Onsenji Temple

The guardian temple of
Kinosaki’s hot springs

Plan on visiting any of the onsen in Kinosaki Onsen? You should perhaps first visit the hot spring’s guardian temple, as many have done before you, before entering these waters and receiving their healing powers. Healing powers? Yes, these hot spring waters have been known for their healing abilities and this is where much of the town’s fame first came from. You can see proof of the miracles these waters have performed at Onsenji Temple’s Yakushido Hall, located at the foot of Mt. Daishi.
Onsenji Temple, the main building, is located at the back of Kinosaki town midway up Mt. Daishi. You can climb the stone steps or take the ropeway gondola up to the temple.

Canes and other mobility aids
left behind by those healed by
the waters

When word reached far and wide of the healing waters of Kinosaki Onsen, people from all over suffering from ailments that prevented or impaired their ability to walk came to Kinosaki looking for pain relief or a cure.
Many of those that came looking for a cure or relief found it. At the end of their stay they would leave their canes and other mobility aids that they no longer needed at the temple altar, as proof of being cured and thanks for the hot spring’s healing powers. Today you can still see some of these items on display in the eaves of the temple.

The legend of the rare & sacred Eleven-Faced Kannon
Bodhisattva of Kinosaki

Housed within Onsenji Temple is a rare and sacred Bodhisattva (a Buddha-like figure) called Juichimen Kanzeon Bosatsu, or the Eleven-Faced Kannon Bodhisattva, and means “Eleven-Faced goddess of compassion and mercy”. It is a designated national treasure and is only fully displayed every 33 years for a period of 3 years.
The wooden statue is carved from the same tree that also produced the Kannon Bodhisattva located in Nara’s Hasedera Temple.
Legend says that the Buddhist priest Keibun had begun to carve Nara’s Eleven-Faced Kannon, but before he could complete the statue he fell ill with palsy. The Kannon was then enshrined in an unfinished state. Around this time the priest had heard about the miracles of the holy hot spring waters in Kinosaki, so he then traveled to Kinosaki in hopes to cure his illness. During his leave, it is said that ill luck befell the town where the uncompleted Kannon was enshrined. The town felt that the Kannon was the cause, so they tossed it into the river. The Kannon then floated down the river where it was discovered and pulled out by the next town, and then again the town appears to be cursed that is believed to be caused by the Kannon. This repeated several times until one day the Kannon floated into the bay of Kinosaki, where the priest who left the Kannon behind was then staying to receive treatment for his illness. When he realized that it was the same Kannon that he had started carving, he told the town’s priest Dochi-Shonin. Dochi-Shonin, also a Buddhist saint, told him that the Kannon was angry that it has not been completed yet, and that he must complete the Kannon to stop the curse. The Buddhist priest Keibun completed the statue, entrusted it to Dochi-Shonin, and returned to Nara.
In 738, news of the town and its miraculous hot springs reached the emperor. The emperor made an imperial decree that gave Onsenji Temple the honor of becoming Kinosaki’s official guardian temple. And so Onsenji Temple became the guardian temple of Kinosaki’s hot springs and the 11-headed Kannon became the temple’s principal object of worship.

During the 3 years the Kannon is on display, there are 5 colored strings tied to the Kannon’s left wrist that lead out to the main viewing space, that are then wound around an object that is placed in front of a small altar. This allows visitors a chance to “touch” the Kannon.

Climb the mountain to the main hall to begin your onsen

According to Kinosaki’s history and tradition, visitors to Kinosaki would first make a short pilgrimage to Onsenji Temple’s main hall located midway up Mt. Daishi. At the main hall they would pray to the hot spring’s guardian for a blessing to be healed by the waters, before entering the sacred hot springs. They would then receive a “yu-shaku”, or hot spring ladle that would serve as an entry ticket to the hot springs. Without this ladle they would not be allowed to enter the waters. Today the ladle is not needed, but can still be purchased at Onsenji Temple.

To get to Onsenji Temple you can either hike up or take the gondola. Hiking up the stone stairs through the mountain forest takes about 20 minutes, depending on your condition. If you feel like the hike might be a little too strenuous, you can take the gondola up the ropeway and it will let you off at the midway station right in front of the temple.

More about hiking up

Contained within Onsenji Temple you will find the Senju Kannon or “Thousand-Armed Bodhisattva of Mercy”. What is rare about Onsenji Temple’s Senju Kannon is that unlike most that have 42 actual arms, this one has 834.

Just before you reach the main altar where the 11-Headed Kannon is located, you will see a small shrine with a statue inside of it at the back of a small room. The statue inside is of Dochi-Shonin, the Buddhist monk that is credited with bringing forth the town’s healing hot spring water. He traveled to the town looking for a way to save people suffering from illness. An oracle had appeared to him and told him how he could do so. In the place where the Mandara-yu bathhouse is now, legend says that he uttered a prayer, or “mandara”, for 1,000 days. On the 1,000th day, a spring came forth and from that day on has continued to flow. The spring continues to bless the town and those who bathe in its waters.

In front of the statue you will see several yu-shaku, or wooden ladles. The yu-shaku was seen as a substitute for the hands of Shinto gods or Buddha, and the hot spring waters were a blessing from the gods. Because the yu-shaku is revered as such, there are certain rules and customs when using the yu-shaku. There is also a “correct” or traditional way of bathing in the hot springs. It is unlikely that you will find any other visitors who know the correct way to bathe, as it isn’t taught anymore, but you can find the instructions on the proper way to bathe illustrated on a small hand towel sold at the temple and in some of the gift shops.