Kodaiji (高台寺) is a temple in Kyoto’s Higashiyama District, located between Maruyama Park and Kiyomizudera. Kodai-ji Temple is famous for its nighttime illuminations, which occur for extended periods in the spring and fall. In this post, we’ll share photos of the temple, thoughts on our experiences there, and tips & info for visiting Kodaiji Temple.
Kodai-ji Temple’s construction was financed by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa Shogun of Japan, also known as the “John Hammond of Japan” because he spared no expense in funding a temple of magnificent appearance and exquisite craftsmanship. Although it’s a somewhat smaller temple, it packs a ton of punch with lavish details, clever design choices, and an excellent layout.
The gardens at Kodaiji are the work of notable Japanese artist and aristocrat Enshu Kobori, and the teahouses were designed by the legendary Sen-no-Rikyu. For us, this is a huge part of the appeal of Kodai-ji Temple today, and is self-evident in the temple’s unique designs. Kodai-ji Temple doesn’t just feel like a “greatest hits” reel of Zen temple buildings–it actively pushes the envelope and features some design exemplars.
Now let’s take a look at the history of Kodai-ji Temple…
Kodai-ji Temple was established in 1606 by Kita-no-Mandokoro in memory of her late husband Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Kita-no-Mandokoro (also known as “Nene”) was awarded the highest rank of nobility by Emporer Goyozei in 1588, and later became a priestess and assumed the name of Kodaiin Kogetsuni. The temple derives its name from her.
In July 1624, Sanko Osho, the Abbot Kenninji Temple, was welcomed as the principal monk and founding priest, and the temple was then named Kodai-ji Temple. (Technically, Kodai-ji is viewed as a subtemple of Kennin-ji Temple. Unlike other subtemples, the two don’t share grounds–I didn’t even know this fact until reading the temple’s pamphlet.)
Kodai-ji Temple was ravaged by a series of fires beginning in 1789, and the only surviving original buildings are the Otama-ya, Kaisan-do, Kangetsu-dai, Kasa-tei, and Shigure-tei.
The buildings of Kodai-ji Temple have been excellently preserved, and the original buildings have all been designated as Important Cultural Properties by Japan.
Info & Tips
Kodai-ji Temple is a 20 minute walk from the nearest train station, or a 5 minute walk from Higashiyama Yasui bus stop, which is accessible from Kyoto Station via bus 205 or 206. 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.
In reality, 95% of you will not arrive to Kodai-ji Temple via bus, train, or subway. You’ll walk there from Maruyama Park or Kiyomizudera (or maybe Kennin-ji Temple). On any normal north-south walking tour of Higashiyama, you will walk right past Kodai-ji Temple. Despite this convenient location, Kodai-ji Temple tends to draw only moderate crowds during its daytime operating hours.
Like many temples in Kyoto, Kodai-ji Temple offers nighttime illuminations on select calendar dates. Unlike those other temples, these dates encompass several months of the calendar, rather than several weeks.
The spring illumination occurs mid-March to early May; the summer illumination takes place August 1 to August 18; and, the fall illumination occurs late October to early December.
This is notable because it includes the most popular travel periods during sakura and fall colors seasons, but also during the shoulder seasons before and after those peak times. If you travel during one of our recommended times to visit Kyoto, you’re going to be in town during one of Kodai-ji’s illuminations.
While we should probably do a separate post exclusively about the nighttime openings, but suffice to say, we’d strongly recommend visiting at night if that’s an option.
Normal admission to Kodai-ji Temple costs 600 yen, and the temple is open from 9:00 a.m. until 5:30 p.m., with the last entry at 5:00 p.m.
Nighttime illuminations cost the same, and occurs from just after sunset until 9:30 p.m. (which is the last entry–you can still inside until 10 p.m.).
Our Experience & Review
Our visits to Kodai-ji Temple thus far have been during nighttime illuminations. However, the aspects of the temple–its unique and almost whimsical architecture and design, and hillside layout–are not unique to the evening.
While the artificial lighting definitely accentuates some design details, so too would sunlight. And of course, the interiors are the same either way. These feature rich decor and the special “Kodai-ji Makie” lacquerwork, which features designs of powdered gold and silver set in lacquer.
When it comes to the duration of the nighttime illuminations, one thing to note is that Kodai-ji Temple doesn’t have magical trees that miraculously maintain their leaves and blossoms longer than all others in Kyoto.
Rather, it has a diverse illumination that includes a bamboo grove and projection mapping show, lit-up buildings, and lights on trees that aren’t seasonal at all.
Truth to be, Kodai-ji Temple probably could do its evening illuminations year-round without missing a beat. It’s definitely better to go during peak season as there are fall colors and cherry blossoms, but don’t fret if you have to miss the peaks.
One year, we attended nighttime illuminations that were 21 days apart. The second time was the last day of the fall illumination in December and some trees were bare, but the overall experience was still enjoyable.
This is a large part of why we consider Kodai-ji Temple to be the #1 nighttime illuminations spot in Kyoto. It has a range of offerings you won’t find at other temples, and while the natural beauty isn’t quite up there with other spots, the temple’s diversity and lower crowd levels helps make up for this.
Overall, Kodaiji Temple is a strong temple in Eastern Kyoto, and an easy and worthwhile inclusion on our 1-Day Eastern Kyoto Itinerary. Its artistry is wonderful, and the unique style leaves a lasting impression. We’d prioritize it ahead of the nearby Shoren-in Temple, as well as Chion-in Temple during its ongoing construction (although the latter is free, so perhaps not the best comparison). It’d definitely crack our top 25 things to do in Kyoto, too.
If you’re planning a trip to Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend starting 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 Kodai-ji Temple? What did you think of it? Do you agree or disagree with my take on the temple? Have you done the nighttime illuminations at Kodai-ji? Would you recommend this temple to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting Kodai-ji 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!