Firstly, I must say that this is my favorite single temple not just in Kyoto or even Japan, but perhaps the whole world.
While many other may praise the calm gardens of Ryoan-Ji, the great view from Kiyomizu-dera or the shining brilliance of Kinkaku-Ji, it is seemingly humble charm of Sanjusangendo that is closest to my heart.
The building itself is easily overlooked - a long, low structure of dark wood and white, with a veranda running the length of its longest side that was featured in the film "Dual at Ichijoji Temple" where the legendary Toshiro Mifune played the even more legendary Samurai Miyamoto Musashi. To this day it is used for archery competitions.
This building is set in some pleasant gardens which are shown in photos which unfortunately are the closest preview to temples main draw as you will get, as no photographs are allowed. But it is this modest introduction that leaves you totally unprepared for the stunning visual feast hidden inside.
You enter the temple hall from one end and then proceed down its length to see a vast sea of 1000 life sized golden statues of the Buddhist 'goddess of mercy' the bodhisattva Kannon. They stand on stadium-esque terraces, 10 deep staring back beatifically at you. Each individual has 11 all-seeing heads and 42 radiating arms and is slightly different, with unique faces, clothing and items in their hands, as they were all carved bespoke with great care. Each of this shining 'terra-cotta army' of figures is said to have the power to save 25 worlds.
At the center of this multitude is a much larger figure of Kannon - a national treasure - seated upon a lotus wearing an ornate crown and wreathed in flame, bringing the total to 1001 in all.
These peaceful deities are defended by a series of 30 fearsome guardians. These warriors from Japanese and Buddhist mythology, clad in amour, and armed with a variety of magical weapons from pose a terrifying obstacle to any who would wish harm the saviors of the universe. At each end these are flanked by Raijin and Fujin - the gods of lighting and wind - who may be familar to you as they guard many Buddhist sights in Japan.
These statues are themselves which are also astonishingly detailed, with some even having visible veins and sinew as they growl ferociously at you, are also deemed national treasures themselves.
As a fan of Buddhist Art and Iconography I find it hard not to spend hours taking in these intricate details, but any visitor will agree that is a truly awe-inspiring sight to see these life size goddesses lined rank and file looking at you.