A Visit to Tofuku-ji

I love sharing photographs from my research trips to Japan, both because of my fondness for Japanese culture, history, and architecture and because I like giving context to go along with the images. (I notice a lot of online photos show the setting, but don’t explain it, and I hope my “virtual tours” will help give context to these incredible sites.)

Today, we’re visiting Tofuku-ji, a Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple just south of Kyoto that also provided one of the settings for my first Hiro Hattori / Shinobi mystery, Claws of the Cat.

16H07 Tofukuji entrance

Originally founded in 1236, Tofuku-ji remains one of Kyoto’s premier Zen temples, and is listed among the Kyoto Gozan (“five greatest Zen temples of Kyoto”). Like many temples, Tofuku-ji was damaged by fire during the medieval era, and rebuilt.

The temple’s main gate, the Sanmon, dates to 1425 (with only minor restoration work – the gate in this photograph is almost 600 years old).

16H07 Tofukuji Sanmon 

In fact, the Sanmon at Tofuku-ji is the oldest such gate in Japan.

Tofuku-ji sits about a 15 minute walk from the closest JR train station (conveniently also called Tofukuji), along a lightly-traveled road and up a long drive. It rained the day I visited, providing an excellent, if slightly foreboding, atmosphere.

(I plan to head back to the temple this October, when I visit Japan for another research trip, and I look forward to seeing the difference between the way it looks in summer and in autumn.)

16H07 Tofukuji ticket house : garden entry

The building on the left is the Zen-do, a hall which sits near the entrance to the famous Tsuten-kyo (a covered bridge that appears as one of the settings in Claws of the Cat).

Just past the Zen-do, a covered walkway leads through lovely, manicured gardens filled with Japanese maples and evergreens:

16H07 Tofukuji garden

And then to the entrance to the Tsuten-kyo:

16H07 Tofukuji bridge

The tsuten-kyo and a parallel bridge, the Ganun-kyo, span a tree-filled gorge through which a river flows. You can see the roof of the Ganun-kyo ahead through the trees in the photograph below (which was taken from the midpoint of the tsuten-kyo):

 16H07 T Bridge View

Paths and stairs lead down to the gorge, and visitors can walk there also–though I, sadly, didn’t have time to visit the lower part of the garden during my visit. (I hope to remedy that this autumn, and if I do, I’ll definitely bring back plenty of photographs!)

The bridges are quite high off the ground – much higher than the photos taken directly across the treetops might suggest:

16H07 Tofukuji view from bridge

The bridges are one of Tofuku-ji’s most famous, and most often visited, sites, especially in autumn, when the bridges are supposed to be one of the best foliage-viewing spots in Japan.

16H07 Tofukuji Bridge (with balcony)

Beyond the bridges lies the kaisandō, or founder’s hall–a traditional Buddhist hall enshrining the image and memorial tablet of the founding abbot. Sometimes, important teachers or monks who lived and taught at the temple are also honored there. 

The approach to the kaisandō features a covered walkway that connects directly to the tsuten-kyo.

16H07 Steps to Abbot's Garden

The walkway opens into a lovely garden adjacent to the kaisandō veranda–a lovely place to meditate, or to sit out the rain and enjoy the natural beauty.

16H07 Tofukuji Abbot's garden in rain

I hope you’ll join me next week, as we continue our walk through Tofuku-ji! (And I’ll post some additional photographs on Tuesday and Thursday also.)