Toji Temple, Kyoto – The Temple for the Defence of the Nation by Means of the King of Doctrines

I recently posted about Fushimi Inari and Mt. Inari, Kyoto – The path of 1000 gates, which I visited during my trip to Kyoto. However, it was not the first place I went to in Kyoto. After getting off the Shinkansen (bullet train) at Kyoto station, I split up with my host family and went to the nearest large temple: Toji.

Near the entrance of the temple. The five-storey pagoda is peaking out from behind the trees and the Kendo is to the far right.

The first day I was in Kyoto, it was raining cats and dogs (meaning very heavily). However, I was extremely fortunate. Because it was raining so hard, there were few people who wanted to be out in the rain and visit a temple. I also had an amazing experience: the pagoda was open and you could visit the ground floor. More on that later.

History of Toji

Toji (also written as To-ji, 東寺, meaning “east temple”) is a Shingon Buddhist temple constructed in 796. It was actually one of a pair of temples, one of which stood to the west. Its full name shows what its purpose was: 教王護国寺. This translates roughly to The Temple for the Defence of the Nation by Means of the King of Doctrines. In other words, it was an official temple that prayed for the defence and prosperity of Japan and the royal family. It was only one of three allowed in the then “new” capital of Kyoto (the old one being Nara). It is also the only one to survive the ravages of time. While it was built in 796, it was fully reconstructed in 1644 after being damaged severely by an earthquake in 1586.

Toji has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994. It also has five buildings considered to be part of Japan’s National Treasures: the Lotus Flower Gate (rengemon), the Miei Hall (mieidō), the Golden Hall (kondō) and the five-storied Pagoda (gojūnotō, temple buildings) and the Kanchiin Guest Hall.

Claims to fame

Five-storey Pagoda

Toji today has a couple of claims to fame. The one most people are familiar with is that it has the tallest wooden tower in Japan. This tower is known in English as the Five-Storey Pagoda It is 54.8 meters (180 feet) high and was originally built in the 9th century. However it has been rebuilt 4 times over the centuries.

The five-storey pagoda in the pouring rain

I was very fortunate as the pagoda doors are usually open but you can only look at it from the outside. Even with the pouring rain, I was allowed to go inside. Inside it has four Buddhas facing the four entrances (backs to the middle of the room). There was also a myriad of paintings, statues and other artwork on display; there are more works higher up the tower but only the ground floor was open.

The five-storey pagoda of Toji

Unfortunately, pictures inside were not allowed, so I only have photos from outside.

Kondo (Golden Hall) and mieidō

Part of Toji temple is the Kondo, which is also known as the Great Hall in English. The Kondo holds a giant golden statue of Yakushi that dates back to 1603. Yakushi Nyori or Yakushi Tathagata is the Buddha of Medicine and Healing and is the main Buddha revered in Toji. The statue, which is almost as tall as the building, is impressive in and of itself. It is definitely worth seeing and admiring. Even in the dull daylight of a heavily rainy day, it was worth it.

The Mieido stands in the original location of the residence of the founder of the temple: Kukai. the building is also sometimes called Kukai. To honour him, a ceremony is held on the 21st day of each month. This is the day that he is said to have died. Otherwise it is open to visitors.

Unfortunately, pictures are not allowed inside the Kondo or Mieido, so I only have photos of the outside.

Temple grounds

The temple also features a pond (and koi) and a garden with many varieties of plants. Due to the temple’s dedication to medicine, it also has a medicine garden as well. Here are some photos from around the garden and temple grounds:

During the cherry blossom season, you can also visit the temple at night for an illuminated cherry blossom viewing event.

Visiting Toji

Despite the pouring rain, I would highly recommend visiting Toji no matter the weather. Although it is not considered one of the Five Great Temples in Kyoto (those are only Zen Buddhist temples), it is the oldest in Kyoto. It is definitely worth a visit and you can spend as long as you want to see the various buildings and sitting in the garden. There is no time limit and while you can listen to an audio guide, there is no set route that you have to follow.

Toji can be visited year-round from 8:30 to 4 pm. During the warmer/lighter months, it is open until 5 pm. Some events are also held after these times, such as cherry tree blossom night viewings. When the pagoda is closed to visitors (visiting inside), the price of an adult ticket is ¥500. Otherwise when the pagoda is open, the price is ¥800. You buy the tickets at the door rather than buying in advance. Group tickets (30+) are also slightly reduced.

You can get to Toji using public transport in Kyoto. Three of the gates have bus stops. If you take the train, you will havve a 10 to 15-minute walk, depending on which train you take. If you get a travel pass while in Kyoto, make sure to look up which public transport you can use to get to Toji using that pass as not all methods may be included.

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