Kodaiji Temple Info: Kyoto, Japan Tips

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…

History

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! 

Your Thoughts

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!

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12 replies
  1. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    Thanks! (It wouldn’t let me reply again to the last thread). My main question is about Disney. My friend and I are doing Disney at the end of our trip, transiting in from Tokyo (Ikebukuro) on Sunday 4/22 and flying out of Haneda on 4/26. We’re definitely at least getting a 3-day pass for 4/23-25 (sea, land, and probably sea in that order). However, I was wondering if it was worth going to the parks (probably Disneyland) on Sunday 4/22? We definitely wouldn’t be there at opening. I discovered that it’s cheaper to buy a 4-day pass than a 3-day plus a starlight passport, which is why we’d want to know ahead of time. I would like an extra day so that we don’t feel rushed on the one day we spend in Disneyland (my friend is ambivalent), but I know weekend crowds are insane so I’m not sure if it’s worth it? This will be our third time in/around Tokyo so we have nothing pressing to do on that day otherwise. We’re also considering doing Hitachi Seaside Park that day (which I don’t believe you’ve been to) but that involves a lot of time on trains. We could do a 4th day on 4/26 as our flight isn’t until 7pm, but I’d rather take it easy that day and maybe wander around Ikspiari and eat at Tick Tock Diner (per your review).

    Speaking of Disney tickets, can we buy 3 and 4 day passes at Disney stores that sell tickets? We might not decide until we get to Japan. I was going to buy at our hotel (Sheraton Grande) but their website only lists 1 and 2 day tickets. We could buy the 3 day passes and just spend the extra money to buy the starlight passport day of if we change our minds, but if it seems like it’d be worthwhile I’d rather buy the 4-day pass to save money and have extra time in the park.

    Otherwise we’re still fine-tuning our Kansai itinerary. We haven’t been to Himeji before, but we’ve wanted to ever since our first Japan trip in 2013 (when it was under scaffolding). Will we have enough time to do Himeji, its gardens, and Mt Shosha in one day without rushing the castle?

    We’re also leaning towards doing Hikone for the illuminations, and probably also for some daytime sightseeing. We’ll have a JR pass so train money isn’t an issue. We were thinking of doing Okayama that morning but that seemed too crazy so now we’ll just be doing some late-blooming sakura sightseeing probably before heading to Hikone. I know you only went for illuminations, but did you have any tips on Hikone?

    Finally: Chureito pagoda. Between the shibazakura festival and the lake kawaguchi sakura festival this might get cut from our itinerary (we’re doing 2 nights in Kawaguchiko after Kansai). Worth keeping in? It seems to be free/always open so that makes it a bit easier.

    Thank you for all your help, and sorry about the essay. I tend to overthink everything. Based on your other advice and posts we’re definitely planning to do an evening stop at Fushimi Inari, and will be sure to ride Sinbad’s Voyage at Disney Sea!

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      However, I was wondering if it was worth going to the parks (probably Disneyland) on Sunday 4/22?

      I think so–the added cost isn’t too bad, and Sunday evenings tend to be pleasant as Japanese tourists head home in the afternoon.

      As for the question about tickets, just buy them at the ticket booth. No reason not to with your dates.

      Will we have enough time to do Himeji, its gardens, and Mt Shosha in one day without rushing the castle?

      So long as you head up to Mt. Shosha before noon, definitely. Stick around for the cherry blossom parties on the lawn at Himeji.

      I know you only went for illuminations, but did you have any tips on Hikone?

      Beyond the castle and its garden, Hikone is not much of a destination. Have you done Kobe? I’d recommend that as an alternative day trip, and also one that’s very different from the rest of your itinerary.

      Finally: Chureito pagoda…Worth keeping in?

      I would do make every effort to keep it in. Should look beautiful with the cherry blossoms, too.

      Reply
      • Michelle
        Michelle says:

        Thank you so much! I’ll lean towards doing Disney that day then. Sadly I think we’ll miss the hanami at Himeji, but I’m glad to hear that our itinerary should be doable!

        We’re actually based in Kobe for the Kansai part of our trip, staying right at the shinkansen station to facilitate daytrips, so we’re definitely going to spend a day exploring it. And I’ll do my best to keep Chureito pagoda in the trip unless it rains. Thanks again!!

        Reply
  2. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    Ah, I was so excited to see this review! I’ll be in Japan in mid-April, spending a few days of that in Kansai, and had been looking into this temple as an illuminations spot. Would you say it’d be relatively easy/straightforward to bus there to/from Kyoto Station after dark for the illuminations? We’re probably going to do either this one or the one at Nijo Castle. Thank you for all the helpful info and photos! Those lovely shots of the bamboo grove definitely moved this one higher up my list.

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      You should definitely do this over Nijo. It’s also right next to Maruyama Park, which is the top spot for nighttime cherry blossom viewing, as well as Kiyomizudera.

      All are easy to access from Kyoto Station. Buses will have the temple names in English.

      Reply
      • Michelle
        Michelle says:

        That’s good to know about the buses having the temple names in English! I’d seen that the touristy buses stopped running around 5 and was worried that the remaining buses would be commuter ones aimed at locals. We’ll definitely try to do Kodaiji then. Hopefully we can combo it with Maruyama Park, but every site I’ve seen lists those illuminations as ending in “mid-April” which isn’t super helpful when the nights I’m looking at are April 14-15 which is the definition of mid-April.

        Would it be okay if I asked you some other questions (here or elsewhere) about Japan and Tokyo Disney? We have our plan mostly set but I’m trying to work out the details and you have more experience with some of the places we’re going. I understand if not, I know you guys are busy enjoying your time in Japan. Thanks again for your advice!

        Reply
  3. Donald
    Donald says:

    Visited this temple but during the day (was horrible at making it to any evening illuminations besides Kiyomizu-dera). Your nighttime shots are stunning!

    Reply
  4. Comfort
    Comfort says:

    Thanks for the review. I know personally, I would love a four day itinerary of Kyoto. But all this information is very helpful.

    Reply

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