Toji Temple (東寺, Tōji) is one of Japan’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and is conveniently located a short walk from Kyoto Station. It’s famous for having the tallest pagoda in Japan, and that’s why most visitors are drawn to Toji. In this review, we’ll share info and our thoughts on visiting, including whether it’s worth the time and money.
Toji Temple is considered Kyoto’s “East Temple” and was founded in 796, at the outset of the Heian Period just two years after Kyoto became Japan’s capital. Together with the now defunct Saiji Temple (“West Temple”), it formed Kyoto’s “Guardian Temples” that marked the south entrance to the city.
Perhaps most notably, it was known as Kyō-ō-gokoku-ji (教王護国寺), or The Temple for the Defense of the Nation by Means of the King of Doctrines), which indicates that it provided defense for the city. These sister East and West Temples also stood alongside Kyoto’s Rashomon gate, the ruins of which are famously the setting for Akira Kurosawa’s influential film by the same name, which ranks among the greatest films of all-time, and is a must-see before you visit Japan…
There’s an ebb and flow to Toji Temple’s history, with its significance in Kyoto rising and falling over time. The temple began its first decline towards the end of Heian period, but had its prominence restored with the rise of Kōbō Daishi, who was appointed head priest of Toji Temple.
During that time, Toji Temple became one of the most important Shingon temples. Kōbō Daishi is also responsible for the temple’s (literal) growth, as many buildings were constructed while he was head priest.
These include Toji’s five-story pagoda, which was originally erected in 826. This pagoda is the tallest pagoda in all of Japan, and is Toji Temple’s iconic draw. It can be seen throughout Kyoto, and is one of the symbols of the city.
It’s this pagoda this also beacons tourists to Toji Temple, making it one of Kyoto’s more popular points of interest.
In addition to the pagoda, Toji Temple has a number of other structures, including Kondo Hall, which is the temple’s main hall and largest building. After being destroyed by fire, this hall was reconstructed in the Edo Period with a then-contemporary architecture style.
Kondo Hall houses Toji’s main object of worship, which is a large wooden statue of Yakushi Buddha, who is flanked by his two attendants, the Nikko and Gakko Bodhisattvas.
Another Kobo Daishi addition is Kodo Hall, which served as the temple’s lecture hall. Also destroyed by fire, this was rebuilt in its original architectural style.
Today, Kodo Hall houses 19 statues imported from China with Dainichi Buddha (Vairocana) at the center, surrounded by buddhas, bodhisattvas, and the fearful and guardian kings.
Also outside these areas, you’ll find Miedo Hall (Founder’s Hall) with a statue of Kobo Daishi. In this area, you can also visit Homotsukan Museum, which displays several large Buddhist statues and other important artifacts. It’s essentially an extension of Toji Temple, but its hours are limited.
Now comes the question of whether Toji Temple is worth your time. Given that it’s only a 15 minute walk from Kyoto Station (a place you’ll undoubtedly find yourself while visiting), I’d say yes. Seeing the pagoda up close is a must-do.
Whether it’s worth the money is not as simple. In essence, Kobo Hall and Kondo Hall are what you’re paying ~$5 to access, as the pagoda is perfectly visible from outside the paid areas.
I know, it might seem silly to make the effort to visit a temple without actually going inside, but that pagoda is the main draw, and (most of the time) you can’t go inside it anyway. Plus, there are a ton of temples to see in Kyoto, and with an “meh, it’s only $5” attitude, your expenses will quickly snowball.
While it’s not when we visited, I’d be inclined to say it’s definitely worth the money during cherry blossom season, particularly for a nighttime illumination. This blog post features photos of it at night, and it looks gorgeous. (Note that the nighttime illumination at Toji Temple is separately ticketed, so if you visit during the day, you’ll have to pay again to enter at night.)
Any other time of the year, it really comes down to if you want a ‘Buddha statue fix.’ We’ve seen much of the same types of thing in other temples, and on a much grander scale. As such, we were not particularly impressed by our experience with Toji Temple. If we had the chance to do it all over again, we would not have paid to visit during a non-cherry blossom season time of year. Your assessment of whether it’s worth the money will likely hinge upon whether the interiors of these two halls are unique to your itinerary. Even with these interiors, there’s not a ton of substance to Toji Temple, and it requires a relatively short time commitment.
If you’re planning a visit to Kyoto, Japan, please check out my other posts about Kyoto for ideas of things to do (or not do) while there. Kyoto has a lot of things to see and do, so I also highly recommend the Lonely Planet Kyoto Guide to help better develop an efficient plan while there.
Have you visited Toji Temple in Kyoto? Did you think it was worth the cost of admission, or would you just admire the pagoda from the free areas of the grounds if you had it to do over again? Have you seen the temple during cherry blossom season? Any insight into this temple or tips for visiting beyond what we’ve shared here? Do you agree with my assessment, or do you have a different take on Toji Temple? Any questions? Share any other questions or thoughts you have in the comments!