Ishiyamadera and a little bit of Literature・石山寺とほんの少しの文学 【英語版】

Last year, inside the train on my way to work, I happened to see an advertisement poster that had the interesting line “Haru wa agemono” (In Spring, the deep-fried food). This is a pun on the first sentence of “Makura no Soshi” (The Pilow Book), written by a court lady of Heian Period know as Sei Shōnagon, which starts with the words “Haru wa akebono” (In Spring, the dawn). What I find interesting is that (lame?) puns with literary references like this one have been part of the Japanese daily life since a long time ago, and during our visit to Ishiyamadera Temple I couldn’t help but think about this.


IMG_2125 (800x533) (2)

The main hall of Ishiyamadera is the oldest structure in the prefecture and also a National Treasure. Being popular since its foundation, many illustrious historical figures visited it and, among those, maybe the most known is another court lady (and Sei Shonagon’s rival) Murasaki Shikibu, who is said to have started writing her most famous work, “Genji Monogatari” (The Tale of Genji) during her visit.


I’ll go back to the two of them soon enough, but first lets talk about what brought us to this temple. Truth be said, it was my second time, but the first time I went there was during winter. Some plum trees bloomed early and I even took this picture that is my cellphone wallpaper to this day.



If you have ever been to some temples in Japan, you probably saw that some of them have their gates guarded by the Niō, a.k.a. Kongōrikishi. These are sculptures that symbolize the guardians of Buddhism who protect the temples. By the way, the ones at Ishiyamadera were sculpted in the late 11th century and are considered Important Cultural Properties of Japan.


IMG_2098 (800x533) (2)

Crossing the gates you will be on the way to the temple, which is surrounded by trees that look amazing during both Spring and Fall. At the entrance you will also see this little pond with koi fish:


Follow the path and take the stairs to get to this open space where they sometimes hold exhibitions. We where lucky enough to see some plum blossom bonsai (bonbai).


The main hall is right ahead, just after some short stairs, and was also decorated with bonbai.


IMG_2127 (533x800)

Something I gotta say: Wear comfortable shoes and clothes (don’t wear a suit like I did). The temple is atop a cliff (kinda), so there are lots of stairs and ramps. On the other hand, climbing them you will be able to see places like this:



Up ahead (and back to the literary talk) there’s a small hut where the Haiku poet Matsuo Bashō supposedly composed some poems with Ishiyamadera as a theme, and googling a little bit about this, I found this one:



akebono wa
mada murasaki ni

the sunrise
still purple
a cuckoo sings

The sunrise is still tinted with shades of purple that reminds us of spring, but the poetic persona hears the sound of a cuckoo, a bird that only comes during summer.


This poem was composed at Ishiyamadera, which was already pretty famous as the place of birth of Genji by the time of Bashō’s visit, but alludes to Sei Shōnagon, Murasaki Shikibu’s greatest rival.


I don’t have proof, can’t say it’s true and I’m probably going too far by saying this, BUT could Bashō have composed this as if saying “So, I’m at Ishiyamadera, but I’m actually thinking about Sei Shōnagon”? If so, that would totally explain the face of Murasaki Shikibu’s bronze sculpture inside the temple grounds.


I have heard a lot about how Sei Shōnagon would write a blog if she was born again in this time and age. That being so, I want to believe that Bashō would be an internet forum troll, posting cheeky comments on Murasaki’s fan page.


IMG_2151 (533x800).jpg

How to get there

Keihan Ishiyama-Sakamoto Line, 15 min walk from Ishiyamadera station

Entrance fee

Adults / children over 13


children 13 and under



From 8:00AM to 4:30PM


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s