Osaka is known for its trendy shopping and street food scenes, but like many cities in Japan has a rich cultural history that is reflected in its many temples and shrines. Scattered throughout the urban sprawl, a visit to a quiet temple is a great way to break away from the usual touristy attractions. On a recent trip to Kansai, I had the opportunity to see a side of Osaka that was quite different from the crowded streets of the Shinsaibashi shopping and entertainment district.
The first thing you notice about Isshinji Temple (一心寺) is its characteristic front gate. Instead of the usual wood or stone, this torii is made of concrete, metal, and glass, resembling a modern work of art. Even the giant Nio guardian statues look unconventional. The gate was designed by the current head priest, who also happens to be an architect. Inside the grounds, the temple buildings look more traditional (and unfortunately for us, the main hall was under renovation and unaccessible).
Located in Tennoji district, Isshinji is also known for its Okutsu Butsu (Bone Buddha) statues that are made from the ashes and bones of deceased worshippers and their ancestors. Over the years, 13 statues have been made, each incorporating some the cremated remains of some 150,000 people (the first six were destroyed by bombings during the war). A new statue is made every ten years, making Isshinji temple is the final resting place of well over a million people so far.
Across the street from the main gate is the Sanzenbutsudo (3000 Buddhas Hall), a temple annex that features a huge dome adorned with gold buddha statues. The interior of the dome is laid out like a church, with a huge tempera mural purported to be the largest of its kind in the world.
Also located in Tennoji district is Shitennoji Temple (四天王寺), often regarded as Japan’s first Buddhist and oldest officially administered temple. The large temple grounds comprise of many buildings including an inner sanctum that includes the main hall and a five-storey pagoda. The wide open spaces lend an airy, park-like atmosphere to Shitennoji, making it a relaxing oasis in an otherwise busy and crowded city.
Namba Yasaka Shrine
Affectionately known as the Lion Head Shrine, the Namba Yasaka Shrine (難波八阪神社) is a favourite photo spot of locals and visitors alike. Located near the Namba shopping and entertainment district, the shrine is famous for its 12-meter tall lion head structure that houses a stage for rituals and events. The Ema-Den (絵馬殿) head is believed to swallow up evil spirits, calling for victory and success, especially for students and businesses.
This is definitely one of the most unusual looking shrines I’ve been to in Japan, and perfectly encapsulates the insuppressible Osaka spirit.
A tiny unassuming temple tucked away in a side alley, Hozenji Temple (法善寺) is located between Dotonburi bridge and Namba’s big shopping malls. When you’ve had your fill of street food, booze and neon lights, make your way here for some peace and quiet: make a wish and splash some water on the famous Mizukake-Fudo, a buddhist statue representing discipline and firm moral character. Over the years the water has resulted in the statue being covered in lush moss.
The atmosphere at Hozenji is especially magical in the evening when the lanterns are lit, and this calm oasis attracts many visitors having a night out on the town. Entering the gate means leaving modern Osaka behind and transporting yourself to a Japan of a different era.