Tofukuji Temple 東福寺

Take one look at the photo below. What’s your first thought? OMG what a bridge? Well, maybe for some. But for others, on a quiet day (if you’re lucky), you might not have a thought at all. You just feel…at peace. There’s no other way for me to describe it. Tofukuji Temple is a place of Zen, quite literally.


Tofukuji (named after two temples in Nara) was founded in the 13th century and is home to the Rinzai Sect of Buddhism, one of the three great Buddhist schools in Japan. Rinzai aims for its students to realise “kensho” (見性 see, nature), or self awareness rather than achieving Buddha hood. Zazen (mediation) is its core practice, and is still done at the temple today, as well as “working mindfully” in regards to physical labour. Monks tend to the temple and its gardens and run mediation for students and tourists.

The temple is also one of The Great Five (one of five of Kyoto’s great Zen temples sitting at one of the five mountains surrounding the capital). This was adapted from Kamakura and was more for politics than spiritualism, as monks were a highly educated class and could be ruthlessly manipulative and ambitious. Bet you’d never imagine that being a sentence. But in spite of the notorious men of the cloth, government patronage ensured wealth, and the Rinzai schools churned out beautiful art, poetry and wise scholars.


Tofukuji fits my bill of being a true “Japanese temple/castle/old piece of history” because it’s been burned down at least three times since its construction, all in the same century nonetheless! However, it’s been built up again and beautiful as ever, thanks to staying true to the old designs.

There are a few showcases, but there are two you can see any time of the year. The dragon in the picture below was painted in the last century during the refurbishment of the hondo (worship hall). The hall also features a rare national treasure – a painting of Buddha on his death bed, which happens to be the second largest in Japan. The largest is stored at Sennryu-ji up the road. Both are displayed only a few days a year.

The second treasure is the Sanmon Gate, the largest and oldest standing temple gate in Japan. Even though the original was burned during the many fires between 1319 – 36, the current incarnation was completed in 1425 and holds Heian era Buddha sculptures inside, as well as a beautiful painted ceiling.

The Sammon Gate
The Sanmon Gate

One of my schools is near this temple, which is both a positive and a negative – one, I’m near a culturally significant piece of history. Two – I can’t get past the tourists who come to see the autumn leaves! Seriously people, SOME of us need to get to work in the morning! Tofukuji is renowned for it’s amazing fiery leaves, which draw thousands each year. My friend Kris and I are both fast walkers, and it kills us to shuffle to the train station because the traffic is shoulder to shoulder, especially on the bridge leading into the temple complex (first picture). Momiji 紅葉 is not to be missed, I love it.

The temple also has rock and moss gardens, tended by the monks as a part of their kensho practice. You can also access the garden valley where the coloured leaves are, both 600 yen.

I'm a lonely leaf
I’m a lonely leaf

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