A morning at Mt.Shosha


There is a temple called Engyo-ji on the outskirts of Himeji, known as the location for the movie ‘The Last Samurai’. This seems to be the feature that everyone remarks about this site but even for the less cinematically inclined like myself the temple is pretty stunning and definitely worth a visit if you have the time. And don’t worry, although the temple is at the top of the mountain, there is a ropeway for those who don’t want to walk up to it.
Waking up early in Himeji to get the day started!

The internet had told me that I should be taking bus number 8, but as I reached Himeji Station I realised that there were about twenty different bus stops and I had no idea which one the bus would be stopping at. I came across the bus information centre that had just opened, they spoke no English so I decided to practise my limited Japanese and they pointed me to bus stop 18. Buses numbers 41, 42, 43 and 45 stop here, all going to Mt.Shosha (no sign of bus 8), and I managed to make it to an empty seat of the 8:05am bus and set off for the 30min ride through Himeji as the city slowly began to wake up.
Start of the walking trail just past the ropeway station
Signs to follow around town to find the path

I was trying to save money wherever I could, so I opted to take the trail instead of the ropeway. I had been promised a 40min walk, but I definitely took a long hour to reach the temple. Perhaps I am slower than most, but I still think 40min is a bit generous.
View of Himeji from halfway up
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You have to pay an entrance fee of 500yen for the temple just after the ropeway station, and they gave me a map of the top of the mountain with all the sub temples’ locations and a bit of an explanation in English. Between Niomon, the entrance gate, and the ropeway there are 33 statues of Kannon (belonging to the 33 different Saigoku pilgrimage sites). Some of them were very elaborate and they had even gone to the lengths of giving her a large number of arms, all holding different objects! Not quite the thousand arms Kannon is said to have, but easily up to thirty of them. In some cases people had tried to place coins on her open palms, so I tried my luck and left one there too.
Reaching the maniden of the temple

After the Niomon gate the walk is somewhat downhill and easier than the rest of the trail had been. There is a ryokan here that also offers shojin ryori but I didn’t have the money for such an experience, so I made my way to the main temple complex, maniden, instead.
Crossing a small bridge I entered a cloud of mist that surrounded only the maniden, making it look even more imposing and mysterious than it already was by itself. We don’t get much mist here at home so it isn’t something I see often.
There were few people out and about at the time I arrived, mostly only people who worked there and a couple other visitors, but one of the workers ran up to me as soon as he saw a foreigner and excitedly asked where I was from and how I had heard about this place.
Maniden woodwork

I decided to visit the maniden now that the serenity and silence of the morning was still in place, and was blown away by the complexity of the architecture! I didn’t see any nails, it seemed like most of the pieces were cut to fit together, and this was used to enhance the beauty of the temple rather than any added on decorations. There were a few wood carvings and very detailed latticework added in, but since they were made out of the same material and colour it only managed to fit in naturally.
Emblem on one of the building's roof

While the maniden may be the most impressive of them all, it wouldn’t be fair not to mention the incredible wood work of the other buildings. Some even covered in moss, others short enough for me to be able to observe the roof tiling and the crests, I spent almost three hours just walking around and looking at everything I could.
Jikido in the back. This is the screenshot that appears in 'The Last Samurai'.

One of the buildings, called Jikido, allows access to both floors of the building. Built all the way back in 1174 it used to be both a priest’s training centre and a boarding house; now it has different treasures on display and an area for visitors to sit and copy sutras. The sutra copying unfortunately wasn’t available at the time since I was the only visitor there, but the second floor small museum was interesting as it showed tiles, old beams of the temple, statues and Benkei’s desk!
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Walking around I came across a pile of old roof tiles that had been thrown away and probably forgotten, I tried picking one up to see how much it weighed… it was so heavy! Needing both my hands to pick it up and place it back down, it’s incredible to think how much weight these structures have to hold up just for the roof itself, and yet they still manage to look so graceful and beautiful while doing so!
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The Honda family graves are also in the area. I don’t know much about Japanese history, but I’ve heard of their name and know that the Honda family was very important, so I felt honoured to be standing right in front of their tombs. To think that where I was standing has so much history behind it!
I spotted a small Inari shrine hidden between the leaves, and who am I to ignore an Inari Shrine given how charming they always seem to be, as I was busy trying to avoid the spider hanging from the short torii gate a deer suddenly jumped out from behind the shrine and ran away.
The ropeway takes only four minutes...

After all the walking I had done during the morning my legs were in need of a sit-down, so I decided to take the ropeway down instead. Next to me sat the man who had earlier been excited to see a foreigner, he offered me a ride back to Himeji Station since he was going in that direction. He was a very hardworking man who worked as a schoolteacher during the week and at the temple on Saturdays. We talked about Don Quijote, Momotaro, rice fields and the internet, his English was very good, and I was left at the station much quicker than the bus had brought me to the mountain earlier in the morning.
View from the ropeway.

Engyo-ji is probably one of my favourite, if not my favourite, temples in Japan and I'd really love to come back here one day. If anyone has a bit of time I really suggest making a stop! What's your favourite temple in Japan?

Sam Lesmana