With a view over the mountain ranges and the sound of chanting filling the air, this extensive complex of ancient temples and worship halls leaves many visitors reflecting on just how far their journey has taken them. Enryaku-ji was established to protect the northern frontier when Emperor Kammu founded the city in the late 8th century. Because police were prohibited from entering the temple grounds, the whole mountainside became a refuge for thieves, brigands, and fugitives.
Enryaku-ji developed its own well-trained militia, rivaling those of many feudal lords. No imperial army could manage a war without the support of Enryaku-ji, and at times Enryaku-ji's forces would slaughter monks of rival Buddhist sects. Not until the 16th century was there a force strong enough to attack the temple. Nobunaga Oda, the general who helped unify Japan and ended more than a century of civil strife, sacked the monastery in 1571. Many monks were killed, and most buildings were destroyed. The structures
standing today were built in the 17th century.
The Kompon Chu-do hall dates from 1642 and has a stunning copper roof in the irimoya-zukuri layered style. Its dark, cavernous interior conveys the mysticism for which the sect is known. Giant pillars and a coffered ceiling shelter the central altar surrounded by religious images. You can kneel with worshippers on a dais above the shadowy recess containing the smaller altars, an arrangement that supposedly allows you to come face-to-face with the enshrined deities. Even if you don't see a vision of the supernatural, you can enjoy a closer look at the ornate oil lanterns hanging before the altar, each representing a stage of enlightenment. Near the main hall, a mausoleum contains the remains of Saicho, who oversaw Enryaku-ji's construction.
The echoing of the monks' wooden sandals follows you as you explore Enryaku-ji's other buildings; pay particular attention to the Shaka-do, the oldest structure in the complex. Also enshrined in the temple is the hidden Buddhist icon, Yakushi Nyorai, and has been continuously illimunated ever since Dengyo Daishi himself carved it 1,200 years ago.
To access the cable cars that take visitors to the base of the temple, take JR Kosei Line trains to Eizan Station, Keihan Line trains to Hiei-zan Sakamoto Station, or the Eiden/Eizan Line from Demachi-Yanagi Station to Yase-Yuen Station. Kyoto Line buses 16, 17 and 18 also run to Yase-Yuen.