Sometimes referred to as Tennoji Temple, this is actually a misnomer. Tennoji is the name of the ward/municipality; Shitennoji is the name of the temple.
Shitennoji Temple has been destroyed a few times over the centuries since its construction in 593, but each time it has been faithfully reconstructed. Currently its administration is handled by the state and is the only temple in the country for which this is the case.
Prince Shotoku, an early adopter of Buddhism in Japan and member of the Soga clan, went to battle against the ruling Monobe clan. The Monobe supported the traditional Japanese ways of Shinto and opposed the adoption of Buddhism, but Shotoku had the Four Buddhist Heavenly Guardian Kings (Shitenno) on his side, thus defeating the entire Monobe clan at the age of 16.
To mark his triumph, Shotoku built Shitennoji Temple. As the first Buddhist temple in the country, it stands in a prominent location near Osaka Bay, earning reverence from those who passed through this major shipping port during his time. In those times the complex provided certain medical, pharmaceutical and educational services to the people of Japan.
After getting off the subway at Tennoji Station, we picked a direction at random and started walking. We ended up in what we thought was Shitennoji but turned out to just be a cemetery.
The GPS worked just fine in Japan so after orienting ourselves, we did manage to find the Shitennoji Temple Complex.
Surrounding the Tennoji complex is an open-air market, with the word “market” used very loosely. It’s more like the American equivalent of the garage sale, where there is no organization beyond people looking to sell stuff they found around the house. Take a peek under any tent and you’ll find a pile of clothes, a pair of binoculars, a radio from the 1980s, two hats, bolts of cloth, ceramics, vases, figurines, clocks and other assorted stuff.
It’s a good place to poke around if you’re into combing through thrift stores and the like; you could find some authentic vintage Japanese novelties.
There is supposed to be a nominal fee for admission to the inner parts of Shitennoji but somehow we ended up inside without having paid anything.
The first thing you’ll notice is the massive, five-story pagoda marking the center of the temple. Each of the five floors is representative of a different element– earth, wind, water, fire, and space (heaven).
Like Kinkaku-ji, there was a very well-maintained zen garden that comprises most of the courtyard. Visitors may not tread on it, but there are plenty of walkways by which one may approach the central pagoda or any of the gates surrounding the perimeter.
So, I learned something interesting. Most temples have cauldrons of smoldering incense. If you watch them, you’ll notice people walking up to it, lighting a stick, inserting them in the sand and then wafting the fumes over themselves. The smoke from these cauldrons is believed to bestow good health, so visitors at shrines tend to douse themselves in the smoke.
We happened upon what appeared to be a belfry of sorts. This may or may not be what it is, and it may or may not be active. One curious thing about this structure is that it has more than four sides, unlike almost every other structure in Japan.
The gardens terminated by a small shrine. People came and went, offering donations and stopping to pray.
Shitennoji Temple was very interesting and while the lack of information in English is understandable, it did prevent us from getting fully immersed in where we were. Most of the buildings, we could not identify the name or purpose of.
Part of this may be our own dumb luck in that we missed the admissions counter and thus a chance to score some literature, but even so, visiting Shitennoji Temple was still a very beautiful and relaxing way to spend an afternoon.