To read the introduction to historic Tō-ji, one of Kyoto’s oldest guardian temples, click here; to see more pictures of Tō-ji’s beautiful gardens in the daytime, click here.]
In April 2019, while finishing the 100 mountain climbs that became the basis for CLIMB, I visited Kyoto with my friend (and fellow author) Laura VanArendonk Baugh. By chance, our day in the ancient capital coincided with the final nights of the annual sakura (cherry blossom) illumination at Tō-ji, the UNESCO World Heritage temple that also happens to be one of Kyoto’s oldest sacred sites.
As night fell over the city, the grounds of the temple began to glow. We joined the queue of people waiting outside the gate, paid a small fee for our tickets (about $5 US) and headed inside. I had visited Tō-ji several times during daylight hours, but never at night–and never when the sakura were in bloom.
I was blown away. The gardens are lovely in daylight, but absolutely magical at night with the trees in bloom.
The lighting was strategically placed to show off the blooming trees; low lighting along the paths made it easy to see where we were walking, too.
The blossoms themselves were spectacular. The grounds feature several species of sakura, with blossoms ranging from deep, bright pink to white. While quite a few had already fallen (we did arrive on the last night, after all!) a surprising number were still in perfect shape, and I wouldn’t have known the brief sakura season was almost over by looking at the trees alone.
The current five-story pagoda dates to 1644; the original building was built in the 9th century, but burned four times, either as a result of war or from lightning strikes. The pagoda has an interesting architectural feature: the pillars on which it stands do not extend into the ground, and yet Japan’s many earthquakes have never knocked it down. The original design uses joints to absorb the movements of an earthquake, with the result that the building shimmies in a manner known as the “snake dance,” but does not fall.
The ancient buildings of Tō-ji, many of which date to the seventeenth century, were even more beautiful at night, framed by the blooming sakura.
This was one of those serendipitous moments when an unexpected surprise becomes a highlight of the entire adventure. This ends this week’s adventure at Tō-ji, but I hope you’ll come back regularly for more adventures in Japan!