The Only Surviving Octagonal Pagoda in Japan: Anraku-ji, Ueda

Date: 30th June 2018

I was in Ueda city and was supposed to go for a day-hike nearby but had cancelled it after the weather forecast indicated rain. Well, turned out to be a super hot day. After several days of checking several different sources for weather forecast, I think I know which to trust now.

Anyways, since I was in Ueda, not for the first time, I decided to head over to Bessho Onsen, which is just 30 minutes away on train. The goal was not the onsens though, really did not feel like soaking in the onsen on such a hot day. My destinations on this day were some of the temples in Bessho Onsen – Anraku-ji, Kitamuki Kannon Temple and Jorakuji. So lets have a look at the first temple I visited – Anraku-ji.

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Bessho Onsen Station

Anraku-ji (安楽寺) is Nagano’s oldest Zen temple of the Soto sect. and the only Zen temple in Japan that has an octagonal three-storied pagoda. According to Rankei Doryu (Lanxi Daolong), the founder of Kamakura’s Kencho-ji, Anraku-ji was previously larger than it is, being the center of Zen teachings in Shinshu (the older name for Nagano prefecture) in the 1200s (Kamakura period), with the support of the Hojo clan. It saw declines during the Muromachi period, after the end of Kamakura period, and was only re-established in the 1580s.

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Octagonal pagoda seen from afar

Before you enter the precincts of Anraku-ji, you will go through the Kuromon, built in 1792. After walking past the parking area, you will see a path leading to the temple and the flight of stairs.

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Kuromon
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If you do not want to take the stairs, take the paved road on the left
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Stairs towards the main temple precincts

The main hall (hondo) has a thatched roof and worships Shakyamuni (Gautama Buddha) flanked by Manjusri and Samantabhadra, forming the Shakyamuni trinity.

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Hondo

The octagonal three-storied pagoda was built at the end of the Kamakura period in the style of Zenshu-yo or Kara-yo (Zen or Kara style) which was brought into Japan along with Zen teachings. There is an octagonal Buddhist altar in the pagoda.

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Octagonal pagoda

You will also see two important statues in this temple, one of Shokoku Isen, who went to China for studies and returned in 1246 with Rankei Doryu. He later founded Anraku-ji. This statue was sculpted in 1329, along with the second statue, which is of Yogyu Enin, a Chinese priest who was the second priest of Anraku-ji. Both statues are in the Denpo-do hall.

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Denpo-do

Another feature of this temple is the sixteen rakan statues and the seven Buddhas from Shikoku. You have probably heard of the Shikoku 88-temples pilgrimage. Well, in 1693, it was decided that they would make similar Buddha images to that of the 88 temples, so that they could acquire the same merit without actually completing the Shikoku pilgrimage. Anraku-ji has seven of these 88 images.

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Where the 7 Shikoku Buddha images and sixteen rakan statues are

Also in the temple compounds is a Shoryo or bell tower, originally built in 1769 which combines both Japanese and Zen styles. The original bell became a scrap metal for World War II, the current bell was cast in 1957 by Katori Masahiko.

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Shoryo

Built in 1784, Kyozo is a repository for Buddhist scriptures copied by priest Tetsugen which was purchased from Uji’s Mampukuji. Inside here is rinzo, an octagonal revolving sutra shelf. Another cultural asset found in this temple is the letter written by Rankei Doryu to Shokoku Isen.

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Kyozo

The temple was especially quiet even though it was a Saturday. I thought the oldest Zen temple in Nagano or the only octagonal pagoda in Japan would get more visitors than this.

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Info

Opening hours:

  • Mar to Oct: 08:00 – 17:00
  • Nov to Feb: 08:00 – 16:00

Admission fee: 300 yen

No closing days

Official website

Access

Anraku-ji is just a 10-minutes walk from Bessho Onsen station. It should be easy to navigate your way here even without using Google maps, there are clear English signs from the moment you exit the train station.

Getting to Bessho Onsen Station: From Ueda Station, take the Ueda Dentetsu Bessho Line (30 minutes, 590 yen), train departs roughly every 40 minutes. IC card cannot be used.

Getting to Ueda Station:

  • From Nagano Station:
    • Take JR Shinonoi Line, 35-45 minutes, 770 yen
    • If you have the JR pass, you can take the bullet train, Hokuriku Shinkansen, 12 minutes. The time difference from the JR Shinonoi option is not that much, so there is probably not a need to splurge 2,940 yen if you do not have a JR pass.
  • From Tokyo Station: Hokuriku Shinkansen, 1 hour 30+ minutes, 6,670 yen

 

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Author: Jennifer

Hi! I am Jennifer. I enjoy planning my own travels and love traveling in Japan - for the history, nature, temples, and the food! Read more for travel guides of places I have visited.

14 thoughts

  1. That’s really interesting Jennifer. I had read that Zen Temples didn’t have pagodas and I haven’t seen any so far on my travels. Are there other Zen Temples where you have seen them? Is the one at Anrakuji a five teir pagoda? I couldn’t quite work it out from the photos. I would really like to visit and see it for myself. As it turns out I am currently in Nagano but unfortunately don’t have the time to visit Anrakuji while I’m here. That’s a pity. Another time! Thank-you for being it to my attention. 🙂 Your comment about the bell being used as scrap in WW2 is one I’ve only recently started noticing. When I was in Tokyo in May I read that a statue of children at the Tokyo Memorial Hall had been melted down, as well as the enormous bell at Shittenoji. It seems that many metal items were re-purposed for the war effort. It has made me wonder about the impact on Japan’s cultural heritage, although this is likely to be minor compared to the destructive aerial bombing of so many Japanese cities. I feel that it is important for people to be aware of these impacts and changes as a part of the history of Japan.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello again Jennifer. 🙂 I have just reread your post and saw that you refer to the pagoda as having three storeys. Apologies for missing it the first time. At a first glance you might think it was at least four storeys. I guess that means the large bottom eaves are considered separately to the three levels of the pagoda? They certainly look different. I’ll have to revisit my pagoda architecture to see where it fits. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jann. Sorry for not replying earlier. Yes, as you said, it is a three-storied pagoda, but it looks like a four-storied pagoda for the eaves on the lowest part.

      And yes, similar to what I have read, pagodas are not a thing of Zen Buddhism, but a small number Zen temples has it. As far as I can remember, I have seen a Tahoto Pagoda in Chionji, Amanohashidate. Some other examples (which I have not seen for myself) are the Zenpoji in Yamagata Prefecture (five-storied), Daiyuzan Saijoji in Kanagawa Prefecture (Tahoto pagoda), and Shinshoji in Hiroshima Prefecture (Tahoto pagoda).

      I hope you get a chance to visit Anrakuji someday if not this time. Thanks for reading!

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      1. Thank-you very much for that information Jennifer. It is even more interesting! I started looking at the Zen Temples with the pagodas you mentioned. Two are currently Rinzai Zen (from two different Schools) and the other three are Soto Zen. One of the Rinzai Temples was originally Shingon, and one of the Soto Zen Temples (Zenpoji) must have started as some other School of Buddhism as it seems to have been founded in 940 AD (assuming I have the date correct). As you can imagine there is a fascinating story behind each Temple and why they have a pagoda, unlike most Zen Temples. At the moment I only have time to scratch the surface. It would be great to learn more at some stage. Three of the pagodas are the Tahoto style, as you say, with only one five-story pagoda at Zenpoji. They are the ones I’m particularly interested in because of their link to the five elements. The intriguing information about that pagoda is that its location is relatively close to the famous five story pagoda on Mt Haguro. I wonder if they are linked in some way? Thank-you once again for opening this line of inquiry. If it is something that you are exploring yourself I would love to hear more about it.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hi Jann. Sorry for the delayed reply again. Aside from its proximity to Haguro-san, I do not think Zenpoji is linked to the former. But I may be wrong. The history of each of these temples is certainly interesting due to their odd features, and I would love to visit them someday to explore further.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Thank-you for your reply Jennifer. Given your deep knowledge of Japan I imagine that you are correct about the links between the two Temples. I am considering visiting them and the surrounding region in early October. That’s if it is possible to do so without a car. Any advice you have about access to Haguro-San and Zenpoji would be much appreciated. 😊

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Hi Jann, unfortunately I don’t think I will be making my way to Tsuruoka anytime soon.

        To get to Haguro-san, you can take the Shonai Kotsu bus bound for Gassan Hachigome from Tsuruoka Station and alight at Haguro Zuishinmon (820 yen, 40 mins). Here is the link to the bus line’s web page http://www.shonaikotsu.jp/english/tourism/haguro.html

        As for Zenpoji, from Tsuruoka Station, you should take the Shonai Kotsu Bus bound for Yunohama Onsen (660 yen, 30 mins). Here is the link to the bus line’s page http://www.shonaikotsu.jp/english/tourism/yunohama.html

        You can try exploring the other places these buses stop at too!

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      5. Me again Jennifer! I have been reading about the five day Yamabushi course at Dewa Sanzan. The meal on the first day is eaten at at Zenpoji. That was interesting to see! I wonder how long this connection goes back in time? As you know there have been so many changes. Sending my best wishes, Jann 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Dear Jennifer,

    Thank-you very much for the bus timetables for the Tsuruoka Temples. Somehow I missed them earlier.

    I looked into participating in a two day yamabushi course at Dewa Sanzen. It was beyond my budget unfortunately.

    Instead I will visit the two Temples in Tsuruoka with my husband Tony in mid-October. So your transport information will be very helpful. 🙂 If I discover any information about links between Zenpoji and Mt Haguro I will let you know.

    Then in early December I’m going to visit Anraku-ji and the other Temples you wrote about near Bessho Onsen. That is really exciting. I’m also going to take the opportunity to visit the Hiroshi Senju Museum in nearby Karuizawa. There is so much to see in that region.

    When will you next be visiting Japan? I was wondering if it was the same two periods each year or if you were able to vary the timing? The pull of the country is very strong for both of us. 🙂

    Best wishes, Jann 🌸🔥💦

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jann. I’m excited for your trips, glad to know the link helped. The Hiroshi Senju Museum looks pretty from the pictures, I will need to add this to my list as well.

      I’ll be in Japan again in November. I try to go at different times each year, but it seems like my second trip is almost always in November.

      Like

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