The Gardens of Tō-ji (Part 2 of 3)

To read part 1, which introduces the history and architecture of this historic Kyoto temple, please click here.

Tō-ji sits a few blocks south of Kyoto Station, near the former entrance to the ancient capital. In addition to its remarkable history and architecture, this 8th century temple is home to a lovely garden, with graveled walking trails that lead across the grounds and around an expansive pond.

The weeping Sakura in summer

An enormous weeping sakura (ornamental cherry) tree stands near the entrance to the gardens. There’s an interesting reason the earth at the base of the tree looks like a little hill: the grounds of Tō-ji are a protected historical site (in fact, the entire temple is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site “Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto”), so excavation is not permitted. When the tree was planted, it was necessary to build up the earth around the site in order to set the sapling in the ground, because it would have been illegal to dig a hole. As you can see, the tree has clearly flourished in the decades since its planting.

The pond at Tō-ji, with the worship hall in the background

Despite the temple’s location in central Kyoto, the grounds are peaceful and often silent. Tō-ji tends to be a little less popular with tourists than some of the city’s other sites, so it’s possible to have the gardens almost to yourself–especially if you visit early on a weekday morning.

A heron in the Tō-ji garden pond

The gardens are home to at least one heron, as well as turtles. It’s common to see them sunning or sitting on rocks at the center of the pond. (I’ve also seen the heron fishing in the moat outside the temple, so if you can’t find him inside, you may want to check the outer moat.)

The heron, from another angle.

One of the loveliest features of the garden is the way the various temple buildings appear above the trees–especially since the buildings outside the temple grounds are generally not visible from the garden. This gives Tō-ji the feeling of a rural temple, despite the fact that it sits in the center of a large and fairly busy city.

Teahouse benches near the lecture and worship halls

After finishing a stroll through the garden, I like to stop at the little teahouse near the temple’s worship and lecture halls. It’s directly across from the giant sakura (in fact, I took the picture of the giant sakura that appears earlier in this post while sitting on one of the benches in the post above), and is a great place to sit and enjoy a traditional snack while looking at the trees.

Matcha and dango at Tō-ji

The treats available at the teahouse vary a little, depending on the season. In the summertime, one of the most popular options is dango (bite-sized balls of mochi served on skewers) and matcha (green tea made from powdered leaves whisked in hot water), shown above. The dango at Tō-ji are naturally colored–the green ones taste lightly of the matcha powder used to impart that distinctive green color, and the pink ones taste even more faintly of sakura. The matcha is a premium variety, with a lot of natural sweetness (though it’s also a little bitter, because it has no added sugar).

For most of the year, the temple grounds are open from 8:30 a.m. until some time between 4 and 5 p.m. (exact time varies based on daylight hours), but for a few weeks every spring, the temple re-opens from 6:30-9:30 p.m., for a light-up viewing of the blooming sakura (cherry blossoms).

The annual cherry blossom illumination (2019)

By chance, I happened to be in Kyoto with a friend (fellow author Laura VanArendonk Baugh) on the very last night of the light-up in April of 2019–and as the picture above suggests, it is a magical experience indeed. If you’d like to see more, click through for Tō-ji Part 3 of 3: The Tō-ji Cherry Blossom Illumination.