Daigoji Temple (醍醐寺) is one of Japan’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and is a complex sprawling an entire mountain southeast of Kyoto. In this review, we’ll share info and our thoughts on visiting, including whether it’s worth the time and money.
The question of time and money when it comes to Daigoji Temple is an important one. Location-wise, it’s about halfway between central Kyoto and Uji, which means you’re looking at a half-day or longer trip just to visit Daigoji Temple. Accordingly, it’s important to have other convenient stops in the area that interest you if you’re looking to incorporate this into your Kyoto itinerary.
Money-wise, a visit to Daigoji Temple is not cheap. During the off-season, admission to the lower grounds is 800 yen, which is pricier than normal, but not terrible. However, from March 20 to May 15 and from October 15 to December 10, admission to Daigoji’s lower grounds is 1,500 yen. If you want to visit the upper grounds, that’s another 500 yen. So…is Daigoji Temple worth the time commitment and up to $20 per person? Let’s take a look…
We’ll start with some background. Daigoji Temple is part of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism and is considered an important temple. Located on Daigo-san Mountain and well-known as the “Temple of Flowers, Daigoji had humble beginnings dating to the year 874.
At that time, Buddhist monk Shobo built a hermitage on the top of the mountain where he discovered a well of the spiritual water and found inspiration from a local god called Yokoo Daimyojin.
From that time until 951, construction of the various buildings continued, beginning with the Kamidaigo (upper) and continuing with the Shimodaigo (lower) temple complex. In 951, the five-story pagoda was constructed at the foot of the mountain.
In the ensuing years, Daigoji Temple suffered from several fires, including those caused by the Onin and Bunmei Wars that destroyed much of Kyoto, including most of the Shimodaigo complex. However, a handful of original buildings remain at Daigoji, including the five-storied pagoda, which is now the oldest surviving building in Kyoto.
In the 16th century, other buildings throughout the temple complex were rebuilt, and many of those still date to this timeframe. And, to be frank, they look it.
Obviously, some wear and age is expected in temple buildings of this age, but our view here is that Daigoji Temple is not particularly well-maintained.
Poor maintenance is forgivable at a lot of the ‘hidden gem’ temples we love throughout Kyoto, especially ones that don’t charge admission or see few visitors.
However, Daigoji Temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has a higher normal admission fee and a particularly inflated one during cherry blossom and fall colors seasons. There’s less of an excuse here.
Fortunately, much of Daigoji Temple still looks great. Upon entering the lower grounds, your first stop will be Sanbō-in subtemple, which remains an exemplar of Momoyama architecture.
This was constructed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1598 when he ordered extensive renewal of Daigo-ji in preparation for a grand cherry blossom viewing party.
Take some time to appreciate the detail and depth of the design here.
The paintings on the walls of the inner rooms are also a delight, featuring wild animals, seasonal plants, and scenes of famous festivals, as well as more modern artwork towards the entrance.
Behind Sanbō-in, you’ll discover a gorgeous landscape garden (it’s actually a strolling pond garden, but you cannot walk through it).
Sanbō-in’s garden features numerous small bridges connecting islands with meticulously pruned pines, thoughtfully placed stones, and raked sand. We love to sit here and enjoy the view or, in my case, take a surplus of photos.
Sanbōin subtemple does not suffer from any maintenance issues. This garden is always pristine, and we’ve observed numerous landscapers working in the garden throughout our visits.
It’s almost as if Daigoji Temple allocates the entirety of its budget towards this subtemple and one other building.
Speaking of which, the other highlight and exquisitely-maintained building is Bentendo or Benten Hall, which is easily Daigoji Temple’s most photographed building.
This small, colorful altar dedicated to the goddess Benzaiten is situated on an island surrounded by a picturesque lake and framed by the mountain maple trees and ginkgo.
The view from across the pond with the fall colors reflected in the frame is one of the most famous images of autumn foliage in Japan.
This is the main scene that draws visitors here, causing Daigoji Temple to see a spike in crowds (and prices!) from October through early December.
Also located on the main temple grounds at the base of the mountain is the Kondo Hall or main hall, which was originally built in 926. The current building was relocated to Daigoji in 1599 and stores the temple’s main object of worship, a seated statue of the Yakushi Buddha.
Reihokan Museum is the temple’s treasure house, which preserves and displays the temple’s large art collection, including statues, historic documents, and paintings. The museum’s garden also includes a number of weeping cherry trees that are particularly beautiful during sakura season.
Behind Bentendo Hall is the trailhead to the Kami-Daigo (Upper Daigo), which leads to the summit of the mountain and the temple’s original grounds.
It’s estimated to take about an hour to climb the steep forest trail. Because we’ve planned our visits to Daigoji Temple to coincide with other convenient stops, we’ve yet to do this.
Daigoji Temple is located a 15 minute walk from Daigo Station along the Tozai Subway Line. Daigoji Temple is also accessible from various buses–consult Google Maps for specific recommendations.
From various points in Kyoto, it’s actually not too difficult to access Daigoji Temple thanks to the Tozai Subway Line, which connects to the Keihan Main Line and JR Nara Line at various points.
If you’re thinking about doing Daigoji Temple, we’d recommend looking at incorporating into a southeast Kyoto day trip.
We really like it as part of a ‘Kyoto Southeastern Outskirts Itinerary’ that includes a visit to Uji and Byodoin Temple (pictured above) plus Ujigami Shrine, Daigoji Temple, Bishamondo Temple, and (potentially) a hike to Nanzenji Temple.
Ultimately, Daigoji Temple is expensive, out of the way, and parts of it leave something to be desired on the maintenance front. However, it’s still easier to visit than you might expect if you’re just looking at a map, and the parts that are good are really good. Sanbōin subtemple is worth the price of admission alone, leaving the photos you take of Bentendo Hall as icing on the cake. If you have 5 or more days in Kyoto, Daigoji Temple is a solid option that we’d recommend. If you have 4 days or fewer, you have better options.
If you’re planning a trip to Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend that you start by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit!
Have you visited Daigoji Temple? What did you think of the experience? How would you rate this among Japan’s other UNESCO World Heritage Sites? Would you recommend Daigoji Temple to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Any questions about what we’ve covered here? Does visiting this spot in Kyoto interest you? Hearing about your experiences—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!