Ishiteji (石手寺), located near Dogo Onsen to the northeast of Matsuyama's city center, is the city's most famous temple. It is number 51 of the 88 temples on the Shikoku Pilgrimage. Pilgrims dressed in white are a frequent sight at this large temple.
Ishiteji's name literally means "stone hand temple", referring to a local legend in which an aristocrat had held a stone tightly in his hand at his death bed after seeking the priest Kobo Daishi to no avail, and was later reborn with the stone still held in the baby's hand.
A tastefully maintained sheltered temple approach lined by shops of wooden facades lead to Ishiteji's temple grounds. The sprawling temple compound boasts several halls and temple buildings, a three-storied pagoda, various statues and an unique inner temple connected to the main grounds via a cave. Interestingly, statues and religious objects are periodically added to the temple.
Ishiteji is known for its Niomon Gate, a designated national treasure. The main hall and pagoda are also designated important cultural properties, and all of these structures exhibit the typical architecture style of the Kamakura Period (1192-1333). A treasure house displays some of the temple's most important artifacts.
Of further interest, Ishiteji hosts a curious looking inner temple located beyond a cave behind the main hall. The dimly lit cave is about 200 meters long and is remarkable by itself, branching off in two directions and housing many Buddhist statues, carvings and drawings.
Visitors who emerge from the cave and cross a street will arrive at the slightly unkempt inner temple grounds, which feature a large, golden dome-shaped hall. The building and statues here reflect a very different, somewhat peculiar, style than those on the main grounds. In particular, carvings and drawings of the historical Buddha Shaka reduced to the bones, just before he gained enlightenment, leave a deep impression. A huge statue of Kobo Daishi, a celebrated figure in Japanese Buddhism, stands on top of the forested hill above the temple.
Ishiteji Temple can be accessed from the Dogo Onsen tram stop in a short bus ride (5 minutes, 160 yen, frequent departures) or in a 15-20 minute walk. Dogo Onsen is the terminus of three tram lines. From JR Matsuyama Station, take tram line 5 (20 minutes, 160 yen). From Matsuyama-shi Station, take tram line 3 (15 minutes, 160 yen).