It’s been a while since I featured a truly off of the beaten path location so this week, we are going to do just that. The topic of this piece will be the Buddhist temple complex of Kongosho-ji. As you can tell by the title, this sacred site is located near the summit of Mt. Asama, directly to the northeast of Ise Jingu. In traditional Japanese geomancy, this direction was known as the Kimon (or “Demon Gate” in English) and people believed evil energies would enter from this spiritually vulnerable northeastern orientation. As a result of its orientation to Ise Jingu, Kongosho-ji protects Ise Jingu from its Kimon, thereby earning itself its bulwark nickname.
As you might imagine, Kongoshi-ji is a temple with a long pedigree to it. The compound was originally founded by none other than the legendary monk Kukai, one of the most revered persons to ever grace the pages of Buddhism’s history in Japan. This means the temple is over a millennia old. Though we have no date of founding for its ward (due to Ise Jingu’s Shikinen Sengu tradition of rebuilding the shrine every twenty years), we can at least say that some iteration of the Kongosho-ji complex atop of Mt. Asama has been standing watch in the northeast for over 1,000 years.
Despite being a very sacred place, few people in Japan and overseas know that Kongosho-ji is actually considered to be a part of a pilgrimage that also includes Ise Jingu’s Naiku and Geku (the inner and outer shrines). In fact, as recounted in the famous Ise Ondo, one’s pilgrimage to Ise isn’t considered complete unless Mt. Asama and Kongosho-ji are also visited. While I’ll be frank and say that Kongosho-ji isn’t the easiest of locations to reach, it’s certainly a worthy addition to any trip that takes you to this part of Mie Prefecture.
How to Get There
OK, when I said we would be covering an off of the beaten path location this time, I really meant it. Despite not being too far away from the venerable Ise Jingu as the proverbial crow flies, Kongosho-ji is still quite hard to get to. When I first visited, I was graciously driven there by the kind folks of Ama Hut Hachiman Kamado after I helped them get their D2C digital marketing act together to survive the early stages of the pandemic. As evidenced by the fact that I was taken there by automobile, this isn’t a place you can easily walk to from the train station, so a rental car is highly recommended. If you’re planning on going, I’d highly suggest that you have your own set of wheels.
From what I’m seeing online, you can actually get to Kongoshi-ji via bus. Seeing as I didn’t do this route myself though, you’ll need to take the following with a grain of salt. Apparently, you’ll need to first make your way to Isuzugawa Station and then hop on one of the infrequent buses bound for the Iseshima Skyline. This road is often hailed as the “Driveway of Heaven’’ and will take you up to the highest echelons of Mt. Asama (it’s quite the scenic drive). Eventually, you’ll come across the bus stop for Kongoshi-ji and the temple should be just a few minutes walk away from where you’ll disembark.
Note that while I am personally partial towards Jorudan when it comes to calculating trains connects, personally I find that Google Maps just outperforms Jorudan for local buses. Just plug Kongosho-ji into the search bar and then let it calculate the rest for you. Even for me, I find navigating buses to be like deciphering arcane tomes so do yourself a favor and just let the technology do the heavy lifting for you. Be sure to also make a memo of when the next bus is so that you don’t get stuck atop Mt. Asama.
What to See at the Buddhist Temple
As you’ll see as soon as you enter Kongosho-ji, this mountaintop bastion of Buddhism really has a mystical mood to it. Even during the height of Japan’s sultry summer, I felt a spiritual chill run down my spine while I was exploring Kongosho-ji. It’s definitely a place that radiates a consecrated energy and it’s no surprise why the temple is located near Ise Jingu’s Kimon. As you meander about Kongosho-ji, you’ll viscerally feel its protective power and come to understand why the compound came to be known as the “shield” in the northeast. I’m generally pretty dense to stuff like this but even I could feel its potency.
When coming from the bus stop or parking lot, the first thing you’ll encounter is the Niomon Gate pictured at the start of this article. Pass under it and you’ll at last be on the temple grounds of Kongoshi-ji. Immediately, you’ll see a vermilion torii, a fox statue as well as some other religious objects despite the location not being classified as a Shinto shrine. These oddities are a result of Japan’s religious history whereby Japan’s indigenous deities became syncretic amalgams with the Buddhist deities introduced from the mainland. As long term readers will know, this unique religious belief system became known as Shinbutsu Shugo and existed until Buddhist temples were forcibly separated from their Shinto counterparts in the late 1800s.
Anyway, before I lose the plot here, let’s get back to Kongosho-ji. After passing under the Niomon Gate, you’ll come across a pond covered with pink lotus flowers and a picturesque bridge. Immediately thereafter is Kongosho-ji’s main temple building, the Hondo. Usually only open to people who apply for prayer service, this golden hall is decked out in many religious symbols and houses a number of Buddhist statues. Chief among these is Kongosho-ji’s principle object of worship which is only ever taken out for Ise Jingu’s renewal every two decades. Inside of the Hondo, you’ll also find a wooden statue of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate.
As impressive as such halls can be at sites like this, the real allure at Kogosho-ji is its Okunoin or “Inner Sanctuary.” Found a little ways away from the main hall on the other side of the Gokurakumon Gate (lit. “Gate to Paradise”’), this part of the grounds feels very similar to the Okunoin of Mt. Koya in Wakayama. Once you’ve passed through the Gokurakumon Gate, the first thing you’ll come across is a Buddhist cemetery lined with long wooden posts. These are known as Sotoba, the Japanese term for the Sanskrit stupa, and are quite beautiful to behold.
When I visited Kongoshi-ji, I was already quite impressed with the temple by the time I reached this part of the compound. Suffice to say, I was delighted to learn that this unique graveyard led to yet another part of the temple complex. What’s more, in contrast to the gilded main hall, the buildings in the Okunoin part of Kongosho-ji were blessed with some truly magnificent views of the many islands that dot Ise Bay far below.
If my memory serves me correctly, there was also a place to sip some savory green tea here but don’t quote me on that — my visit to Kongosho-ji was way back in the summer of 2020!
Epic Views of Ise Bay
If you’re going to go to Kongosho-ji, you’ll also want to head over to the Mt. Asama View Point . This can be reached either by getting back in your rental car (if you have one) or by hoofing it up a short path from the Okunoin area. It’s hard to describe in words how to get there but it’s simple once you look at a map so I’ll just elect to send you here to avoid rambling on forever. From what I recall, the uphill path led up to the Mt. Asama View Point in only a few minutes and wasn’t too bad of a climb all things considered.
At the Mt. Asama View Point, there are a few things to do. There’s an ashiyu foot bath as well as an eatery that serves a number of local specialties; maybe you could try eating Ise udon here if you’re in need of some noodles. The real point of interest though is the epic vista that you can behold from the top of Mt. Asama. You can see all of the bay down below and if the weather happens to be especially clear, you might even catch a glimpse of the Atsumi Peninsula’s southernmost tip all the way over in Aichi Prefecture!
Simple Add-ons in Ise City
At the risk of sounding like Captain Obvious, you’re likely not going to venture all the way down to this magnificent part of Mie just for Kongosho-ji. After all, there is a reason that the prefecture markets itself as the “Adventure of a Lifetime.” At the very least, you’ll want to budget for enough time to visit Ise Jingu’s inner and outer shrines, the Naiku and the Geku. Additionally, Oharai-machi and Okage-yokocho are also must visits in my eyes and can be explored either before or after you pay your respects to Amaterasu Omikami at the Naiku. Oh yeah, and if you’re a fan of noodles, be sure to try eating Ise udon while in Oharai-machi!
Though you’ll need to budget for more than just a day if you’re also doing Kongosho-ji, I also suggest that you drop by the Meoto Iwa. Pictured above, this duo of wedded rocks is one of the most iconic locations in all of Mie Prefecture. Located down by the coast in the “no man’s land” between Toba and Ise, the Meoto Iwa are sure to be a great add on to Naiku, Geku and Oharai-machi. If you want to be sure that you have it to yourself, you’d do well to set your alarm clock and go early!
If you’ve got some time on your hands and want to make the most out of your time in the area, you can refer to my epic guide to Mie Prefecture. Coming in at a whopping 20-minute read time, this article covers everything and anything you could ever want to know about Mie. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you about the length though!
Other Nearby Attractions
Before ending this article on Kongosho-ji, allow me to leave you with a few final suggestions for the area. First and foremost, you absolutely ought to consider feasting on seafood that has been hand-caught by the ama divers. These lovely ladies are the current successors of an ancient tradition of free divers and are some of the most resilient and jovial souls that you’ll meet on the planet. My go-to is of course Ama Hut Hachiman Kamado but there are a few more spots that also offer similar experience.
Next up, I’d like you to also know that Ise Jingu is actually the start of one of the branches of the Kumano Kodo. Though you’ll need to look at the departure times carefully, you can actually catch a Nanki limited express train from a nearby station all the way down to Shingu and/or Kii-Katsuura. From there, you can check out the Kumano Sanzan trio of ancient shrines. Just recently, I did exactly this trip when showing family around and can’t more highly recommend it.
Until next time travelers…