History En

Usu Zenkoji Temple

One of the three government temples of Ezo
A state-designated historic site

Ousuzan Dojoin Zenkoji
Sect / Temple status:
Jodo-shu (Pure Land Buddhism) / One of the three government temples of Ezo
Principal object of worship:
Amida Buddha (created by Teiden and displayed to the public only during the autumn equinox period). “Namu Amida Butsu” is recited in the Nembutsu prayer.
Designated as a historic site by the state (in 1974)
Treasure Museum:
eaturing items designated as important cultural properties by the state (62 items) and items designated as tangible cultural properties by the Hokkaido Government (e.g., wooden Buddhist statues carved by Enku); reservations required

824-833 Ennin, also known as Jikaku Daishi, enshrines an Amida Buddha statue in a small structure he builds in Usu, thus becoming the founder of Usu Zenkoji Temple, according to a publication entitled Ezochi Ousuzan Zenkoji Engi [The History of Ousuzan Zenkoji in Ezochi], a publication designated as a national important cultural property.
1613 Matsumae Yoshihiro, the first lord of the Matsumae domain, visits Usu, where he builds a Nyoraido, or Tathāgata Hall, at the location where the Jizodo Hall stands today. He enshrines an Amida Buddha statue and names the hall Zenkoji. [This is according to Shinra-no-kiroku, a historical chronicle of the Matsumae domain. The hall is reportedly the reconstruction of an old Buddhist structure.]
1624-1643 Christians who have fled persecution on Japan’s main island build an Oribe-type stone lantern in the precincts of the temple. The lantern’s base has a carving of the Virgin Mary disguised as Kannon Bodhisattva, with the upper sides rounded to resemble a cross. [The original lantern is kept at the Treasure Museum, and its reproductions are found elsewhere in the precincts, including inside the Jizodo Hall.]
1666 The Buddhist priest Enku, who carves wooden Buddhist statues and gives them to temples while making pilgrimages across Japan, visits Usu and dedicates Kannon statues he has carved to the temple.
1704 The ascetic priest Shoko Kunen writes about Zenkoji in Shoko Kunen Noryoki, a record he keeps during his visit to Ezochi to transcribe sutras and offer them to local temples. He writes, “Shoko Kunen offered a Hokekyo sutra to the Zenkoji Nyoraido hall in Usu, which is roughly 40 ri (approximately 157 km) east of Matsumae Castle. The hall was built during the Keicho era (1596-1615) by Matsumae Yoshihiro, a descendant of the Takeda clan who was bestowed with the surname of ‘Minamoto.’—April 1704”
1716 Teiden, the head priest at Tsugaru Hongakuji, dedicates an Amida Buddha statue to Usu Zenkoji. [This is the current principal object of worship of the temple and is usually kept hidden from the public.]
1791 The professional traveler and naturalist Sugae Masumi visits Zenkoji on June 10, where he sees five wooden Buddhist statues carved by Enku, an Amida Buddha statue created by Teiden, a stone carving of three images of the Amida Buddha, a Kansho ritual bell, and a Shoko bell and drum. These are housed in the Amida Buddha Hall, which measures approx. 2.7 m by 3.6 m, and in a small shrine. In his travelogue Ezo-no-tefuri, Sugae writes about his visit, noting that he has seen many people seated in a circle chanting prayers using a long Buddhist rosary. Before his arrival at Usu, he also saw five Enku statues in a cave at Toyoura-Koboro. [The Enku statues currently kept at the Treasure Museum are the same as those Sugae saw in the cave. Those in the cave were relocated from the cave to Nakajima Island in Lake Toya by the shogunate official Denjuro Matsuda before being brought to the Treasure Museum.]
1804 Tokugawa Ienari, the eleventh shogun, orders the construction of three government temples in Ezo of three sects associated with the shogunate: Zenkoji of the Jodo sect, in Usu; Tojuin of the Tendai sect, in Samani; and Kokutaiji of the Zen sect (Gozan), in Akkeshi. This construction has three aims: to keep in check those countries that are sending ships to the waters near Ezochi, including Russia, which is aiming to extend its frontier southward; to spread the teachings of the Buddha to the indigenous Ainu people in Ezochi; and to secure places for memorial services of shogunate officials and workers from mainland Japan who lose their lives while in Ezochi. The shogunate decides to build a new Zenkoji temple at the present location due to its larger area and its proximity to the Usu trading post, which is equipped with a wharf.
1805 Temple construction begins in spring, and the Imperial court, the shogunate, and Zojoji (the main temple of the Jodo sect) appoint Shokai, of Honganji Temple in Kumihama, as the first head priest of Zenkoji, but he dies from an illness in Hakodate on his way from Edo to Usu. His disciple Mitsujo arrives in Usu with his master’s ashes. Without a head priest, Zenkoji has to wait until the following year for a ceremony commemorating its founding.
1806 Ranshu, of Denzuin Temple in Koishikawa, hurriedly takes over as the second head priest of Zenkoji. He wins the hearts of local Ainu people by entertaining them with unfiltered sake. Later, more than 500 people, including Ainu neighbors, reportedly gather at the temple and engage in the “million prayer service” using a long Buddhist rosary. [During the tense situation surrounding Russia’s pursuit of southward expansion, Ranshu is said to have raised Buddhist flags and urged locals to “welcome death from enemy fire rather than be taken as prisoners and suffer humiliation.”] He translates a record of the Jodo sect’s essential teachings (known as Ichimai-kishomon [the One-Sheet Document]) into the Ainu language to spread the teachings among the Ainu. He also publishes a book on the teachings of the Jodo sect (Gose-no-shiori). His disciple Daiki, who has accompanied him to Zenkoji, authors Ezochi Ousuzan Zenkoji Engi [The History of Ousuzan Zenkoji in Ezochi]. What will become the temple’s “rock-breaking cherry tree” is planted in 1807.
1814 Benzui, the third head priest of the temple, composes Nembutsu Shonin Kobikiuta [A Buddhist Hymn by Nembutsu Priest], a song about the teachings of the Jodo sect and its Ainu-language translation, and sings it while dancing and sounding a gong to spread the teachings. [Today, a wooden printing block carved with the words is a state-designated important cultural property.] In a Buddhist hymn he composes, entitled Kechien Dogyo Renge Koju Kange Watan, he also extols the benefits of reciting the Nembutsu prayer. [A wooden printing block carved with the words was also designated as an important cultural property by the state.] Benzui supplies rice and other daily necessities to local Ainu, who lovingly nickname him “Nempuci Kamuci” [the venerable Nembutsu Priest].
1821 The Tokugawa shogunate, which has directly controlled eastern Ezochi since 1799, orders that all Ezochi be returned to the control of the Matsumae domain.
1822 Early in the morning on February 1, Mt. Usu erupts with violent rumblings. A pyroclastic surge and volcanic ash reach the waters off Abuta, burning down the local Ainu kotan (village) in its path and inflicting catastrophic damage on the region. Miraculously, Zenkoji escapes total devastation thanks to favorable winds, so Benzui gives first-aid to the injured and holds funerals for the deceased before taking refuge in today’s Yakumo Town, where he builds an Amida Buddha hall as a temporary residence. In December 1826, due to his ill health, Benzui is replaced by Benjo, an attendant priest to Benzui. The inauguration ceremony for the fourth head priest of Zenkoji is conducted at the Buddhist hall, which will become Enyuuji Temple in 1858.
1834 Bentai, the fifth head priest, returns to Usu and repairs the temple’s main hall while using Usu trading post as a temporary residence.
1855 Thirty-four years after the Matsumae domain regains control of Ezochi, the shogunate places the land under its direct control again. This is because foreign vessels, including a U.S. fleet led by Commodore Matthew Perry, have begun to frequent the waters near Japan, and issues have arisen over the Matsumae domain’s management of Ezochi.
1857 Senkai, the seventh head priest, applies to the Magistrate of Shrines and Temples for the construction of Zenkoji’s branch temples, leading to the building of 13 branch temples until the Keio era (1865-1868). These include Gokokuji in Wakkanai, Shinzenkoji in Hakodate, Zendoji in Oshamambe, Horyuji in Yoichi, Mankeiji in Muroran, and Hosshoji in Ishikari. This plea comes when the three government temples of Ezo are no longer enough to deal with the rapidly changing situation in the aftermath of another eruption by Mt. Usu and the evacuation of local residents and the settlement of large numbers of Wajin (ethnic Japanese from Japan’s main island).
1878 The English traveler Isabella Bird visits Usu Zenkoji Temple and writes in her travelogue, “Usu is a dream of beauty and peace…the unearthly sweetness of a temple bell…it was the loveliest picture I have seen in Japan.”
1884 Ochi Senmyo, the eleventh head priest, holds events across Hokkaido that showcase a Buddhist statue which is normally kept hidden from public view, spreading the teachings of the Buddha and helping with the construction and reconstruction of many branch temples, including Daijoji in Kushiro, Tennoji in Rumoi, Toyokuni Temple in Tomamae, Shofukuji in Toyokoro, and Zenshoji in Horoizumi.
1937-1945 The Sino-Japanese War, the Second World War, and the Pacific War break out. Before the war’s end, Muroran is bombarded by a U.S. fleet, and Date and Usu are hit by carrier-based airplanes. Temples are forced to contribute their bells as part of the war efforts.
1974 The entire temple precincts are designated as a historic site by the state.
1983-1987 The main hall and kitchen of the temple are renovated.
2005 The temple’s wooden printing blocks for official documents, sutras and Buddhist altar fittings—62 items in total—are designated as important cultural properties by the state.
2011 The Zenkoji Treasure Museum opened.
2018 Major renovations in 2018 (during the Heisei era) included the rethatching of the roof of the priests’ living quarters in the temple’s main hall and the repair of the chief priest’s room.
2018 Usu Zenkoji is designated as a Hokkaido Heritage Site.