Yakuo-in Buddhist Temple

Yakuo-in was founded in the mid-8th century by order of Emperor Shomu, who welcomed and spread the practice of Buddhism in Japan nationwide. The temple was named Yakuo-in (lit. medicine king temple) from the devotion to Yakushi Nyorai (Medicine Buddha) at the time of its construction, but today it is one of the three head temples of the Shingon-shu Chisan-ha sect of Buddhism.

Yakuo-in has over a millennium of history behind it and is an active Buddhist temple. Remember to always remove your shoes/hat when entering buildings and be respectful of the surroundings.

Mt. Takao and Yakuo-in are closely linked to tengu. These long-nosed—sometimes beaked—supernatural beings were believed to dwell on the mountain and worshipped as messengers of Izuna Daigongen, the principal image of the temple. Believed to be a protector in battle by samurai warlords, the deity protects devotees from harm and brings them happiness.

There are numerous stories and folklore of tengu here, and with Yakuo-in’s reputation as a place of ascetic training, legend has it that yamabushi monks would venture deep into the forests of Mt. Takao to undergo strict training. They would then eventually merge with the mountain’s spirits by overcoming the hardships and gain spiritual powers, taking on the form of a tengu.

Several of them guard (and greet) you throughout the temple grounds.

Experience: Shojin-ryori (vegetarian Buddhist cuisine)

Shojin-ryori is ordinarily part of the monks’ training regimen but is being offered for everyone to experience. Therefore, as a sign of respect, please consume the entirety of the meal.

Shojin-ryori is a simple meal of rice, soup, and a few side dishes. Cooked within the temple, it is entirely vegetarian, but has a decent calorie count while remaining a balanced and healthy meal.

Each dish in Yakuo-in’s Shojin-ryori is all-original and adheres to the staple washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine) tenets of valuing visual presentation, the diversity of ingredients and their individual flavors, seasonal expressions, etc. But a unique challenge it poses is visually bringing the color red to the meal with vegetables when this would typically be fulfilled by tuna or beef. This is what keeps the temple’s resident chef of over 15 years continuously honing his craft.

Sushi usually takes the limelight but not many can say they’ve had this side of the Intangible Cultural Heritage that is Japanese cuisine.

Experience: Find the 88

The Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage has gained fame in recent years, but not everybody has the time or means to make the 1,400 km walk around Japan’s smallest main island.

But in 1903, the 26th head monk of Yakuo-in made the pilgrimage himself and took back small handfuls of soil—that had not been stepped on—from each temple. Upon returning to Mt. Takao, he set them in various locations around the mountain and built statues over them of renowned and multitalented Buddhist monk Kukai (posthumously known as Kobo-Daishi), to whom the Shikoku Pilgrimage is often credited to.

Yakuo-in does guided hikes to visit all statues around the mountain, but this is obviously no quick walk in the park. So, near the Daishi-do Hall adjacent to the temple’s Main Hall is a miniature version of all 88 statues, all containing the same soil and rocks from Shikoku. So, in a sense, you can “do” the pilgrimage in Tokyo simply by visiting Yakuo-in!

Experience: Firewalking Ritual and Festival

Attracting some 7,000 people, this is Yakuo-in’s biggest event of the year.

Held near the entrance to Mt. Takao, several other ceremonies are performed before the bonfire is lit. Things begin with the monks throwing nadegi wooden tablets (inscribed with your name, age, and a prayer or wish) into the flames. The fire quickly grows in intensity and size as the monks chant, but once the flames die down to embers, two paths are prepared and the firewalk begins.

Participation is open to everyone and there are no prior preparations or clothing requirements. However, this remains a form of ascetic training—only performed by Shingon and Tendai sects of Buddhism in Japan—and the monks perform it to rid themselves of bad spirits while praying for world peace, people’s safety, and more.

Once you’ve crossed—and feel cleansed!—you are given a bonten tag to take home to pray for the safety of the home and family (best set near the fireplace, etc.). The nadegi, bonten, and amulet serving as proof of completing the firewalk are provided for 1,000 yen but are not required.

Held annually on the 2nd Sunday of March.

Experience: Goma Wooden Prayer Tablet Fire Ritual

No English guidance is available, but all are welcome to experience this, so we recommend use of a translation smartphone app, etc., or bring an acquaintance that can interpret/fill in the application for you. Note that joining or leaving midway should not be done as a sign of respect.

Every day at Yakuo-in’s Main Hall, purified wooden tablets called goma inscribed with prayers and wishes are cast into a purifying fire by the monk performing the ritual.

Participating is said to allow all present to become one in body, word, and mind with the temple’s enshrined deity, Izuna Daigongen, and the request, prayers, and wishes written on the goma tablets are then fulfilled as they burn and ascend with the flames to where the deity resides.

At the conclusion of the ritual, everyone is given a small gomafuda tablet to place at home as a sign of the wish or prayer made.

If you’re a really early riser, the first ritual of the day held in the morning when all is quiet and calm provides the most serene experience, but it is also held five more times throughout the day, with most people joining the midday rituals. Participants enter 15 minutes before the ritual and there is an application to fill out and fees to pay, so arrive early for the ritual you wish to join.

Experience: Transcribing Sutras (shakyo)

No English guidance is available, but all are welcome to experience this, so we recommend bringing an acquaintance that can interpret for you, use a translation smartphone app, etc. Note that this is by default a 2-hour event (even temple staff take an hour or more to complete this) and does not allow for exiting midway, so only join in if you are willing to participate for the full duration.

The act of hand-copying sutra calligraphy (shakyo) is a form of introspective training; you focus on writing each character as neatly as you can to remove the distractions of daily life and still the mind.

This began as a practice in the 8th century when Emperor Shomu commanded the construction of temples and demand for sutras grew, performed initially by high-ranking monks before later becoming commonplace among samurai and then the general populace.

The class begins by making the ink for writing (everything is provided) before transitioning to copying each of the character on the paper. Do not worry about the amount of time left, stroke order, or if your writing isn’t perfect; the sincerity behind the writing is more important than the quality.

Shakyo has been shown to activate certain areas of the brain and you just might feel calmer and more at peace after a session at Yakuo-in.