We took a bus from Ishiyama station all the way to our first destination of the day: Tachiki Kannon Shrine. The stop was on a busy road, right next to the Seta river. We crossed and there was the beginning of the stairs.
According to the legend, the monk Kukai was standing across the river when he saw a strange light emanating from a tree at the top of mount Tachiki. He wanted to cross to investigate, but the swift current wouldn’t let him. Suddenly, a large white deer appeared before him and let him ride on its back. It leapt over the river, and then up the mountain to the spirit tree before transforming into the goddess Kannon. Now, Buddhism has ages that are just unlucky, called yakudoshi. 25, 42, and 61 for men, and 19, 33, and 37 for women. Kukai was 42, which happens to be the absolutely worst age to be. So, he took the goddess’ appearance as a sign of her mercy and decided to build a temple on the mountain to help future generations ward against this type of bad luck. He carved the spirit tree into a statue of Kannon, which is now the main artefact of worship, and believers to this day will visit the temple and buy wards against yakudoshi.
Now, Tachiki Kannon isn’t necessarily a big or famous temple, but it does have its stairs. About 800 stone steps, snaking up a mountain. They wind up and up, surrounded by vegetation and the sound of birds and water falling. Mount Tachiki is still within Otsu city limits, but it’s an oasis of nature. However, no matter how beautiful the experience, I was not confident and imagined the climb taking hours. I wished I had a magic deer. However, as we climbed, resting a few times along the way, I realized it wasn’t really that bad. I quite enjoyed it, even.
After about 40 minutes, we reached the top of the stairs to find… a few more stairs! Those were the last ones before entering the grounds of the temple and being bathed in the smell of incense. The site is interesting in that the corridor that connects the two main parts of the temple is very visible, and you can actually pass under it (usually, they are more out of the way.) There’s also a small rest area where you can sit down and catch your breath after all those stairs if you need to. After getting my temple stamp book signed, we went through the prayer area to… more stairs? The temple goes only slightly further up into the mountain before looping back under the corridor I just mentioned. Here and there are images of Kukai, the white deer and the spirit tree, and all around is vegetation.
My mind had conjured up wildly inaccurate times to climb back down, but we were back at the bus stop well within the hour, headed for a restaurant to have lunch. We stopped in front of Ishiyamadera, where we had unagi and Shiga specialties like Omi beef, and Lake Biwa shrimp and fish at Koshû. It was amazing. The meal came with a side of eel bone chips that were crunchy and delicious. It may sound odd, but I highly recommend it!
You can watch the video on the first half of our trip on Emily’s channel to see it all!
Once our stomachs well filled, we were off on the bus again, to our next mountain.
While the stairs to Tachiki Kanon were right by the bus stop, Iwama-dera was quite a bit further away. The walk took us past rice fields and a fragrant evergreen forest, following the road the whole time. We came across a few openings where we could drink in the view (and a few sips of water), as well as the gates to a shrine, and our trip ended after about an hour. It wasn’t unpleasant, but not quite the same relaxing atmosphere as the stairs to Tachiki.
The story of Iwama Temple is also related to yakudoshi and the goddess Kannon. It was the year 722, and empress Genshou was 33. The worst yakudoshi for women. So, of course, she got very sick. The monk Taicho helped her get better, and she told him she would build a temple as a reward. Taicho was famous for exploring mountains, and as he was looking for the next sacred site, he found mount Iwama. There, he had a vision of a statue, so he carved a tree in the image of Kannon. Every night, the statue comes to life and visits Hell to fight for lost souls. It comes back drenched in sweat, and is therefore known as the Sweaty Kannon. Another legend explains why she is also known as a protector from thunder. While Taicho was building the temple, lightning would keep striking. One story says it was lightning that showed him the shape of the Sweaty Kannon. In another, he used his powers to tame the thunderstorms and made the it promise that they wouldn’t hurt visitors to the temple. The lightning did dig a well, though, bringing water to the top of the mountain. Today, the temple is still part of the Kannon pilgrimage, the dementia prevention pilgrimage, and has a festival related to thunderstorms.
So, after this hour of walking, we got… somewhere. There wasn’t a soul in sight (not even to collect our 500-yen entry fee.) Only a large building and more vegetation. So, we went a bit further in. We came across some statues and a temple bell (as well as hand sanitizer.) We were very confused. Surely, this couldn’t be it, right? So, we went even further in, spotting two large black statues, a viewpoint and a map. The map reveals that there was so much more to the temple! We walked between the two statues, who serve as the temple gates, and followed along the path to the actual temple grounds. There was a collection of buildings, including the one that hides the Sweaty Kanon, smaller shrines and rest areas. I collected my fourth bird-shaped clay bell, and we decided to go further into the mountain. There, an enormous katsura tree, the one that may have been used to carve the Sweaty Kanon, stood on the side of a deep drop. We saw a hawk or an eagle sweeping around and took a rest. There was a trail going even further, all the way to Uji, but we decided to call it a day and go back.
The descent went fairly quickly and, with our more than 20,000 steps for the day, we rewarded ourselves with some ice cream while waiting for the bus back.
Don’t miss the video on the second part of our trip to see how confused we were!
How to get there: Take bus #4 from Ishiyama station and get off at Tachiki Kanon Mae (立木観音前). You can see the start of the stairs from across the street. For those who prefer to drive, the parking lot is next to the bus stop.
Entry fee: Free
How to get there: Take bus 52, 53 or 54 and get off at Nakasencho (中千町). Walk toward the convenience store and cross the street. Follow that road all the way up until you reach the temple. While we did this climb in the afternoon, I would recommend doing it in the morning, when it’s cooler, since a lot of it is on open road.
For those who prefer to drive, just take the exact same road.
On the 17th of each month, there is also a free shuttle from Ishiyama station, but the service is currently on halt because of COVID-19.
Entry fee: 500 yen, payable at the temple store
Other temples on the Kannon Pilgrimage Road in Shiga: Chikubushima, Miidera, Ishiyamadera, Chomeiji, Kannonshoji
These are the temples that have the bird clay bells!