Tōji, Kyoto, Japan

Tōji is often overlooked by visitors to Kyoto. What information there is on the temple tends to focus on the five-storied pagoda, which is the tallest in Japan at 57 metres. Far more than that, though, Tōji is only two years younger than Kyoto itself, and was once one of a pair of matched temples which stood either side of the long-lost Rajōmon (or Rashōmon) to protect the newly-designated capital from evil.

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Built in 796, two years after Heian-kyō (now Kyoto) became Japan’s new capital city, Tōji (“East Temple”) was paired with Saiji (“West Temple”). Between them was Rajōmon, a massive gate which was the city’s official entrance. It was the Rajōmon’s job to tend to the city’s physical protection while guardian deities at Tōji and Saiji warded Heian-kyō against oni – devils, trolls and the like. Only three Buddhist temples were tolerated within the city at that time, and of those three only Tōji still stands.

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As you can see, the weather was delightful. This building was once the refectory, but it burned down. Reconstructed in 1930, it is now a study hall.The stone in the foreground is engraved with the name Amida Sho Kannon. Sho Kannon is the goddess Kannon’s most sacred form.

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The Kondo is the temple’s main hall, and it houses a large wooden Yakushi Buddha, the temple’s main object of worship. Like many of Tōji’s buildings the original Kondo was destroyed by fire in 1486. The current hall is an early Edo-period reconstruction.

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Thirty years after it was built, Kobo Daishi was appointed Tōji’s Head Priest. As Kobo was the founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, this elevated Tōji to the position of the second most important temple in Shingon Buddhism, after the sacred temple on Koyasan. Tucked between buildings is this statue of Kobo, by the Miedo (“Founder’s Hall”).

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The Kondo is constructed of extremely dark wood, as is the pagoda itself. The Kodo hall in the background is of lighter wood and contains nineteen statues which Kobo imported from China himself. These were rescued from the fire which destroyed the hall they were in, and reinstated after the Kodo was rebuilt. The Kodo is open to the public, and a friendly priest is on hand to answer questions as well as sell charms and ema plaques.

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Surrounding the pagoda itself is a gorgeous garden which is meticulously maintained by the temple. The ground floor is open to the public on a strictly limited number of days per year, and contains four statues of Buddha.

On the 21st of each month the courtyard outside Tōji is home to a bustling flea market, the largest and busiest of which is in December. Temple flea markets are a widespread tradition, and Tōji’s is on the 21st of each month due to Kobo Daishi’s birthday being the 21st of March.

If you have the time, Tōji is a very pleasant temple, and its pagoda is seen as a symbol of Kyoto itself.

Visiting Tōji:

Take the Kintetsu Kyoto Line to Tōji Station. Tōji is a two minute walk. Alternatively Tōji is a fifteen minute walk from Kyoto Station.

Admission: 500円.

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