Explore Kyoto's Ancient Toji Temple

Toji Temple, a beautiful Buddhist temple in the city of Kyoto, was founded by Emperor Kanmu in 794 during the Heian Period.  It was known as the “East Temple” and it had a sister temple, Saiji, known as the “West Temple.” Both temples stood together at the south entrance to the city, called the gate of Rashomon. 

A Quick History of Toji Temple

The temples, built 2 years after the capital was moved to Heian-Kyo (what is now the city of Kyoto), represented as the guardians and protectors of the city.  Sadly, only the East Temple exists today as the Rashomon Gate and the Saiji temple both have been destroyed. 

Saiji Temple (West Temple) burned down in 990, and again in 1233. It was never rebuilt. The Rashomon Gate increasingly deteriorated over time. Currently, a stone pillar stands in its place to mark the spot where the gate once stood. 

The remaining Toji Temple, formally known as Kyo-o-gokoku-ji (The Temple of the Defense of the Nation by Means of the King of Doctrines) is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has become a place of historical and spiritual importance.

Grand Master Kukai

At the end of the Heian Period, around 823, the unfinished Toji temple began to decline, which prompted the then-Emperor Saga to assign a well-known Buddhist priest in charge of the temple. The head priest appointed was Kobo Daishi, (Kukai) posthumously known as “The Grand Master Who Propagated the Buddhist Teaching.”

Kukai is one of the most famous and well respected religious figures in Japanese history. He was a civil servant, scholar, poet, prominent calligrapher, artist, educator, and a Buddhist monk who founded the Shingon or (True Word) sect of Buddhism. he teaches enlightenment and the spiritual state of the Buddha can be attained within the life of a believer by the proper training and disciplining of the mind, speech, and body. 

Monk Kukai made Toji the central seminary of Esoteric Buddhism and added larger wooden buildings and structures that still stand to this day. The sprawling complex has several buildings, most of which are considered “National Treasures of Japan” or “World Heritage”.

Get Familiar with the Toji Temple in Kyoto

When you come upon the place, you will enter Nandaimon Gate. It is Toji Temple’s main gate. It is on Kujo Street. The original gate burned down, and this eight-pillared gate replaced the old one. This was taken from Sanjusangendo Temple in 1894 and transferred to Toji. This gate is also designated as “Important Cultural Heritage.”

There is a school inside the Toji compound. Kobo Daishi founded Rakunan High School in 829 and opened it to all regardless of social status and rank. He wanted everybody to learn the Buddhist doctrines. The school closed shortly after Kukai’s death but opened again in 1962. The present co-educational Rakunan High School inside the grounds of Toji has approximately 1500 students and the school has earned a good reputation for its high academic and sports achievements. The school still adheres to their Buddhist doctrines. 

The Mieido Hall or Daishi-do used to be the residence of Kobo Daishi and has now become a shrine to the venerated priest. Religious services were held here. It is also called Founder’s Hall and in it is a 13th-century statue of the beloved Kobo Daishi only shown to the public every 21st of each month. It also carries the name Fudo-do because Kobo Daishi used to pray every day to the Fudo-Myo-o (Secret Buddha).

Nearby is the Homotsukan Museum, Toji’s Treasure House, which exhibits several large Buddhist statues and valuable artifacts. The remaining Toji valuables are guarded and treasured inside the museum.  It is open only a total of four months of the year, from March 20 to May 25 and from September 20 to November 25. 

The Jikido Refectory Hall was once the temple dining place but now it was made into a souvenir shop and as a storage place. 

Bask in the Beauty of Kondo Hall

The Kondo Hall, or Golden Hall, the main and largest building at the temple, is one of Toji’s original structures. It is dedicated to Yakushinyorai, the medicine Buddha, who is believed to protect people from all types of sicknesses. 

The building enshrines the most important objects of worship and veneration. The Bodhisattvas (Buddhist saints) of Nikko and Gakko stand next to the statue of Yakushinyorai. Built-in 796 and destroyed by fire in 1486, it was rebuilt in 1603 by Toyotomi Hideyori, keeping it in the same design and location as it was originally constructed. The Kondo Hall was built using Chinese, Indian and Japanese architectural techniques. 

A New Addition: Kodo Hall

Just next to the Kondo Hall is the Kodo Hall.  The Toji Temple grounds measure 255 meters from east to west and 285 meters from north to south making it almost a square. The Kodo Hall or Lecture Hall is situated in the middle of this square.  Built-in 825 by Kobo Daishi, it served as the Temples lecture hall. 

Alongside the Kondo Hall, the Kodo Hall also burned down in 1486. It also got more destroyed by many typhoons and earthquakes. In 1491, it was reconstructed using only unique Japanese architectural styles. The Kodo Hall contains 21 wooden statues brought in by Kobo Daishi from China. There is also a three-dimensional mandala, adorned with the statues of Buddhas, bosatsu and guardian deities.

See the Temple’s Pagoda, Standing 5 Stories Tall

The colossal and magnificent Toji Pagoda (Goju-no-to) can easily be seen as it dominates the Kyoto skyline. It has become Kyoto’s landmark. It is an extremely strong, earthquake-proof structure of 187 feet (57meters) high which was first built in 826 by Daishi but unfortunately, it was not completed during his lifetime. This five-story pagoda is considered the tallest wooden tower in Japan. It burned down in 1055, rebuilt in 1086 only to burn down again in 1270. Ultimately, the third Shogun in the Edo Period, Iemitsu Tokugawa, ordered to have it rebuilt in 1644. 

A pagoda is a Buddhist form of building made up of tiered towers with projecting roofs. Many pagodas are situated deep in the mountains, but this particular pagoda is right in the city area. The easy accessibility of the temple from the city contributes to its popularity among the tourists. Entrance into the pagoda itself is only allowed a few days in a year so it is not open to the public mostly. 

Best Time to View the Toji Temple? At Night, and Cherry Blossom Season

Toji temple opens from morning to late afternoon, and is great to visit anytime. However, as night falls, lights dramatically shine on the building and the surrounding foliage that make for fantastic photos – most especially during the fall, or during spring. 

Catch the Monthly Flea Market Held at Toji Temple

Every 21st of the month, a very popular and famous flea market is held on the ground of Toji. The market vendors, as many as 1200 – 1300, fill the plaza and the park that surrounds the temple grounds. The market is fondly called Kobo-san or Kobo-ichi market in honor and in loving memory of Kobo Daishi, who died on March 21, 835. To commemorate their beloved Daishi’s passing, every 21st of the month an outdoor market festival is held. The market really becomes busy on the 21st of December as it is the last one of the year. 

When Does the Flea Market Open?

Rain or shine, the market starts from the early morning hours until 16:30 in the afternoon. Note that a separate and less crowded market is held every first Sunday of the month just for antiques. 

What to Buy at This Fair

Going shopping in Japan is often a pleasant experience - Japanese hospitality makes it easier for the shopper to get around and look for particular items. Japanese shop assistants are patient and do not lose their tempers. Many shop owners speak English. The market gets packed and quite crowded with visitors. It is best that you look around first and not buy right away as you may encounter further on a much cheaper quote on the item you liked. You can bargain and when the market is about to close, the shop owners drop their prices dramatically. 

You can find a whole variety of products on the market. A wide selection of new and used items like clothes, tools, sculptures, kimonos, potteries, toys, plants, chopsticks, handcrafted artworks, table runners, souvenirs, and lots of delicious food. 

Ichigo-daifuku is favorite Japanese sweets made of soft mocha with bean jam and filled with fresh strawberries. You also find Taiyaki (fish-shaped cookies with sweet azuki paste) and Takoyaki (dough balls with octopus fillings). The Okonomiyaki, a Hiroshima styled savory pancake topped with meat, dried fish and cabbage served over yakisoba noodles. 

Accessing the Temple

8:30 to 16:00 (mid-September to mid-March), 8:30 to 16:30 (mid-March to mid-April) and 8:30 to 17:00 (mid-April to mid-September). Admission ends 30 minutes before closing. The Temple is open every day.  

For a general admission pass, adults pay 500 yen to enter (800 yen during special openings of the pagoda). High school students pay 400 yen, and. Junior High/ Elementary School Students pay 300 yen. Admission is free for preschool age children and infants.

General admission includes entry to the Kondo and Kodo Halls and allows you to view the five-story Pagoda from the outside only. The Miedo Hall and the Jikido Hall are free of charge. 

How to Get to the Toji Temple from Kyoto Station

Toji is just a 15-minute walk from Kyoto Station, Hachijyo exit. Let the subway map guide you. It is also just a 10-minute walk from Toji Station Toji has the address of 1 Kujyomachi, Minami-Ku, Kyoto 601-8473, Kyoto Prefecture. Its telephone number is +81 75-691-3325.

It is in Minami-Ku, near the intersection of Omiya Street and Kujo Street, southwest of Kyoto Station. It is also just a 15-minute walk southwest of Kyoto Station. Your departure from the station should be on the south-central exit, turn right, and walk approximately 700 meters until reaching the Temple entrance.

Another way is taking a short walk or riding bicycle west from Kujo subway Station along Kujo Street. Buses # 202, #207, #208 and #19 pass by the main entrance of the temple.

Toji Temple Today

Toji Temple is now recognized as part of the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto.” It houses many of Japan’s National Treasures. Toji’s awe-inspiring history makes it an essential stop when visiting Kyoto. 

Take a stroll around its ancient pagoda, buildings, museum and lovely garden. The solemn atmosphere of the Buddhist statues will keep you enthralled and the flea market will make you enjoy a lively, colorful festival of commerce and trade. Surely, visiting Toji will be a rewarding cultural experience. It’s definitely worth booking a hotel to travel.