The Shitennoji Temple in Tennoji District in southern Osaka is often referred to as the oldest temple in Japan, founded in 593 by Emperor Shotoku Taishi, a legendary figure in Japanese history. In Japanese shi means ‘four’, tenno means ‘divine king’ and ji means ‘temple’. Therefore Shi-tennoji is dedicated to the four heavenly kings. They are little deities in the Buddhist pantheon who protect the four cardinal points of the physical world. Nothing is left of the original buildings as Shitennoji was constantly destroyed by fires and rebuilt over the centuries.
It was these gods who Shotoku Taishi worshiped in his campaign to establish Buddhism as the state religion. In the sixth century, this meant revolutionizing the principles of government and the moral foundation of society. After Shotoku Taishi’s victory, Shi-Tennoji began its ministry as the country’s first Buddhist temple. Not long after, a free clinic for the poor and housing for elderly people was set up there. Later, the heavenly kings were to watch over four similar institutions within the temple walls: the institution of religion and education, the charitable institution, a hospital, and a pharmacy. These were the roots of Japan’s national welfare system.
The temple has a garden and a collection of ancient Buddhist art that can be seen for a modest entrance fee. Shi-Tennoji runs several events throughout the year and monthly a large flea market on the 21st and 22nd.