This is one of those rare, special places which leaves you with that excited tingling feeling you get after encountering a truly unique part of the world.
Let’s be honest, Japan (and the Tohoku region is no exception) is home to an uncountable number of shrines and temples. Of course, they are all beautiful sacred places of worship and I do not intend to trivialize their existence, but there are some that really leave an impact and stick in the mind more than others. This particular temple in the hills of Aizuwakamatsu in Fukushima Prefecture is one that I can guarantee will stick with you, and not go anywhere until you have the chance to make a return visit!
But first, where is it?
Sazae-do Temple is pretty well hidden in the hills of Iimoriyama (Mt. Iimori) in Aizuwakamatsu City, the cultural hub of western Fukushima. Iimoriyama itself is an incredibly special place with a dark and intriguing history. Aizuwakamatsu City was the stage for one of the fiercest battles of the Boshin War following the fall of the Shogunate in 1867. The siege of Aizuwakamatsu’s castle, Tsuruga-jo, continued for almost a month. During this battle, a group of around 20 young warriors from the Byakkotai (White Tiger Corps) aged between 14-16 saw smoke rising from the site of Tsuruga-jo as they stood atop Iimoriyama. Thinking that the castle had fallen, the group performed seppuku (ritual suicide) at this site; it became their final resting place. Tragically, the smoke they saw was actually from a fire occurring outside the walls of the castle. Still, the story of their loyalty and sacrifice has become famous and many travel to Iimoriyama from all over Japan to visit the historical site.
The graves of the Byakkotai are located at the very top of the stairs ascending Iimoriyama. Sazae-do temple is hidden to the side of the hill, accessible by a path forking off from the main staircase before reaching the top (there are signposts around).
Self-proclaimed on the signage as ‘a strange Buddhist temple’, once Sazae-do comes into view it is pretty clear that this is no ordinary temple! The Japanese word ‘Sazae’ actually means ‘sea-snail’ or ‘turban shell’ and the name Sazae-do is a reference to the temple’s fascinating structure. From the outside, you can kind of understand the resemblance…
…but it isn’t until you take a look inside that you can fully appreciate just how unique this structure is – it is a perfect double helix!
Over 200 years old (constructed in 1796), Sazae-do is the only completely wooden building in the entire world with a double-helix structure. Those who enter the temple to pray will proceed up a spiraling ramp to the very top and wind their way back down a secondary ramp, spiraling in the opposite direction. It is designed for a completely uninterrupted prayer experience, as you will never meet anyone walking back in the opposite direction – only glimpses of the feet of other patrons can be seen through gaps in the central slats at a few points along the way. It almost feels like a game of hide and seek or something out of Alice in Wonderland.
Let’s take a look around…
As written on the sign at the entrance, the temple was originally home to 33 Buddhist statues of Kannon that were installed within the central pillar for patrons to pause at and make a prayer. The two spiraling ramps make two full revolutions before uniting at the top of the pagoda.
A solemn Buddhist statue guards the front entrance.
And off we go, making our way up the creaking wooden ramp.
There are a few points along the way where you can peek through to the downwards ramp…didn’t catch anyone coming though!
Reaching the very top, the hexagonal ceiling is really something else…what a phenomenal structure!
Visitors have been coming to Sazae-do for over 200 years since the Edo period. Many, as you can see, have left their mark behind!
And back we go, down the second spiraling ramp…
…to meet the guardian at the exit!
I think I went up and down about four times in total, each time spotting something new along the way.
Sazae-do is not only the last remaining wooden building from the mid-Edo period in the world but, unlike many historical buildings in Japan, it has not undertaken any significant reconstruction or renovation since it was first built some 200 years ago. Whilst mysterious on so many levels (haha), it is no wonder why it has been designated a national asset of cultural importance.
Definitely a must on your Aizu itinerary!
↓Take a walk through Sazae-do! ↓
The easiest way to access Sazaedo is by car: it is just a 10 minute drive from Aizu-wakamatsu Station or 15 minutes after exiting the Tohoku Jidosha Highway at the Aizuwakamatsu Interchange (IC).
There are also buses available from Aizuwakamatsu Station: the Haikara-san or Akabe bus services depart from in front of Aizuwakamatsu Station every half an hour or so. You will need to get off at Iimoriyamashita (飯盛山下）.
SAZAE-DO TEMPLE, AIZUWAKAMATSU
Address: 〒965-0003, 福島県会津若松市一箕町八幡弁天下1404
Hours: Open every day. April ~ December: 08:15am ~ sundown. January ~ March: 9am – 4pm
Entrance Fee: Adults – 400 yen, Highschoolers – 300 yen, Children – 200 yen
Official Homepage (Japanese): http://www.geocities.jp/aizu_sazaedo/
Google Maps link: