Rising from the city skyline, Japan’s tallest pagoda at Toji is an elegant reminder of Heian Kyo, ‘the capital of peace and tranquility’ and now a symbol of this beautiful ancient city.
The arrival of the imperial court in Kyoto in 794 brought with it the new Heian Jidai and the building of a new city, renamed “The Imperial City of Heiankyo” (the former name for the city of Kyoto). During this time, Toji, meaning the East Temple, was built alongside the new south entrance to the city, and an huge avenue running directly north towards the Imperial Palace was built. The large temple flanked this new Heiankyo entrance, marked by the great Rashomon Gate, along with Saiji, the West Temple, which sadly no longer exists today. Both temples were established for the protection of the nation and ancient capital and Toji now serves as a beautiful reminder of Kyoto’s millennium spent as the powerhouse of Japan.
The historical figure most strongly associated with Toji Temple is Kobo Daishi, known as Kukai during his lifetime, who was the founder of Shingon Buddhism. In 823, Kobo Daishi became the head of Toji and made it Kyoto’s headquarters of this particular sect of the religion. Now a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site, Toji is a treasure trove of Japanese Buddhist art, culture and history. Many of its beautiful constituent structures and buildings hold the designation of National Treasure, including the famous five-story pagoda which burnt down no fewer than four times and was most recently rebuilt in 1644. The pagoda, standing nearly 55 meters, is the tallest in Japan and has come to be a much-loved symbol of Kyoto.
What’s even more impressive is the temple’s incredible collection of items that also hold National Treasure or Important Cultural Asset status. The collection is renowned throughout Japan and features, amongst others, stunning calligraphy from the hand of Kobo Daishi himself, beautiful scriptures and statutes brought by him from China and intricate ink paintings showing the great swordsman Miyamoto Musashi.
Toji’s two other famous structures, the Kondo and Kodo halls house a number of the temple’s interesting artefacts. Toji’s main object of worship, a large wooden statue of the Yakushi Buddha, surrounded on either side by his two attendants, the Nikko and Gakko Bodhisattvas is situated in the Kondo Hall, an original building that was destroyed by the 1486 fire and reconstructed according to the early Edo architectural style of the time. The Kodo Hall, also lost to the same fire but reconstructed sympathetically in its original style, has a wonderful collection of 21 Buddhist images and statues, the layout of these forms a unique sort of three-dimensional “mandala world” conceived by Toji’s famous founder Kobo Daishi. The aura of the hall is undeniably easy and the spirituality sinks in to your soul.
Toji is only a 15 minute walk southwest of Kyoto Station, or a 5 minute walk from Toji station, which sits on the Kintetsu Kyoto Line. Every month, on the 21st, there is a vast antiques and craft market with vendors on the plaza and in the surrounding park selling all manner of authentic items from scrolls to ceramics to kimono. I often find myself getting lost here for a good few hours each month. Perhaps here you’ll find your own treasure?