Saicho 767-822, a Japanese of Chinese descent, was born in Shiga, Omi province He entered the priesthood at the age of 14, and was ordained in 785. He was disenchanted with the worldliness of the Nara priesthood and yearned for a moral and ethical awakening. Thus, in 788, he founded a small temple, later called the Enryaku-ji, on Mt. Hiei. At this time the area below Mt. Hiei was uncultivated marshland, but in 794 it was chosen as a site for the new capital of Heian (present day Kyoto).
In 804 Saicho was sent to China, forming part of the ambassadorial party of Fujiwara Kadonomaro. The Shingon master Kukai was a member of the group, but on a different ship, and it is not certain that the two men met at this time. The purpose on his trip was to obtain sanction for his new temple on Mt. Hiei, Chinese approval being considered necessary for standing vis-a-vis the Nara sects. Saicho returned to Japan in 805.