On an unseasonably warm early February morning, we biked down to south Kyoto in search of a bit of culture and beauty. Located behind the Number 2 Red Cross Hospital, the Tofukuji Temple complex spreads in all directions. Today it is the head temple of the Tofukuji School of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism.
Tofukuji was founded in 1236 and built in the ensuing decades, but has been plagued by fire on many occasions: it was destroyed in 1319, 1334, and 1336, and burned again in the 15th century.
It has since come to be known as one of the Great Zen Temples of Kyoto; the others are Kenninji, Manjuji, Nanzenji, Shokokuji, and Tenryuji.
The temple is best known for its massive gate—at 22 meters it is the largest in any Japanese zen temple (above left)—and its zen garden within the Hojo (Abbot's Hall). The gate was built in 1425—then taken apart, fixed, and rebuilt in the 1970s.
The zen garden—and temple as a whole for that matter—is probably at its most beautiful in the fall when the momiji maple trees are in their glory. The fall colors though bring gas-spewing tour buses filled with chattering visitors from the provinces.
Today, however, was peaceful and sunny. The grounds of the main temple are free (sub-temples cost 400 yen for adults). Women raked leaves in the shadows of the Sanmon gate, wearing only loose cotton samue work clothes. They chatted and laughed as they worked; a few tourists wandered around alone or in pairs.
The rock garden (above right) at Hojo, an abbey for the priests, is not nearly as well-known as the one at Ryoanji Temple; however, the veranda was empty and the late morning sun poured in at just the right angle. This is the “southern garden.”
On the opposite side of the building is the “northern garden,” which features square cut stones that are laid out in a checkerboard pattern with rich moss in the blank spaces.
The overall effect is that of squares inlaid in a verdant field of green.
Within the vast grounds, there is also a Zendo meditation hall, the main hall, and woods with a creek deep below in a picturesque ravine.
Entrance until 4:30 pm
From either JR Tofukuji Station or Keihan Railways Tofukuji Station about 10 minutes. From Kyoto Station, take the JR Nara Line one stop on a local train.
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