Just to the north of Tennoji Station lies the oldest part of the city. It’s a tranquil area dotted with picturesque temples nestled along narrow, sloping streets - a miniature Kyoto if you will. Follow along with Wes Lang.
Tennoji’s seven slopes offer a refreshing break from the chaos of the city. - image © Wes Lang
Most tourists head straight for Shitennoji Temple, Japan’s oldest temple and one of Osaka’s most popular tourist destinations. By doing so, visitors are skipping straight to the main dish without enjoying the appetizers that make Osaka’s Teramachi district one of the best places for a half-day stroll. The area was once home to nearly 200 temples and shrines, and the walk described here explores each of Tennoji’s seven historical slopes before finishing at Shitennoji’s acclaimed temple market.
For the start of the walk, take the Tanimachi line from Higashi-Umeda Station and get off at Tanimachi 9-chome Station. Go out exit 3 and make a U-turn at the top of the stairs. On your left you will see an orange and white striped wall topped with a ceramic-tile roof. Keep that wall on your left and descend down Sennichimae-dori Street, a busy 8-lane boulevard that cuts straight through the heart of Namba. Walk downhill for a few minutes, and after crossing two side streets you’ll find the colorful signage marking the entrance to Atlantis, one of a dozen love hotels lining the edge of the historic district. Just a couple of doors down sits SoHo Art Gallery, an active gallery space hosting regular exhibitions for both domestic and international artists.
Unfortunately, the storefront is still tightly shuttered as I stroll past in the early morning light. As with most of the shops along Sennichimae-dori, they don’t really come to life until the afternoon. Continue walking downhill and turn left at the second cross street onto a narrow, stone-paved lane. This is Shingon-zaka (真言坂), the first of Tennoji’s seven slopes. In the old days, the incline was lined with temples belonging to the Shingon sect of Buddhism, but now you will only find a row of concrete apartment blocks adorning the path.
A stone signpost marks the entrance to Shingon-zaka, the first of Tennoji’s seven slopes. - image © Wes Lang
The slope is gentle and soon terminates at the orange entrance gate to Ikukunitama-jinja Shrine. Pass through the gates and take a few minutes to explore the park-like atmosphere of the grounds. To your right you’ll see a row of small shrines on the edge of a small grass lawn lined with wooden benches, as well as a few other altars tucked off in the far corner. The plum blossoms are just beginning to open, filling the air with their sweet scent as I make my way towards the main worship hall. The original shrine was located in the area now occupied by Osaka castle, but it was moved to its current location when the castle was built in the 16th century. Today the main hall is a post-war concrete reconstruction and the broad facade conceals the intricate woodwork of the inner shrine behind. The shrine is quite active, and if you spend a few minutes in front of the main entrance you may catch a glimpse of a miko shrine attendant draped in her red and white gown.
A miko shrine attendant delivers supplies to Ikukunitama-jinja Shrine. - image © Wes Lang
Leave the shrine by the main gate behind you and turn right on the narrow road that passes by a dirt playground and the impressive neoclassical fortress of the Hotel Love. Take your first right after the hotel onto Genshoji-zaka (原聖寺坂). The street starts out flat but the asphalt soon gives way to stone pavers adorned with poles to keep out vehicular traffic. Just at this transition, look left and peer into the garden surrounding Ginzan-ji Temple (銀山寺), a small temple dating from the 16th century. Entry is only allowed on special days, so you’ll have to enjoy the scenery from behind the wooden fence. Directly across from the temple, however, stands an impressive 2-story wooden gate marking the entrance to Reien-ji Temple (齢延寺), which luckily is open to the public. Step inside and enjoy the tranquil surroundings. The temple was built around the same time as Ginzan-ji and attracts visitors looking to pray for health. There is not a single other person in sight as I walk towards the main building. On my right, a Kawazu-zakura tree is in full bloom. The pink petals of this cherry blossom are the earliest species to bloom in Japan, usually opening by mid-February. It is a lovely place to usher in the coming of spring, so I sit down for a short rest on a granite seat molded in the shape of a human hand.
An intricate wooden gate marks the entrance to Reien-ji Temple. - image © Wes Lang
Exit the temple by the main gate and turn right, climbing down the stone stairs of Genshoji-zaka until the street terminates at Matsuyamachi-suji Street. Turn left and walk along the busy street, which is lined with a succession of temples on your left. Peer into each one as you pass, as some of them are quite intriguing. The most eyecatching one is called Shinko-ji Temple, whose main hall is influenced by the architecture of the Taj Mahal. The structure was built in 1929 and has been designated an important cultural property.
As I walk along the flat road at the base of Tennoji’s secluded slopes, I can’t help thinking back thousands of years, when this hillside sat on the shores of Osaka bay. Everything to the west of where I am standing was once under the ocean, including the nightlife hubs of Namba and Umeda. It’s hardly surprising then, that so much history remains in this section of Osaka, as the bedrock provided the perfect location for the many temples affording soothing ocean views before Osaka bay was reclaimed and developed.
Everything at the bottom of Genshoji slope was once under the ocean. - image © Wes Lang
Continue walking south on Matsuyamachi-suji, and just past the Mobil gas station and the Daihatsu car repair shop turn left onto the stone pavement of Kuchinawa-zaka (口縄坂), the third slope in the series. The first section of the road is flat and just before the incline begins, peer into Zenryu-ji Temple (善龍寺) on your left. The main hall is framed by an enormous weeping cherry tree that hangs over the slope to form a natural awning. The tree in full bloom attracts quite a spectacle, as photographers jockey for prime position to capture the scenery, but in the chilly breeze of February, all remains mute except for the blossoming plum tree flanking the left side of Zenryu-ji’s gold-capped sanctuary.
Plum blossoms and a weeping cherry tree frame the main hall at Zenryu-ji Temple. - image © Wes Lang
Climb the stairs that line Kuchinawa-zaka and at the top the pavement turns back to asphalt. Continue straight and take your first right on a street lined with diamond-shaped stone pavers. These markers indicate a historic street and will lead you to the next slope, which involves a complicated series of left and right turns. At a temple called Ichigen-no-miya (一元の宮), the stone pavers split, with paths heading both straight and to the left. Turn left here, following the pavers until they terminate at Oe-jinja Shrine (大江神社). Just before the shrine, a large temple with a bright red gate stands out against the grey concrete of the adjacent buildings. This is Aizendo (愛染堂), a beautiful temple built in the 16th century. Just behind the main hall stands a double-tiered pagoda that somehow miraculously survived World War II, when most of the city was reduced to rubble. The pagoda is the oldest wooden building in Osaka and has been designated as an important cultural property. After spending most of the morning in relative solitude, I am taken aback by the large group of elderly visitors perched on the stairs and gravel surrounding the ancient structure. They are more interested in their bento lunches than in relishing the fact that such an impressive building has survived the last 400 years in such pristine condition. The temple is best known for its Aizen festival at the end of June, which attracts thousands of participants in the procession of portable shrines carried from Tennoji station to the temple.
Osaka’s oldest wooden building: the pagoda at Aizendo. - image © Wes Lang
Retrace your steps to the main gate and turn right. Enter the grounds of Oe-jinja Shrine and have a quick look around. Although nothing appears out of the ordinary at first glance, have a look at the open grassy space just to the left of the main hall. A red fence borders the small park, with a pair of komainu statues in front that look quite different from the typical guardian dog statues lined up at most shrines. They appear to resemble tigers, which has made the place a hit with fans of the Hanshin Tigers, an extremely popular professional baseball team that hasn’t had much luck in recent years. Faithful fans of the team flock here during the baseball season to pray for victory, leaving memorabilia adorned to the red fence behind the statues. This has earned Oe-jinja the nickname ‘the Hanshin Tigers Shrine’.
No baseball fans are in sight, however, as I walk through the deserted grounds. Perhaps that is due to the off-season, when fans are probably recovering from their incessant cheering and unwavering support.
Oe-jinja Shrine is popular for fans of the Hanshin Tigers baseball team. - image © Wes Lang
The main gate of the shrine also doubles as the starting point for Aizen-zaka (愛染坂), so exit out the way you entered and turn right, following the herringbone pattern in the stone pavement along the narrow lane lined by low walls of stone. At the bottom of the slope, turn left and follow the diamond-shaped pavers for exactly one block to the start of Kiyomizu-zaka (清水坂). Turn left and climb the stairs to the top of the steepest of Tennoji’s seven slopes. At the top make an immediate U-turn to your right and follow the stone pavers along a narrow path lined by a thick wall of shrubbery. Soon you will pass by a large cemetery on your right, which affords fantastic views towards Namba. Skip this graveyard for the time being, as you will access it from the main entrance below.
By now you may have noticed the sheer number of gravestones at each temple you have passed. The stone markers are bought by families for exorbitant fees, but the bodies are not interred here, for they are cremated and often the ashes lie with the bereaved, stored in butsudan (family altar) in their homes. For real estate agents, these cemeteries are actually a selling point for potential homeowners, as the graves are usually situated on safe, stable bedrock that can withstand both earthquakes and landslides.
Stone pavers mark the route towards Kiyomizu-zaka. - image © Wes Lang
Walk past the cemetery and turn right on the next street, which is again lined in stone and marked with the name Tenjin-zaka (天神坂). About halfway down on your left you’ll see a round silver spigot protruding from a rectilinear block of concrete. This is a monument to the seven fresh springs of Tennoji that used to flow through this area in the Edo era. Unfortunately, this is just rain runoff and is unfit for human consumption, so continue on to the bottom of the slope. Turn right here, and follow the stone pavers until they suddenly end at the entrance to someone’s private residence. Next to this is a bright yellow house, so continue past the yellow residence and immediately turn right, climbing the slope to the entrance of Kiyomizu-dera temple. Enter the narrow confines of the precinct, which is flanked on your right by a long traditional wooden building that houses the temple priest. On your left, stairs lead to the cemetery that you passed by earlier from above. Continue past the wooden building and pass through the small gate adorned with purple curtains. Walk behind the small building in front of you and you will arrive at Tamade waterfall, the only natural waterfall in Osaka city. Here the falls have been divided into three channels which flow down into a shallow pool. The temple belongs to the Tendai sect of Buddhism, and worshippers commonly submerge themselves underneath the falls and chant mantras.
The altar is modeled after the famous Kiyomizu-dera Temple in Kyoto, and looks very similar except for the complete lack of people. I feel like a bit of an outsider as I observe the water cascading down in thin, straight streams. I gaze at the menacing scowl of the Fudo Myo-o statue hidden beneath the orange and white curtain just under the waterfall and slowly retreat back out into the open space of the cemetery above.
Tamade waterfall at Kiyomizu-dera Temple, not to be confused with the Kiyomizu-dera Temple in Kyoto. - image © Wes Lang
After taking in the views, retrace your steps to the start of Tenjin-zaka and climb this stairs to Yasui-jinja Shrine (安居神社). The wooden grounds of the shrine offer a peaceful respite to the plethora of concrete you’ve been walking through so far. Just to the right of the worship hall there’s a reddish-brown statue of Sanada Yukimura, the famed samurai warrior who met his end on the grounds of this very shrine. His grave is located on the hill just behind the statue and the shrine serves as an important reminder of the violent clashes that rocked Osaka when the Tokugawa shogunate wrestled control of the city from the strong-armed Toyotomi clan.
From the shrine, take the main stairs that lead down opposite the main altar and pass through the torii gate at the bottom. Continue straight and pass through an older stone torii that faces Matsuyamachi-suji. Turn left on the busy road and cross the street on your right at the major intersection just in front of you. Climb the stairs of the green pedestrian overpass and turn right at the bottom of the stairs on the opposite side of the street. Follow this four-lane north-south thoroughfare uphill towards Shitenno-ji Temple. Believe it or not, this busy road is actually Ou-saka (逢坂), the last of Tennoji’s Seven slopes but it has lost all of its Edo-era charm.
Sake casks have been offered to the gods at Yasui shrine. - image © Wes Lang
Follow the white walls of a temple on your right and soon you will reach a small gate and stairwell marked as Isshin-ji Temple (一心寺). This is the back entrance to Isshin-ji, so enter the gate and climb the stairs past the mass of gravestones lining the narrow path. You will soon reach the main hall of the temple, which is usually bustling with people no matter the time of day. For proof of this, check out the live web camera that shows both the interior and exterior of the main worship space.
The Buddhist statues in the main altar all made from the bones and ash of people who have been cremated at this Jodo sect temple, and judging by the hundreds of gravestones strewn throughout the vast grounds, there is no shortage of willing participants. Fervent visitors line the grounds, spreading incense smoke on parts of their bodies, laying flowers on the graves of their loved ones, and giving offerings of food and money in front of the main hall. In essence, it’s everything a place of religious worship should be, with visitors engaged in meaningful ceremonies instead of trivial sightseeing. I feel a strange sense of intrusion, so I pack away the camera and quickly make my way out through the main entrance, a giant gate that doubles as a post-modern work of art.
A worshipper prepares an offering at Isshin-ji Temple. - image © Wes Lang
Walk back to the main road, which soon forks to your right. Cross half the intersection and continue walking north. You should see the entrance gate to Shitenno-ji Temple just in front of you, so head in that direction. Soon you will reach Tanimachi-suji Street, so cross over and pass through the entrance to Japan’s oldest temple. While it may sound impressive, the grounds are a post-war concrete reconstruction that are of marginal interest except for the 21st and 22nd of each month, where the temple springs to life during the large flea market.
I have timed my arrival just perfectly, as the market is now in full swing and a variety of vendors offer nourishment at rock-bottom prices. I meander through the crowds until finding the magic 100-yen Okonomiyaki food stalls. I order two to replace the calories lost on the walk and enjoy the sunshine on a table flanked by other patrons. The temple market is an excellent place to shop for souvenirs, trinkets, and other knick-knacks that will surely impress your friends and family. In the end, I purchase a cup of high-end specialty coffee from a makeshift coffee stand as well as a Japanese wall calendar for a friend.
It is hard to believe that these final purchases are the only money I have spent the entire day. Entrance to each temple along Tennoji’s seven slopes is free of charge, a refreshing change to the temple hopping in Kyoto which can really hit the wallet. So when friends come to visit, I always take them here for their Buddhist fix before ushering them onto the more recognized of Osaka’s many hidden wonders.
Colorful fabrics for sale at the monthly Shitennoji flea market. - image © Wes Lang
About Wes Lang
Wes Lang is a freelance writer based in Osaka whose work has appeared in the Japan Times, Kansai Scene, and Outdoor Japan. He runs the website Hiking in Japan, which provides comprehensive English-language hiking information for Japan's mountains. He is currently writing a guidebook to the Japan Alps scheduled for release in 2018.
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