When I first came to Japan it was as an exchange student with 6 of my friends from my University in Ireland. One of my friends famously said “If you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all” and there is a truth in that. The magnificence of a temple doesn’t always lie in its appearance, but rather in the history and meaning behind a particular temple. Many temples do look very like others and / or some are very plain and, frankly, quite disappointing to the naked eye, but on the flip side there are many that are both aesthetically pleasing and have a fascinating back story. Then there are those that are different; that stand out for either their background or their architecture or both. Iwamuro Kannon is, in my experience, one of those temples.
Located on the side of a cliff right by the side of the road, the temple is intricately positioned between two rock fronts. The ground floor of the temple is actually part of the cliff and the 88 stone statues, which are one appeal of the temple, are housed in caves within the rock. The stone statues are images of Kannon, the Bodhisattva of compassion. The temple is dedicated to this “Goddess of Mercy”. The building of the temple is a beautiful wooden structure positioned on stilts. There is no door on the temple and you are free to climb the steep stairs to the first floor where you can look out over the Ichino River on the North End. In Spring the Cherry blossoms along that river are stunning and draw quite a large amount of tourists. On the South end you see the steep trail that leads to the site of Matsuyama Castle. The only remnant of the castle is the moat, but you can view a diorama of the castle in one of the museums in the nearby 100 Caves of Yoshimi. You can exit the temple onto the trail at the back of the temple. On your right you will see a ladder leading to another Kannon. On the left a staircase has been dug into the incline, with a chain rope for support, so that you can climb up to and pass under the naturally formed passage that is shaped like a heart.
Once upon a time Iwamuro kannon enjoyed many visitors as the 3rd stop (of 33), and only one in Yoshimi, on a pilgrimage of Kannon statues in the Hiki district. The Kannon are said to have 33 forms they use when helping sentient beings, thus the Hiki West Country pilgrimmage has 33 stops. Nowadays, however, the temple is virtually abandoned, making it pleasingly tranquil. On the south side you are enveloped by nature, but the temple is quite literally on the side of the road on the North end. That road is mainly used to get to the 100 caves and as such isn’t used much in off season periods. The lack of visitors would imply that in recent years it does not enjoy much appreciation, fame or reverence, but it impressed me greatly. It is well worth a stop, in my personal opinion, if you are in the area.
IWAMURO KANNON INFORMATION
Parking: Shared with the 100 caves of Yoshimi. FREE
By Public Transport
Just over an hour from Tokyo.
- Bus from Tōbu Tōjō Line Higashimatsuyama station (from Ikebukuro) to “Hyakkuana-Iriguchi” 百穴入口
- Or Bus from JR Takasaki Line Konosu station (from Ueno) to “Hyakkuana-Iriguchi” 百穴入口 from Konosu Sta.
5 km from Higashimatsuyama Interchange of the Kanestsu expressway, in the direction of Konosu.
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