Visiting Tō-ji: a Temple Tied to Kyoto’s Ancient Past (Part 1 of 3)

In 794, Kyoto (then renamed Heian-kyo) became the capital of Japan. At that time, the official entrance to the city was in the south (the direction visitors came when approaching from the former capital of Nara). A pair of guardian temples stood on either side of the entrance, at the start of an enormous, broad, flat road that led from the official city entrance all the way to the Imperial Palace in the northern part of the city.

The current Five Story Pagoda dates to the 17th century

The temple that originally stood on the west has been lost to time, but the eastern temple remains–and is still a functioning Buddhist temple to this day.

Tō-ji, whose name translates “East(ern) temple,” was founded in 796–although its famous five-story pagoda was originally constructed about a hundred years later.

Looking through the main gate toward one of Tō-ji’s halls

In 823, Emperor Saga honored Kōbō Daishi (then called Kukai), the Japanese Buddhist priest who founded the Shingon sect of esoteric Buddhism in Japan, by giving him Tō-ji, which has been a Shingon temple since that time. In 1994, Tō-ji became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in recognition of its status as on of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto. Today, the temple is popular with tourists (and open to the public daily) but also remains a functioning place of Shingon Buddhist worship and study.

The Jikido

The building above, known as the Jiki-dō, originally served as the living quarters for the Buddhist monks who studied and served at Tō-ji. Today, it serves as a shop for Buddhist items and souvenirs (there’s also a second souvenir shop next door), as well as a storage space.

The donation board on the Jikido

The orange-framed slats on the side of the Jiki-do are Tō-ji’s variation on the donation board–a common sight at Buddhist temples and Shintō shrines. These boards list the shrine or temple’s largest contributors by name, and are often displayed relatively close to the entrance of the holy site.

The treasure house

Every shrine and temple also has a treasure house for storing sacred objects. Unlike secular “treasure houses,” which were customarily used to store gold and jewels, temple treasure houses existed primarily to protect religious treasures–although they were likely used for money too. Like many others, the Tō-ji treasure house was built on stilts, above the ground, to help protect the valuables inside against pests and floods. This treasure house has another unusual feature, however: it was built in a traditional Japanese style that uses no nails of any kind.

The Kodo (Lecture Hall) at Tō-ji

After Tō-ji became a Shingon temple, a number of additional halls were built, including the Kodo, or lecture hall pictured above. This hall contains an enormous three-dimensional mandala, or representation of the Buddhist world of enlightenment; most mandalas are two-dimensional, written or painted on scrolls or other materials. Inside the Kodo, dozens of statues of varying sizes bring the mandala to life in three dimensions. Dainichi Norai, the primary avatar of the Buddha that features in Shingon Buddhism, sits at the center, with the other avatars of the Buddha, Bodhisattvas, and Wisdom Kings arrayed around him.

Tō-ji Five Story Pagoda and Lotus Pond

Tō-ji is also home to a beautiful garden filled with ornamental cherry (sakura) trees that blossom every spring. To see them, please click through to Part 2: The Gardens of Tō-ji.