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Temple 21, Tairyū-ji

The Temple of the Great Dragon

Temple 21, Tairyū-ji

Tairyū-ji is temple No. 21 on the Shikoku pilgrimage, or Henro. Located at 610 m above sea level, it’s one of the “nansho”, the difficult temples to reach on foot. Nevertheless, the climb isn’t particularly arduous. Whether you walk or take the cable car, Tairyū-ji is one of the most rewarding of the eighty-eight locations to visit, for its location offering vistas in all directions, for its mountaintop atmosphere, and for the beauty of its many sculptures and artworks.

What to see

If you follow the long approach from the main gate, you come to a hexagonal sutra repository, the Goma Hall, and the Buddha Hall which serves as the head priest’s quarters In the Buddha Hall, a dragon by Kōchi painter Takemura Shōrei (1876 to 1945) is drawn on the ceiling of the corridor. The temple office is on your right.

There’s a two-storied belfry gate in the middle of the steps. The statues in the gate date from the Kamakura period and they’re the largest and oldest in Tokushima. If you go up and to the left, the main hall is ahead of you. This features fantastically elaborate wood carving with an expressiveness not seen in other temples. The Gumonji Hall is behind it to the left. This a place for practicing the Kokūzō Gumonji method, an ascetic practice of esoteric Buddhism that confers a good memory.

If you head to the right opposite to the main hall, the Daishi Hall worship hall is across a bridge. The principal image is a large Buddha statue that reaches the ceiling. The Daishi Hall was rebuilt in 1878. If you take off your shoes, go around the hall of worship and go to the back of the hall, you come to the inner hall of the Daishi Hall. A two-storied pagoda stands on the hill between the main hall and the Daishi Hall.

The Chūkō Hall enshrines two monks from the Heian and Edo periods. The sōrintō is an elegant stone pillar dating from 1816.

The site where Kūkai sat is called Minamishashin Katake. It’s a short walk up from the temple, and today there’s a large statue of him gazing out over the dramatic mountainous landscape.

Besides the images and sculptures already mentioned, there are numerous traditional Buddhist sculptures as well as modern abstract and representational works dotted around the precincts.

History

Although Kūkai is said to have founded or visited many of the pilgrimage temples, there isn’t typically any documentary proof that he did. However, he himself wrote in his book Sango Shiiki, “When I was nineteen years old, I climbed up Mt. Tairyū in Awa Province and meditated to master the Kokūzō Gumonji method by reciting it one million times.” By doing so he hoped to achieve enlightenment, but didn’t succeed, and he continued his ascetic practices further south at the tip of the Muroto Peninsula.

Later he was ordered by Emperor Kanmu (735-806) to found a temple here and be the head priest. The main deity enshrined is Kokūzō, whose mantra he had chanted as a youth. During this time, Kūkai undertook ascetic practice for 100 days.  

Sometime between 1185-1333, the front gate was built, making it the oldest in Tokushima. The forces of Chōsokabe Motochika destroyed the temple between 1573-1592. In 1669, the main hall was restored. The pagoda was built in 1861.

In 1992, a cable car was built that whisks visitors to the temple in about ten minutes. It’s the longest cable car in west Japan with a length of 2,775 m, and the view from the windows is spectacular. (Cable cars are known in Japanese English as “rope way”)

Legends

When Kūkai undertook ascetic practice for 100 days, great dragon protected him, hence the name of the temple, which means “Great Dragon Temple”.

Information

Name in Japanese: 太竜寺

Pronunciation: tairyū-ji

Address: 2 Ryuzan, Kamocho, Anan, Tokushima Prefecture, 771-5173

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