A 15-minute walk from Dogo Onsen, Ishite Temple is Shingon Buddhism at play. Half serene pilgrimage destination, half ancient Buddhist-themed fun park, the temple is more than worth a visit. As sprawling and elegantly unkempt as the city around it, it contains surprises that are, like the temple cats, too numerous to count.
Enter the temple by way of a stone road that's flanked by wooden stalls with vendors selling calligraphy brushes, omiyage-paper fortunes, and pilgrimage gear. Just inside the colossal temple gate you'll see a table for folding origami cranes; make one and it will be added to the heavy, colorful bunches hanging around the pillars. Past the cranes lies the main hall of worship, where you're likely to see a pilgrim or two chanting a sutra. In the surrounding area you'll also see painted panels, golden statues, a giant mandala on the stairway to the main shrine, a wooden kami (spirit) with a sword you can heft, and a huge bronze bell to ring (¥100).
serene and memorable, but the real fun at Ishite-ji Temple starts in a long, dark cave to the left of the main worship hall. It feels impossibly long, and when you finally emerge on the other side—past startling wooden statues and 88 stone Buddhas—you'll be confronted by a 100-foot statue of the priest Kobo Daishi striding across the mountains. The mountain behind the temple also holds a few surprises: a scrambling rock pathway leads up the mountain, where two spooky caves are yours to explore (even most locals don't know about them). Don't miss Ishite-ji Temple's regular festival, held on the 20th day of every month.