Truth be told, I'm not much of a temples and shrines tourist, but Enryaku-ji is a temple with an intriguing and bloody history that left me fascinated and needing to check it out on a recent trip to Kyoto.
Situated north-east of Kyoto on Mt. Hiei, the temple was founded in the 8th century AD to protect the capital from evil spirits and misfortune, which were believed to enter from that direction. Unfortunately for Kyoto, the mountain temple ended up causing as much misfortune for the city as it prevented. To greatly simplify (and drawing heavily from Stephen Turnbull's The Samurai: A Military History), the temple soon gained large landholdings and wealth, which by the 10th century AD had led to Enryaku-ji organizing its own private army of warrior monks to protect its interests. During the 11th century this army fought many battles with other temple armies and often strong-armed the Imperial Court. By the 12th century powerful samurai clans like the Taira and Minamoto were being called in from the frontier to defend the capital.
The monks' strength persisted however. Secure in their mountaintop fortress-temple, the yamabushi (as these warrior-monks were called) were secure from attack and continued to hold great power in the Kyoto area. Finally, in 1571, samurai warlord Oda Nobunaga took the drastic step of setting a massive forest fire to drive the warrior-monks of Enryaku-ji off the high ground, killing anyone who escaped the inferno. The temple complex was later rebuilt but strictly as a spiritual center, not as a strong military fortress. So in some ways these yamabushi were a Japanese version of the Knights Templar of medieval Europe. For a military history buff like myself, that made this mountain temple far too fascinating to pass up.
I first tried to ascend Mt. Hiei using the ropeway on the western, Kyoto side of the mountain. Alas, that ropeway is currently under maintenance until March 2017, so I had to take the long way around. Taking the Keihan line to its terminal station of Sakamoto on the eastern, Otsu City side of Mt. Hiei, I then walked about 15 minutes to reach the cable car line up the mountain. The detour wasn't all bad though, I was able to see Lake Biwa for the first time, and the walk from Sakamoto Station to the cable car station is up a nice, old-style, tree-lined lane. Round-trip tickets on the cable car are 1620 yen, with departures every half hour. From the station it was a 10-minute walk along the mountainside to Enryaku-ji itself (thankfully there were railings installed, it's a long way down)
I paid 700 yen for a ticket and was given an English pamphlet as well. There's a rest area near the entrance, but I was ready to get going. Alas, it seemed everything was under maintenance during that trip (that's what I get for visiting Kyoto during the February off-season). There was work being done on the main hall, but it was still open to visitors, so taking my shoes off (and wishing I'd worn a second pair of socks- it may have been warm enough in Kyoto itself, but there was still snow on the ground on top of Mt. Hiei!) The main room was quite dark and smelled of incense. Coming from a Christian background, where our architectural preference is to use huge windows to fill the church with sunlight, it was definitely a change of pace.
There are numerous other temple facilities besides the main hall, most of which will require some stair climbing stamina to reach. With the snow still covering the ground, the area was a magnificent sight, with bright orange structures popping up from the white snow against a green forest background. A large bell could often be heard ringing as different groups of visitors would strike it from time to time. Enryaku-ji may no longer be a fortress, but even a short look around will make it clear why it was one back in the day. The steep mountainside isn't the easiest terrain to traverse, even as a tourist carrying nothing more than a camera- it would be crazy to try and run around and fight in full armor! I wanted to explore the mountain further, but alas it was getting close to time for the last cable car ride down the mountain, and not wanting to be stuck up on a mountain late in the afternoon in winter, I chose to return to the station and from there made the trek back to Kyoto.