Tofuku-Ji Temple and Tsuten-Kyo Bridge, Kyoto, Japan

After visiting Fushimi Inari and Mt. Inari, the next stop on my trip to Kyoto was Tofuku-ji Temple (東福寺) and Tsuten-Kyo Bridge. Tofuku-Ji is one of the “Five Great Zen Temples in Kyoto” and it is easy to see why. Combined with its garden, which contains the Tsuten-Kyo (covered) bridge, it is easy to see why it is considered a Great Temple.

history

This history of Tofuku-Ji started in 1236 when the imperial chancellor at the time, Kujō Michiie (九条 道家), had it built; construction finished in 1255. At this time it became one of the Five Mountain Temples – now called the Five Great Temples in English. Unfortunately, since then, the temple has suffered many tragedies. In the 15th century, it burnt to the ground but was promptly rebuilt to the original plans. However, that was not the end of its troubles.

When the Shogunate ended and the Meiji Restoration occurred, the Shunbri decree separated Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples into separate entities. As a result, this cut the number of buildings belonging to Tofuku-Ji to one-third of their original number. Afterwards, in 1881, another fire swept through the temple, destroying the main buildings and the statue of the Sakyamuni Buddha.

As a further black stain on its history, the temple was used as a prisoner-of-war camp during the Russo-Japanese war from 1904-1905.

However, in a turn of its fortunes, the buildings destroyed by the 1881 fire were rebuilt from 1917-1934, when a new statue of the Buddha also came to the temple. Since then the temple has had a peaceful and quiet period which continues to this day.

Today

Today it is easy to see why Tofuku-Ji is one of the Great Temples. The buildings are stunning, the complex is impressive and the garden is an absolutely beautiful sight to behold. Its location towards the edge of Kyoto has worked in its favour. It has had the space to expand as it needed.

In addition to drawing countless Japanese and international tourists (pre-pandemic), Tofuku-Ji also has some unique sights. There are a large number of national treasures at this temple, including the oldest Zen gate (Sanmon) in Japan built in 1425. Sanmon are the most important gate in a Buddhist temple. Standing between the main gate and the hall of the Buddha, it actually contains three gates. These gates represent the three gates to enlightenment. Visitors entering Buddhist temples must pass through these gates, starting their path to enlightenment.

Because of its garden, Tofuku-Ji is also a great place to go in the autumn for the leaves changing colours. The garden is over 2,000 m2 (over half an acre) and its many trees turn beautiful shades of red and orange during the autumn, drawing many visitors. At other times of the year, you can see its green foliage as well as a wide variety of flowers.

My visit

After visiting Fushimi Inari and Mt Inari, I walked down a back way from the top of the mountain to the temple (the place marked is on the trail). After the trail, I walked down a few residential streets and then came to the temple. The weather remained beautiful, with clear blue skies – no clouds in sight!

The first sight to greet me upon entering was the sanmon:

An angular view of the Sanmon. The small protrusion is on the side of the gate, allowing access to the upper level (closed to the public).

As stated previously, this is the oldest sanmon in Japan and to me, it is very impressive. I think this is also the largest one that I have ever seen. Granted I don’t have much experience with Buddhist temples, but this was simply stunning. The detail in the artwork on the sanmon and its architecture is very pleasing to the eye. In comparison to other temples I saw during my time in Kyoto, this gate was still among the top that I saw.

Sanmon from behind

From here you walk along a gravel road (there are a few cars that use it for temple business) until you get to a reception area. This is where you get your tickets. I bought a combined temple/garden ticket because I was interested in seeing both the bridge and the temple.

If you buy a combined ticket, you see the bridge/garden area first, then leave that area to come out to the main (free) area and then enter the inner temple (Hojo) area.

Tsuten Bridge and the valley garden

Tofuku-Ji is one of the mountain temples and it is no surprise that its name means something. It sits in the mountain foothills and has beautiful views of the mountains to the east of Kyoto. As a result the garden that is next to it is actually more of a cultured ravine. That is why there is a beautiful covered bridge in the garden – you needed it to get from one side to the other easily.

Tsuten Bridge and the surrounding garden are one of the most beautiful sights in Japan, especially during the autumn when the leaves change colour. It has been featured in paintings by amateurs and professionals alike. It is easy to see why:

This garden also connects to a smaller part of the temple, which in English we might call a chapel. This is a shrine dedicated to the founding monk and includes a statue of him. This shrine is also at the highest point of the temple. Here are some images of the shrine building (you cannot go inside) and the zen garden:

Here is some footage of the bridge in the autumn:

Tofuku-Ji Hojo

The other part that you pay to go into is the Hojo, which was the residence of the head monk. This area includes four gardens that were completed in the 1930s as well as the residence itself, which is very modest.

In addition to seeing the zen gardens, this area also offers good views of the bridge and the shrine to the founding monk. Furthermore, you can see parts of the ravine, making this a prime location to view the ravine, especially in autumn.

Here is some official drone footage of the temple:

東福寺 Tofuku-ji / 空撮 紅葉 / 京都いいとこ動画
Watch this video on YouTube.

Visiting Tofuku-Ji and Tsuten-Kyo

You can get to Tofuku-Ji by all major modes of public transportation. On the train, take the JR Nara Line from Kyoto Station to Tofuku-Ji Station (the next) stop. From there you will have to walk 500 metres (546 yards) to the temple (about 10 minutes including the train). If you take the bus, the 208 and 88 take about 20 minutes to get close to the temple and then you need to walk another 350 metres (380 yards). You could also take a taxi.

Part of the temple is free to visit. This area includes the Sanmon and the temple housing the statue of the Buddha (you cannot enter). There are some other buildings as well, including a tea house, but these are temporarily closed due to the pandemic. There is also a reception in this area to buy tickets for the two remaining areas: the main garden (with Tsuten Bridge) and the Hojo area (with its gardens).

You can buy a ticket for the bridge/garden only, Hojo only, or a combined ticket. The ticket for the Hojo area is ¥500 for adults, the bridge/garden area is ¥600 and the combined ticket is ¥1,000. Children are half price.

I would recommend planning on spending a couple of hours here because of the size of the temple complex. I also recommend getting the combined ticket. In my opinion, both areas (as well as the free part) are worth exploring. It will take a few hours to explore everything Tofuku-Ji has to offer, especially if you want to sit and contemplate in the Zen garden.

Here are some more images from around the temple:

Tofuku-Ji also has events that it hosts throughout the year. You can find more information on their website (in Japanese) here.


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