Tofukuji Temple is famous for its fall colors, Hojo Garden, and having some of the largest and oldest free grounds in Kyoto, Japan. The most iconic scene at the temple is its valley of autumn foliage under Tsutenkyo Bridge, which draws visitors from around the world.
In this post, we’ll share photos and our experiences at Tofukuji’s free grounds, plus our visits to its two different paid areas. We will cover whether the paid garden and buildings are worth the money, and what you should do to avoid the tour group crowds that visit, which is especially necessary during November’s peak season.
Let’s start with a brief look at Tofukuji Temple’s history, followed by background info & tips for visiting, before concluding with some of our anecdotal experiences (and more recommendations) with the temple…
Tofukuji was built in 1236 at the instruction of Kujo Michiie, a powerful leader during the Kamakura period. The temple dervied its name from a mashup of two great temples in Nara: Todaiji and Kofukuji.
Tofukuji Temple’s original buildings were burned down many times through the 15th century, but were always rebuilt to their original specifications. The current Sanmon gate is a National Treasure, and is the oldest Zen main gate in Japan, dating to 1425.
The Zendo, Tosu, and Yokushitsu are among the temple’s oldest surviving buildings, all dating back to the early Muromachi period (14th century). The Hondo (main hall), Kaisando, and the Hojo are all more recent reconstructions, dating from the 1600 to 1800s.
Historically, Tofukuji Temple was one of the Five Great Temples of Kyoto, and is a head temple of one of the schools of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism.
Info & Tips
In terms of basic info, let’s break this down by area. First, there’s the free outer grounds, which is where you’ll find that treasured Sanmon Gate and the main hall, among several other buildings scattered about. We like this free area in the fall when pockets of color help make it pop, but that’s about it.
While visually imposing, I think the main grounds lack a certain personality. There are these huge, visually imposing structures, and they’re separated by vast expanses of pavement. That this is frequently used by taxis and other vehicles as a road probably doesn’t help my perception of it.
Personally, I would not recommend a visit to Tofukuji Temple for the free areas. It’s totally understandable if you’re on a tight budget and can’t do dozens of paid temples in Kyoto, but the free area of Tofukuji is not what elevates this temple to one of the best in Kyoto–the Hojo Garden and Tsutenkyo Bridge are the stars here. Unless you’re visiting for one (or both) of those, you shouldn’t visit.
The Hojo Garden is exceptional, and as a ‘bang for your buck’ deal it offers tremendous value since you’re getting four gardens for the price of one! (If you needed a way to justify the cost of the paid area over just strolling the free grounds.)
The chamber of the chief priest is surrounded by these gardens, with a distinct garden on each side of the building. These gardens were designed in 1939 by Shigemori Mirei, who created them as abstract concept gardens to express the simplicity of Zen scenes.
The southern garden is composed of four rock-composites symbolizing Elysian islands that are placed on the sand garden-floor, which symbolizes the eight rough seas.
The western garden contrasts the rigidity of its counterpart to the south, with moss and azalea-shrubs providing a softness to the checkered pattern, which mimics a Chinese method of apportioning land.
The northern garden likewise features a checkered design, but on a much smaller scale, as moss and squares form a pattern that’s deceptively beautiful in the foreground of Tofukuji’s famed valley.
Finally, there’s the eastern garden. This features seven cylindrical stones that are arranged in the moss field so as to represent main stars of the Great Bear of Heaven.
To be honest, I didn’t pick up on any of this meaning myself. I mean, I obviously saw the patterns, but I had no clue as to the mythology or evocative references until reading the official materials provided by the temple.
I found the designs thought provoking even before that, as their abstract nature leaves plenty of room for interpretation while their sharp designs are visually arresting.
Then there’s the other paid area, which consists of Tsutenkyo Bridge and the gardens around Kaisando Hall. This is an unequivocal must-do in the fall for the winding path and valley leading up to the bridge that is bursting with color. The rest of the year, I think this area is completely skippable.
In terms of tips, Tofukuji is moderately popular 3 seasons of the year, and insanely busy during the fall. If you’re visiting from mid-November until early December, I’d highly recommend going first thing in the morning or last thing in the afternoon (preferably morning) and avoiding weekends.
We experienced a lot of temples during fall colors season, and Tofukuji is among the busiest of them. It doesn’t help that the paid area of Tsutenkyo Bridge is a linear experience, and the slow shuffle through it can be painful when it’s congested.
Temples like Kiyomizudera and Eikando get busy during autumn, but they are far better equipped to soak up crowds. Tofukuji gets bottlenecked, which makes for a potentially unpleasant experience when its’ really busy…and it’s almost always really busy.
In terms of accessing Tofukuji Temple, it’s a 10 minute walk from Tofukuji Station on the JR Nara Line and the Keihan Main Line, making it easily accessible from Kiyomizudera Temple and Fushimi Inari Shrine. Tofukuji can be easily combined with a visit to nearby Sennyuji Temple and its subtemples, which are within walking distance.
Admission to Tofukuji’s paid areas is 400 yen (per area) while the main grounds of the temple are free to explore. (Ironically, the free area doesn’t get quite as crowded in the fall; it’s better at absorbing crowds thanks to those vast areas of pavement about which we complained!)
We became pretty familiar with Tofukuji Temple when we spent a month in Kyoto’s Fushimi ward. We were one stop away on the JR Line, or less than 20 minutes by foot. As the main grounds of Tofukuji are free and the temple is gorgeous during autumn, we made a point of walking through whenever we were in the area. (Which wasn’t too often, as there’s not much else in this area of standalone appeal.)
Most of the time, we stayed in the free areas of the temple, but one fateful morning I had one of my most eye-opening experiences in Kyoto, which I wrote about in my Fall Colors at Tofukuji Temple post. In a nutshell, I made the mistake of going to Tsutenkyo Bridge on Labor Thanksgiving Day, thinking I could “beat” the crowds if I went early in the morning.
Suffice to say, that did not happen (not even remotely so) and while the valley of maples was absolutely breathtaking, the experience itself left something to be deserved. I meant to return during the following week to see it sans crowds, but then it rained a couple days and we had other things to do, so it never happened.
Speaking of rain, one of my favorite rainy day places in Kyoto is actually Tofukuji Temple. Not the main grounds or the exposed parts, but the Hojo Gardens. Since these are all covered, you’re sheltered from the weather, and the soothing noise from the rain actually adds to the relaxing ambiance of the gardens–and the rain keeps the crowds away. We’ve done it a couple of times, and it’s great.
Really, though, anytime the Hojo Gardens are a great place to visit. These are my top-ranked garden(s) in Kyoto, both in terms of their design and their atmosphere. On the occasions we’ve visited, we’ve also yet to encounter large crowds, which also sways my favorable opinion.
In summary, visit Tofukuji Temple for Hojo Gardens and check out the free areas while you’re there, but don’t have those be the reason for your visit. If you’re there in mid-November to early December, be sure to go very early in the morning and also enter the paid area encompassing Tsutenkyo Bridge. At a total cost of 800 yen for both paid areas, this might seem steep (especially for a temple with a free main area), but it’s completely worth it.
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 Tofukuji Temple? What did you think of the experience? Did you go into either or both of the paid areas? Would you recommend it to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting this temple in Kyoto 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!