Picture a secluded Buddhist monastery, nestled in the mountains, away from the hustle and bustle of modern life. You’re picturing Enryaku-ji. This ancient temple near Kyoto is one of the most important spiritual sites in the region, with centuries of fascinating history.

The History of Enryaku-ji

This famous monastery is located on Mount Hiei in Ōtsu, overlooking Kyoto. It’s surrounded by mountain wilderness, and the dramatic trees that embody sacred Japanese sites. Green and damp in spring, fiery red in autumn.

As you might expect, it’s old. Founded in 788, Enryaku-ji has well over 1,000 years of history behind it.

And that history is not as peaceful as you may think.

While technically sites of religious meditation, temples were also places of great power. Like anywhere else, Japan’s history features disputes between conflicting belief systems, political factions, and local rivals.

These disputes generally weren’t settled with polite conversations.

At the height of its power, Enryaku-ji was a gigantic complex, featuring a retainer of highly trained warrior monks – essentially a small, well-disciplined army.

The temple was not afraid to use its strength to get its own way. After the appointment of an abbot from a rival faction, 3,000 of Enryaku-ji’s well-trained warrior monks traveled to Kyoto to voice their displeasure. Successfully fighting past the city’s samurai guards, they demanded that the local Daimyo revoke the decision. He did.

Battle for the Temple

During the Sengoku Jidai era, the time of the ‘Warring States’ in which warlords sought to consolidate their power over Japan, things changed.

Oda Nobunaga, arguably the most famous and powerful warlord in Japanese history, saw the temple’s increasing power (and subsequent demands) as a threat.

In his attempt to unify Japan and crush dissent, he invaded and destroyed Enryaku-ji in 1571. The huge complex, containing approximately 3,000 buildings, was razed to the ground, and the monks were slaughtered.

The battle is often described as a siege, but it would more accurately be described as a massacre. There’s a reason that Nobunaga became one of the most feared and powerful warlords around: he was as ruthless as he was clever.

The battle meant the end of Enryaku-ji as a powerful local entity, and essentially ended Mt. Hiei’s warrior monk tradition.

Modern Times: A Popular Attraction

The monastery was rebuilt over the centuries, and these days it’s once again used as a site for spiritual contemplation. Many Japanese people come here to pay homage to their ancestors, and as an internal tourist destination.

Mount Hiei is famous for its beauty, and is located close to other attractions like the popular Lake Biwa. It’s a short trip from Kyoto, and public transport options are relatively straight-forward.

Another benefit of visiting the temple in modern times: there’s a handy, scenic cable car there to lift you to the top of the mountain. It’s a great way to get panoramic views of this picturesque region, especially in autumn.

While Kyoto is undeniably beautiful and worth visiting, it does suffer from the effects of mass tourism. This can be especially true during the high season, when huge crowds descend on the city.

Visiting Enryaku-ji is the perfect way to get some rest and relaxation, and experience some real peace. It’s also close enough to be an easy day or weekend trip from Kyoto, or even Osaka.

Battle for the Temple II: Yakuza vs. Monks

Despite the days of warring states and feuding Buddhist sects being over, an ideological battle still rages. The temple has attracted controversy over the last few decades for hosting ceremonies for the nation’s largest organized crime ring – and thereby receiving money likely to be the proceeds of illegal activity.

In 2006, this caused such a national controversy that multiple temple officials resigned, and offered a mass apology for their decisions. Since then, the temple has banned members from the feared Yamaguchi-gumi syndicate, stating that they will no longer be welcome to pray for their departed leaders.

Looking for more action, and less tranquility? Check out our list of some of Japan’s most fascinating festivals. We’re sure you’ll find what you’re looking for!

Mick Murray

Mick Murray

Mick is a writer and editor who has lived and worked across New Zealand, Japan, and the Netherlands.
His hobbies include wildlife photography, writing, and contracting pneumonia.
Mick Murray

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