Japan from the inside out

Japan’s ultimate tourist destination

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, October 3, 2007

SHRINES AND TEMPLES are a popular destination for tourists in Japan. While visiting these sites is a rewarding way to spend one’s time, the sameness can get boring after awhile, even for the Japanese.


But if you want to try a temple that is guaranteed not to be boring—in fact, you may need a tranquilizer after you visit—then you should make it a point to visit the Great Kannon Temple in Mie Prefecture. If there’s anything in this world that could get a person to spontaneously talk in tongues, this is it.

Kannon is one of the most popular bodhisattvas in Japan. The personification of infinite compassion, it is believed to rescue beings from danger when its name is invoked. There are both male and female representations. The Japanese have enjoyed making pilgrimages to temples to view Kannon images for centuries. Hey you in the back row, stop that yawning! We’re getting to the good part.

Some images have been designated as national treasures, including the wooden Kannon at the Horyu Temple in Nara, dating from the seventh century, and the 1,001 small statues of the thousand-armed Kannon at the Sanjusangendo in Kyoto.

But there ain’t nothing like the Great Kannon Temple nowhere. It is the location of the largest statue of Kannon in the world. Shown in the first photo, the statue is 33 meters high and made of pure gold, said to value 500 million yen, or more than US$4.3 million. People come on pilgrimages to ask for good fortune for the family, prosperity in business, marital harmony, and protection from illness, disaster, and traffic accidents, making it a sort of one-stop religious shopping center.

The prospective tourist might agree that it seems a bit out of the ordinary, but still ask why it would be worth a special trip to Mie Prefecture.

Silly question! Before visitors approach the Kannon, they are welcomed by…


…an orchestra of frogs! Dozens of frogs, each about the size of a child, with different expressions on their faces. Now how many religious sites do you know of with an outdoor exhibit of a frog band? But perhaps you’re one of those who prefer to be greeted by something that more closely resembles humans. Well, just for you, there are…


…Sphinx-like figures! Why? Well, why not? Besides, they’re half human, anyway. And if you thought I was making this up, you can see the frog band in the background of the photo! Keep walking and the human quotient rises, because then you encounter…


…Ebisu! He’s one of the seven deities of good fortune, an international lot who hail from India, China, and Japan. There was once a popular custom of putting a picture of all seven on board a treasure ship underneath one’s pillow on the night of 1 January to make sure the first dream of the year would be a lucky one. He’s also considered the deity of fishing, so he’s usually rendered holding a sea bream. This Ebisu seems to have caught a big one. Ebisu is considered to be one of the most important of the seven, along with…


…Daikokuten, the deity of wealth! The reference books say he is usually pictured with a wish-granting mallet and bag over his shoulder, and this guy matches the description. He seems to be in a particularly good mood, but if I were the deity of wealth in a joint with a 500 million yen gold statue, I’d be feeling full of myself, too!

Well, so far there’s a gold statue 33 meters high, a frog orchestra, and two household deities. Think that’s enough for one temple? Well, think again, because the people who built the place thought it needed that extra something, and what better to make it really distinctive than…


…a giant hand placed at the base of the Kannon statue! With no explanation! Don’t get excited by the reverse swastikas—in Japan they sometimes represent the heart and mind of the Buddha and are much older than the Nazi variety. They’re also often seen on maps to denote the location of temples.

But what this photo doesn’t show is that the hand is supported under the fingers by a giant red torii, the distinctive gateway to Shinto shrines. They don’t have anything to do with Buddhism, but then again, they don’t have anything to do with frog orchestras or the seven deities of good fortune either.

Now that the tourist has filled up one postcard trying to describe this temple to the folks back home–who are going to suspect the pictures have been Photoshopped–he’s going to have to buy another to include this…


…this…this…Sorry, I don’t know what this is, and the people who wrote the references I have describing this place don’t know either. You know how folks interested in esoteric subjects talk about the Third Eye? Well, this has got a Third Eye. In fact, if you look closely, you can see this has two Third Eyes. One is above the two eyes on his face. The other is above the two eyes on his body. Right below the three horns on his back.

All the better to see you with, my dear!

You think that’s enough for one temple? Hah! Haven’t you figured out by now these people are not screwing around? It’s not complete without…


Another animal band! This one consists of maneki neko, or beckoning cats, calling on good fortune. In this case, they are specifically calling for good luck with money, according to the accompanying sign. Will they actually bring good fortune? Hey, they can’t hurt, and they just might possibly help. Besides, you can consider yourself lucky you got to experience this temple during your lifetime!

Oh, I almost forgot, the band’s backdrop are the two geta, traditional Japanese wooden footwear, belonging to the Kannon. They’re seven meters long.

You’ll have to admit—a tourist who hasn’t been here hasn’t seen the real Japan!

12 Responses to “Japan’s ultimate tourist destination”

  1. Overthinker said

    This page has a big collection of Wacky Temples in Japan:

    I find it very hard to believe that that 33m tall Kannon is made of pure gold. Covered in gold leaf, fine, but made of pure gold? A very rough calculation suggests that, assuming the Kannon can be thought of as a solid rectangle 3m x 3m x 33m, which gives a (rounded up) volume of 300 cubic metres. Since one cubic metre of water weighs one metric tonne (1000 kg), then if this was water it would weigh 300,000 tonnes. Since gold is 19.3 times more dense than water, that means 5.7 million tonnes of gold (roughly). That works out at (according to the price at to some 15.5 TRILLION yen. The 500,000,000 price will only get you some 183kg of gold, enough to give it a good coating perhaps.

  2. Durf said

    I’m thinking that a 33-meter-high anything made of solid gold is going to set you back a lot more than five oku. Hell, that’s only about five stolen bathtubs.

  3. ampontan said

    Maybe it’s hollow!

  4. Overthinker said

    Why hasn’t my post analysing the gold issue shown up? Is it because there was an URL in there and it got flagged as spam?

    Overthinker: It was because there were two URLs in there, which is the default for the spam catcher. I could change it, but you would not believe the deluge of spam containing URLs, not to mention the content. One that slipped through during the night was a site advertising mothers bonking their sons.

    I usually go through it once a day to see if legitimate comments are in there, and restore them. Yours should be up shortly.

  5. Overthinker said

    Ampontan: thanks for that. I’ll split up URLs and stuff in the future. Sorry for the inconvenience.

    I think we will find that the Kannon is not only hollow (as such things tend to be) but only covered in gold. Structurally, I very much doubt a hollow gold statue 33m tall would work, gold being such a soft metal.

    I’ve been looking a few more things up, and apparently when the Kinkakuji was resurfaced in 1987 the gold used weighed 74kgs and cost 700,000,000 yen. (昭和62年の大修理の際、金閣に貼られた金箔の重量は約74kg、金箔の費用は約7億だったという。)Looks like gold prices have dropped, actually. The gold on the Kinkakuji is five times normal gold leaf thickness to withstand the elements, so I would assume this Kannon is similar, but I have NO idea how the surface areas compare – the Kinkakuji is large but flat.

    The gold, incidentally, came from Kanazawa (whose name, appropriately enough, means “marsh of gold”) which has a 98% share of the gold leaf market in Japan.

  6. Overthinker said

    Incidentally, the three-eyed (six-eyed) creature is a Hakutaku, a sacred, all-knowing animal. It actually has nine eyes, speaks human languages, and is linked with the Kirin and the Phoenix as appearing in times of noble statesmen. It is also said to have illness-banishing properties (here it looks like it’s got anti-cancer properties) and for both these reasons its image was favoured by rulers who aspired to virtue. It is also said to have met the Yellow Emperor and given him knowledge of illness and disaster (prevention). Wikipedia Japan has a short but informative article about the creature.

    A torii in a Buddhist temple would be interesting, as one of the first acts of the Meiji government was to separate them (they got a bit mixed in the Edo period), and there are few left that still show such syncretism. In a modern tourist-attraction temple, my guess is they’re just piling in stuff.

  7. Overthinker said

    PS: I don’t know what your sources for this post were, but they’re wrong about the “Biggest Kannon in the World” thing. That honour belongs to the insanely massive Sendai Dai-Kannon, at a whopping 100 metres tall, over three times as big. There’s some impressive photos of it looming over the city at:
    http://www.dai (join these)
    Honorary mention must also go to the Kaga Kannon at Kaga Yuutopia, at 73 metres.

    (Do I have nothing better to do? Well, yes, but it’s not as interesting as looking up weird and wonderful religious icons….)

  8. ampontan said

    It came from 珍日本紀行 or Roadside Japan, by Kyoichi Tsuzuki. They are a collection of articles he wrote for Spa about unusual places.

    It was the source for this story, too:

    The author probably took the temple’s word for it.

    This anthology was once published in English, but it’s out of print. It’s still in print in two volumes in Japan. They’re in danged small paperbacks, though.

  9. Overthinker said

    Looks like an interesting shrine. Cool lion mouth. Would it keep newspaper sales and stuff away as well, I wonder?

    And there’s certainly no shortage of bizarre things to see in Japan (or anywhere else, I expect), especially weird stuff built in the bubble era.

  10. J_ said

    This is a Confucian creature. So, we have Buddhism, Shintoism and Confucianism at one place!

  11. Aceface said

    Tsuzuki is also doing weird American tourist site too.It’s called “Road side U.S.A”at “TITLE”magazine.

  12. tomojiro said

    “This is a Confucian creature. So, we have Buddhism, Shintoism and Confucianism at one place!”

    And also Daoism.

    As a Japanese Anthroplogist said about religion in east asia, it is useless to argue about pure traditions or “syncretic religions” in East Asia (China, Japan, Korea), because “mixed” was the norm from the beginning.

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