cultural and historical significance, with some of its artifacts and structures classified as national cultural properties.

Specifics of Chomeiji Temple

Chomeiji Temple has several unique features that distinguish it both architecturally and spiritually. Here are some specific characteristics I have noted:

1. Architecture

The temple exhibits traditional Japanese architectural style, with wooden structures, curved roofs, and elegant ornaments. Like many Buddhist temples, Chomeiji includes a main hall, called the Hondō, where the statue of Kannon is located, and other ancillary buildings for rituals and monks' lodging.

© O. Robert

2. Three-Story Pagoda

The three-story pagoda of Chomeiji Temple is a significant architectural and spiritual element. It follows the traditional Japanese architectural style, with a wooden structure and distinctly curved roofs at each level. The pagoda at Chomeiji, like other historic pagodas in Japan, represents an important part of the country's cultural and religious heritage.

Each level of the pagoda symbolizes different dimensions of Buddhist doctrine, often interpreted as the past, present, and future, or various states of existence. They also serve as a focal point for meditation and contemplation.

Japanese pagodas are generally built to house sacred relics or important Buddhist scriptures. They complement the ensemble of a temple's structures, offering a balance between space for prayer and space for meditation and contemplation.

While specific details about the pagoda at Chomeiji Temple, such as its exact age or the relics it houses, are not always widely documented, it remains an important element of the temple complex, both for worshippers and enthusiasts of traditional architecture. Or for photographers...

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3. Location and Natural Setting

Situated near Lake Biwa, Japan's largest freshwater lake, the temple offers a peaceful and picturesque natural setting. Chomeiji is nestled in a mountainous environment, offering breathtaking views of the surroundings and an atmosphere of tranquility in the heart of the forest.

Undoubtedly, it is a prime spot for meditation while observing the lake. This is what I like to remember when I photograph for hours on the shores of this magnificent Biwa, 4 million years old...

4. Monumental Staircase

Chomeiji is famous for its staircase made of cut stones, totaling about 800 steps. Climbing this staircase is considered a form of purification and an act of devotion for pilgrims. One also understands the choice of location for the establishment of this temple when visiting it for the first time.

The natural context is unparalleled, but the significant slope required the construction of this spectacular and physically demanding staircase for those who wish to venture on it. But isn't photography worth this price? See my articles on the physical condition of the photographer and walking as a tool for creativity.

Even though today it is possible to drive up to the halfway point of this staircase via a winding road, I strongly encourage you to take it from the base. The spectacle awaiting you at the top is all the more deserved. But the effort allows us to understand what life must have been like for the monks of previous centuries who climbed and descended these steps several times a day.

Japan: Chomeiji, One of the Oldest Temples Has Been Overlooking Lake Biwa for 13 Centuries

© O. Robert

Every time I visit, I can't help but think about the work that went into building this temple in the 7th century and the time it took to complete all the buildings that comprise it. Beyond this technical aspect, one can easily imagine the meditative inspiration that this region of Biwa must have offered over 13 centuries ago. This reason is undoubtedly sufficient to justify the choice of location for the establishment of the temple complex.

4. Buddhist Denomination

Chomeiji Temple belongs to the Shingon Buddhist sect, one of the oldest branches of Japanese Buddhism, to which I have dedicated a significant part of my work for over 15 years. This sect is characterized by esoteric practices, the use of mantras, mudras (symbolic gestures), and mandalas. Read my article on Shingon Buddhism.

As mentioned earlier, the temple's main statue is that of Kannon (Avalokiteśvara), the goddess of mercy, revered for her compassion. The temple also organizes various events each year related to the Buddhist calendar and seasons, attracting numerous devotees and tourists. See my articles on Shingon Buddhism and the pilgrimage of the 88 temples.

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The Final Word

Chomeiji Temple thus has a history that spans over a millennium, reflecting the cultural, religious, and social changes of Japan through the ages. Although many specific details of its history are shrouded in legend and mystery, its importance in the Saigoku Kannon pilgrimage and its role in Japanese culture remain undeniable.

In addition to its spiritual and historical value, Chomeiji is also cherished for its architecture and artistic treasures, some of which are designated as important cultural properties of Japan. Despite the trials of time, wars, and natural disasters, the temple has managed to preserve its charm and significance, continuing to attract pilgrims and visitors from all over the world. It is a must-visit site, camera in hand, when you are in the Lake Biwa region.

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