Photo/IllutrationA sunset seen from Kiyomizudera temple in Kyoto’s Higashiyama Ward, where the townscape of the ancient capital can also be viewed (Shot by photographer Kazuya Sudo)

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Famed temples in the Kansai region are reaching followers of a different kind by stepping up their online strategies to grab a piece of the Instagram craze action.

Posting pictures and videos of springtime cherry blossoms, colorful autumn leaves, and behind-the-scenes footage of Buddhist services on photo and video-sharing site Instagram, as well as YouTube, temples are proactively promoting their charms and raising their profiles over the Internet.

Chionin, the head temple of Jodo Shu (the Pure Land Sect) in Kyoto, joined Instagram in early April. The temple’s account on the social networking website features photos taken by priests including scenes from the “Midnight Nenbutsu” event, during which priests recite sutras through the night at the government-designated national treasure Sanmon gate, worshippers transcribing sutras, and beautiful lotus flowers in bloom.

The temple started using Facebook three years ago. Young priests took a leading role in creating an Instagram account in a bid to further promote the temple’s charms to foreigners and young women through the app.

“Letting the world know about us is one of the ways for religion to do things in today’s world, instead of just having temples wait for worshippers to come,” said priest Ryuho Ikeguchi, 37.

In late March, Saikoku Sanjusan-sho Fudashokai embarked on a campaign to promote Instagram-worthy spots at the 33 temples on its website. The association comprises Hasedera in Nara Prefecture, Ishiyamadera temple in Shiga Prefecture, and 31 other temples associated with the Kannon bodhisattva and located along an ancient pilgrimage route in western Japan known as Saikoku Sanjusan-sho.

The website has several pictures of photo spots recommended by each temple, with the association planning to continue updating photos appropriate for each season.

“We’d like you to find the Instagram spots posted on the website as you leisurely explore the spacious grounds of the temple and enjoy your visit,” said Ryogi Tanaka, 51, who serves for Rokkakudo temple in Kyoto, which is one of the 33 temples of the pilgrimage route.

Kiyomizudera temple in Kyoto set a precedent for temples’ Instagram campaigns. The UNESCO World Heritage site started posting photos on the SNS in 2014 before it had become as widespread as it is now.

Photos are taken by professional photographer Kazuya Sudo, 37, who has an exclusive contract with the temple. The Instagram account has followers not only from Japan but also from all over the world, drawing comments such as “too beautiful to be true,” “celestial” and “soothing just looking at them.”

After Kiyomizudera published a photo book in 2016, Instagram’s chief product officer from the U.S. headquarters visited the temple last year. About 400 photos have been posted on the temple’s account so far, attracting 167,000 followers.

Priest Eigen Onishi, 40, said that Kiyomizudera continues to post photos on Instagram to promote its charms, while temple officials also hope that it will provide an opportunity for viewers to embrace their religious devotion.

“When you visit the temple, we want you to put your hands together in prayer and reflect on yourself,” he said. “Spending time taking pictures with a smartphone may also be important, but worshippers can save time doing so when we post photos on Instagram. We hope they spend that time for a moment of prayer.”

Meanwhile, another temple concentrates on uploading videos online.

Officials of the Tendai school of Buddhism, which is headquartered at Enryakuji temple on Mount Hieizan in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, posted a 12-minute virtual reality video on YouTube in November last year. Kabuki actor Ichikawa Ennosuke appears as a guide to present eight spots at the temple, including a chamber used during “sennichi kaiho-gyo” (1,000 day circumambulation), an arduous practice that has been conducted at Enryakuji for more than 1,000 years. The video has been viewed more than 17,000 times.

“As emphasis has been laid on the fact that people are distancing themselves from temples, we must also change ourselves or we will dwindle,” said Kisen Hoshino, chief of the Tendai school’s educational section. “It has become time to use new tools like social networking services and videos to implement online strategies in a proactive manner.”