Daikaku-ji (大覚寺) is a partially-free temple complex near Kyoto, Japan’s Sagano and Arashiyama districts. In this post, we’ll share photos of the temple, thoughts on our visit, tips & info for visiting, and whether it makes sense to simply experience the free areas or splurge to enter the paid buildings.
In terms of those buildings and the exterior free areas, Daikaku-ji features sprawling public grounds that include a pagoda, other buildings, and a huge pond. Around this pond there are many trees that make Daikaku-ji a popular cherry blossom and fall colors location. Inside, the temple is comprised of several buildings connected by elevated wooden walkways and covered corridors.
You could say Daikaku-ji Temple is off-the-beaten path in Kyoto, which is an odd way of putting it since this temple is in a fairly developed part of the city. Nevertheless, it’s also true. Daikaku-ji draws significantly fewer tourists than most other temples of its stature, and that’s entirely because it’s located outside of the major routes visitors take while visiting Arashiyama.
Some Kyoto planning resources list Daikaku-ji Temple as a good free thing to do, and that’s true to the extent that it does have free areas. However, we won’t bury the lede in the Info & Tips section: not paying to enter after making the effort to go all the way to Daikaku-ji is a huge mistake.
Unless it’s cherry blossom or fall colors season and you have zero interest in temples (in which case, you might consider rethinking a trip to Kyoto), 90% of what makes Daikaku-ji Temple a special place is within the paid area. It’s worth every penny (err…yen) to pay to go inside.
Daikaku-ji Temple was originally built as Emperor Saga’s Imperial Villa (Saga Rikyu-in), and was established on the same site in the early Heian period in the 800s. Emperor Saga liked the calm area, which at the time was a rural area on the outskirts of Kyoto. He had a keen interest in and appreciation for the arts, and sought to reflect that in his imperial villa, or detached palace, as it was known.
Following Emperor Saga’s death in 842, the detached palace was converted into a temple in the late 9th century by his successor. This was done as dedication to the Shingon sect of Buddhism, and its founder Kukai (Kobo Daishi). Known officially as Kyu Saga Gosho Daikaku-ji Monzeki (the Old Saga Imperial Palace Daikaku-ji Temple), this has since been one of the highest ranked Shingon Buddhist temples.
Subsequent emperors have retired to Daikaku-ji Temple, and in the 12th century the prominence of the temple grew as it was used to host peace negotiations after years of civil war. Most of the current buildings at Daikaku-ji Temple are more recent (relatively speaking) additions, dating from the 16th century onward. Many of these were relocated by emperors from other locations around the city, including Kyoto Imperial Palace.
If you look at Daikaku-ji Temple’s official page about its buildings, you can see just how many have been relocated to the premises for ‘special occasions’ and the like over the centuries. It’s fascinating how this has occurred over time, and it’s is evident in the mixture of architectural styles throughout Daikaku-ji.
Info & Tips
Daikaku-ji Temple being off-the-beaten-path is both part of its appeal and a source of frustration. It’s not really convenient to any station, meaning you’ll need to walk about 15-20 minutes from JR Saga-Arashiyama Station (that’s the one those of you using the Japan Rail Pass will want.) or 25 minutes from Keifuku Arashiyama Station.
With that said, the best way to get to Daikaku-ji Temple is the direct bus from Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple, which stops directly in front of each temple. Of course, this assumes that you’re going to Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple in the first place…and you absolutely should. As with all Kyoto transit, 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.
Daikaku-ji Temple is open from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. daily, with the last admission at 4:30 p.m. The entrance fee is 500 yen, or 600 yen for a combined ticket that includes Gio-ji Temple (which is not super high on our list of things to see, but worth it for only 100 yen extra).
We’d recommend allocating more time than normal for Daikaku-ji Temple. We’d go as far as to say double the time you’d take at a normal temple of this size. We spent around 2 hours here inside and out, and that was a satisfying visit. The temple could be “accomplished” in less time–only you know your pace.
The good news on that front is that Daikaku-ji Temple is a logical last stop of the day on a Sagano/Arashiyama itinerary (it will be on our upcoming one), meaning you can just spend whatever spare time you have there at the end of the day without rushing on to the next stop. You can also linger around in the free gardens even after the main temple closes (so go inside first).
There’s a lot of stunning art to see inside Daikaku-ji Temple, placards (in English) to read, and beautiful landscape gardens to stop and savor. You can rent an English audio guide if you desire, which does supplement some of the information covered on the placards. There’s also a large gift shop and tea shop with inexpensive refreshments.
Daikaku-ji Temple is arguably a good rainy-day temple because you can wander its halls for a couple of hours without ever exiting these walkways!
Of course, avoiding the rain while getting there might negate that, since the temple is sort of in the middle of nowhere relative to public transit. Nevertheless, you can get good photos and have a pleasant temple experience here even in the rain.
Our Experience & Review
We were late to the party with Daikaku-ji Temple, with this being the last of the top-tier temples in Kyoto that we visited. It had been on our radar for a while, and every time we got off at the Saga-Arashiyama JR Station, we saw the signs and said, “we really should go there soon…maybe later today if we have time?”
Finally, after purchasing a combined ticket with Gio-ji Temple, we forced ourselves to make time. We are certainly glad that we did, as Daikaku-ji Temple now ranks as one of our favorite temples in Kyoto. In fact, its strengths have caused us to reshuffle our Top 10 Things to Do in Kyoto, Japan post, giving it a well-deserved spot on that list.
The biggest reason we appreciated Daikaku-ji Temple was because of its artistic diversity. As noted, this was built and acquired over time, and there are differences in architectural styles throughout the temple, both subtle and pronounced.
On top of that, there is an eclectic collection of beautiful fusuma art, some of it quite stunning. (Our favorites were of seemingly-rabid rabbits…which are decidedly not stunning, but are amusing for their own reasons.)
We loved taking our time walking through the building, not having to fight a sea of tourists wielding iPads trying to take photos on the ledge of the gardens, and just generally being able to have a contemplative experience at a temple. Strolling the free grounds outside was equally lovely, although we suspect that’ll change in a next week when we make a return visit during cherry blossom season.
Overall, Daikaku-ji Temple is an excellent option if you want to beat the crowds but not by visiting a less important or beautiful temple. This is one of Kyoto’s highlights, and although it’s not surprising that it draws proportionately few tourists than the ‘main’ temples, it is a bit unfortunate that so few visitors to Kyoto take the time to see it (outside of cherry blossom season). The cost in time is high if you’re coming from another part of the city, but if you dedicate a day to Arashiyama, it’s relatively easy to include in your itinerary!
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.
Have you visited Daikaku-ji Temple? Do you think it lives up to the hype we’re building for it? Would you recommend it to a first-timer visiting Japan? Even if you haven’t visited, what’s your impression from the photos and thoughts we’ve shared here? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Questions? 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!