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Groovy Osaka: The Turtles of Shitennoji

A 1400 year old temple that is home to a growing bale of turtles.

By 3 min read 1

Shitennoji is one of the oldest temples in Japan, and the oldest temple in Osaka. It is the first ever Buddhist temple built by Japanese royalty and directly linked to the government.

Prince Shotoku, son of Emperor Yomei, was a devout Buddhist in the time before Buddhism was prevalent in Japan. In fact, he helped make it prevalent. Even though he was into Buddhism before Buddhism was cool, he wasn’t a religion-hipster. He wanted everyone in Japan to have access to Buddhism and to like it, too. He considered it a necessity to advance the Japanese civilization.

After the death of his father, there was a huge power struggle between the two dominant families of the day. The family feud hit its peak at the end of the next emperor’s reign. To avoid further complications and assassinations, the families agreed to have Empress Suiko accede to the throne. Empress Suiko, also a devout Buddhist, appointed her nephew Prince Shotoku as a regent.


In the years leading up to his regency, Prince Shotoku had three carpenters from the Baekje kingdom in western Korea build Shitennoji, and the project was completed in 593AD. The temple is named Shitennoji (四天王寺) after the four Buddhist gods representing the four cardinal directions: north, south, east, and west. As a regent, Prince Shotoku made sure that Shitennoji supported the people in the region by providing education, religious instruction, general welfare, and healthcare.

While the history is certainly intriguing, my reasons for frequenting the temple were not so culturally-minded. Yes, the five tiered pagoda, or gojunoto, is impressive. Indeed, the Edo era rokujido worship hall is fascinating. However, as much as I love history and culture, I came for the turtles. I can sense a great collective question mark forming in cyberspace. Let’s just say that if you call Shitennoji “the turtle temple,” people will still know what you are talking about.

Native Osakans are not all that different from any other city’s residents in that they may or may not have a firm grasp on local history or culture. Upon asking an Osakan about the significance of a particular temple, it’s not uncommon if the reply includes a shrug with a non-committal, “It’s a temple.” If you ask an Osakan about Shitennoji, you are bound to find some people know it’s cultural significance, but many that don’t. Many people think its only claim to fame is its many turtles. The plus side is that if you forget the name of the temple, people can help you find it based on that description alone.


Outside of the main temple complex, you will see a large man-made pond filled with hundreds of turtles. Many years ago, people started abandoning their pet turtles in the pond. The compassionate monks took care of the turtles, and the numbers of turtles continued to grow. The temple became well known as a turtle sanctuary, teaming with many different types of turtles. It’s not uncommon to spot a soft shelled suppon snapping turtle, famed as a culinary ingredient, amongst the Reeve’s turtles and other aquatic types.

It’s fun to pass time watching the turtles knock each other off the various platforms and swim around. There are very few free animal attractions in the city, so this always has been a favorite of mine. Please be aware that the time of year and weather can greatly effect turtle viewing.

On the 21st and 22nd of every month, there is also a flea market with a lot of great bargains. Viewing the outside of the temple complex is free, but entering the complex costs 300 yen.


From Tennoji Station, it is a 10-12 minute walk.
From Shitennoji-mae Yuhigaoka Station, it is a 5 minute walk.
From Ōsaka Abenobashi Station, it is a 14 minute walk.

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  • VCQ says:

    Shitennoji was one of my favorite memories from Osaka; I loved the temple gardens and climbing the five-story pagoda!



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