Daitokuji Temple Info, Tips & Review

Daitokuji (大徳寺) is a walled temple in Northern Kyoto with a number of subtemples that feature some of Japan’s finest zen and rock gardens. In this post, I’ll share photos I took at Daitokuji, history, info & tips for visiting, and thoughts on our experience at Daitokuji.

The free grounds at Daitokuji Temple are highlighted by the Chokushimon Gate from Kyoto’s Imperial Palace, the Karamon (Chinese Gate), and Sammon Main Gate. There are also several “public” halls (Butsuden Hall, Hatto Hall, and Hojo Residence), none of which can be entered. You can look inside Butsuden, which is a truly stunning building. All of these buildings are clustered on the east side of the complex.

The rest of Daitokuji Temple is basically a walled city of subtemples. There are a total of 24 sub-temples, with four of these being regularly open to the general public. Another four have seasonal or weekend openings, and the rest are completely private (with signage making it clear that tourists need to KEEP OUT).

Now let’s take a look at the history of Daitokuji and its subtemples, info and tips to improve your visit to these sites, and anecdotes from our experience at Daitokuji Temple…

History

Prior to being established as Daitokuji Temple in the early 1300s by Shuho Myocho, the location was originally a small monastery. The exact date it was established is disputed, and listed as 1315, 1319, or 1326 depending upon the source.

The last date is conceivably when Daitokuji was converted from its original incarnation and expanded into a proper temple with multiple halls and quarters. Daitokuji is also known as “Dragon’s Treasure Mountain,” and is ranked among the top five mountains in the Zen Buddhist temple hierarchy early in its existence.

Most of the original halls and other structures were destroyed during the Onin War, and were rebuilt in the late 1400s with the help of merchants from Osaka under the guidance of the new head priest, Ikkyū, who was a famous Zen monk and poet.

Interestingly, most of the subtemples were founded and first built after this, in the early to mid-1500s. Daitokuji Temple and its brand of Zen Buddhism were popular among wealthy samurai and warlords, who purchased subtemples and plots to serve as their private cemeteries. The subtemples at Daitokuji Temple remain privately held by various families, which explains their separate admission fees, operating schedules (or lack thereof), and policy quirks.

Info & Tips

Daitokuji Temple has a bus stop directly in front of its main entrance, and taking the 101, 204, 205, 0r 206 bus to that stop (same name as the temple) is the easiest way to get here. If you’d prefer saving some steps, this is the best option.

What we’d recommend doing is taking the Karasuma Subway Line to Kuramaguchi Station and walking. You can get here directly from Kyoto Station (among other locations) via this approach, and it’s actually quicker and cheaper than taking the bus–there’s just more walking.

As with all points of interest in Kyoto, consult Google Maps for the most efficient train route based upon your location and departure time, as there are almost always 2-3 ways to access any temple in Kyoto. Note that Google Maps doesn’t recognize all of the entrances to Daitokuji Temple (and there are several), so rather than walking all the way around the outside–as it might have you do–use common sense and assume there might be more convenient entrances.

Once inside, it’s fairly easy to get lost–not that this has happened to us or anything–so don’t feel bad if you struggle to find a particular subtemple. Even if you don’t intend upon stopping at one of the western-most subtemples, it’s worth wandering around the entirely of the grounds, so getting lost isn’t such a terrible thing.

Admission to the grounds of Daitokuji Temple is free, and this is where you’ll find the main features of the temple. These free areas just scratch the surface, as there are roughly two dozen subtemples dotted across the labyrinth of walls within the main temple. If you visited them all (and you can’t since most are only open sporadically), this would be one of the most expensive temples in Kyoto.

“Free” is a gross mischaracterization of Daitokuji Temple since a handful of these subtemples are the main selling point of the complex. While the open area is nice, most visitors come for Daisenin, Ryogenin, Zuihoin, and Obaiin. I’d also mention Kotoin (a breathtaking fall colors spot) but it’s currently closed for refurbishment.

Our recommendation would be to skip Daisenin, which is the most popular subtemple (the why on that recommendation is below in “Our Experience”) and instead visit Zuihoin and perhaps Obaiin. Zuihoin is my favorite rock garden in Kyoto.

Also consider any special openings that might be occurring during your visit. Don’t do more than a handful of the paid subtemples, as their impact has diminishing returns–you don’t want to experience temple fatigue.  

Daitokuji Temple is not a particularly renowned or popular spot for tourists, and its inconvenient location probably plays a role in this. As such, we don’t recommend placing it in an early morning or late afternoon slot in your itinerary. Just do it in the middle of the day when other temples are busiest.

If you’re trying to figure out how to slot Daitokuji Temple into your itinerary…good luck. (Just kidding; we’ll come up with something soon.)

We did it after walking from Shimogamo Shrine and before walking to the Golden Pavilion, both of which are 25-minute walks. There’s also a bus that goes between Daitokuji Temple and the Golden Pavilion, with stops directly in front of each.

Our Experience & Review

The free public grounds at Daitokuji Temple are nice. Nothing that exactly reinvents the wheel, but some good exemplars of structures and buildings you’ll find at other temples in Kyoto. If Daitokuji Temple were this area on its eastern side alone, it’d barely register. It’d maybe crack the top 30 or 40 on Kyoto temples, but would not be a place people seek out.

Part of what makes Daitokuji Temple appealing is its expansive grounds, and layout as a veritable walled city. Even the subtemples you cannot enter are interesting to see from the outside, and it’s fascinating to wander around. It should go without saying since there are two dozen subtemples here, but Daitokuji Temple is huge. Probably among the largest temples in Kyoto.

Beyond the unique walled style of the free grounds, there are the subtemples themselves. As mentioned, there are four that are regularly open, although that number should be reduced to three since Kotoin won’t reopen until 2019. The most well known of these is Daisenin.

With regard to this, allow me a brief rant. Outside of Daisenin, we noticed two conspicuous signs stating that all forms of photography were strictly prohibited. This in itself is not a big deal–a lot of temples prohibit photography of important cultural assets, in places where it can disturb the contemplative atmosphere, or impede traffic flow. The prohibition is usually totally justifiable, understandable, and not a blanket ban.

When I went to purchase our tickets, I was handed a card in English with a few paragraphs explaining the ban, that there were security cameras monitoring rule-breakers, and that the ban had to be instituted because they had discovered people selling photos from Daisenin online. I had to acknowledge this before purchasing tickets.

This should have been a red flag. It felt like a pretty gross overreaction to an ordinary cost of doing business, and extreme approach that will probably result in more losses than if they were to just accept the fact that people are going to (try to) sell photos of the temple. It certainly cost them a ticket sale from us, as Sarah opted to just sit this one out.

Daisenin is not a “be present in the moment” type of deal, and visiting was a total mistake. Unlike some temples that are concerned with photography negatively impacting the spiritual experience of the temple, this one is concerned with ruining the spiritual experience by prohibiting photography. In addition to the security cameras, there are multiple staffers hovering behind people, seemingly ready to pounce the moment an iPhone is raised even an inch.

It’s an incredibly uncomfortable environment, and making paying guests acutely aware of the fact that they are being closely monitored is about as savvy of a business strategy as it would be for Best Buy to require all customers to walk around holding the hand of a security guard. Congratulations, you prevented me from shoplifting…but you also made me never want to patronize your business again in my life. So, kudos, Daisenin, I’m strongly recommending that anyone read this steer far clear of  your subtemple.

Oh, and to add insult to injury, upon leaving you encounter dozens of photos, calendars, post cards, and other souvenirs for sale. Because of course that was the goal all along. That photography ban has nothing to do with preventing people from selling photos on the internet. It’s a ham-fisted way of getting tourists to purchase items to commemorate the visit since they won’t have any photos of their own.

The good news is that what Daisenin Temple does well (and its rock garden is pretty), Zuihoin does better. As mentioned above, this is my favorite rock garden in Kyoto.

This is totally a matter of personal preference. There are several rock gardens that are larger, more complex, or have more famous legacies. I prefer Zuihon because of its style, and the greater subtemple that includes the rock garden.

For me, the rocks coupled with the fusuma art evoked Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in China (a place I’ve never even been). I don’t know why, but that’s where my mind went as I sat there.

I guess you could say Zuihon simply “spoke to me” more than any other rock garden in Kyoto. The whole of the experience was more complete and engaging…for me, personally. Obviously, your mileage may vary.

Overall, Daitokuji Temple ranks very highly among the temples of Kyoto once you consider the entire package. It holds a treasure trove of peaceful subtemples, and its main buildings are nice. While it’s possible my personal bias for Zuihoin is positively coloring my overall opinion of Daitokuji Temple, the converse of that might also be true: that my bias against Daisenin negatively colors my overall opinion. Ultimately, I think those two things cancel one another out…or something like that. Daitokuji Temple makes for a relatively under-the-radar temple with a lot to appreciate.

If you’re planning a visit to the Japan that includes Kyoto, please check out my other posts about Japan. I also highly recommend the Lonely Planet Kyoto Guide to determine everything you should see and do while there.

Your Thoughts

Have you visited Daitokuji Temple? What did you think of it? If you’ve visited it, do you agree or disagree with my take on Daisenin? What was your favorite subtemple? Would you recommend Daitokuji Temple to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting this temple interest you? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!

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