This temple complex, a World Heritage Site, is as majestic as the mountain where it is located. Mt. Hiei has a long and entangled history with the capital, an involved and intriguing involvement with the court and the stronghold of warrior monks it became. More than a millennium ago, the priest Dengyo-Daishi (767–822), also known as Saicho, was given imperial permission to build a temple to protect the city against misfortune it was believed would emanate from the northeast. The temple grew in wealth and power and became a training place for monks-turned-warriors to force the Imperial Court to accede to its leaders' demands. The power accrued over the centuries lasting until Nobunaga Oda, the general who helped unify Japan and ended more than a century of civil strife, destroyed the complex in 1571.

The current temple is divided into three complexes—Todo, Saito, and Yokawa—that date from the 17th century. The Kompon Chu-do hall in Todo has a massive copper roof in the irimoya-zukuri layered style. Its dark, cavernous interior conveys the mysticism for which the Tendai sect is known. Giant pillars and a coffered ceiling shelter the central altar, which is surrounded by religious images. You can kneel with worshippers on a dais above the shadowy recess containing the smaller altars, an arrangement that looks upon the enshrined deities. The interior, darkened by the smoke of centuries of lighted candles, conveys a sense of spirituality even among nonbelievers. Each of the ornate oil lanterns hanging before the altar represents a stage of enlightenment. Near the main hall, a mausoleum contains the remains of Saicho.

Saito is a 25-minute walk from Todo along a stairway lined with stone lanterns. The ancient wooden temple in the Yokawa complex has been replaced with a concrete structure, dimming some of its allure, though like Todo and Saito it remains remarkable for its longevity and active religious rites.


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