Tofukuji Temple is one of Kyoto’s most magnificent jewels and is one of the city’s 17 UNESCO-designated World Heritage sites.

Located on the western slopes of Mount Enichi, the southernmost peak of the Higashiyama range, the temple is the headquarters of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. One of Japan’s two major Zen sects — the other being the Soto sect — it was brought to these shores by a monk called Dosho (629-700) from China.

Tofukuji Temple itself was founded in 1236 during the Kamakura Period (1192-1333) by the monk Enni Bennen (1202-80), whose posthumous title is Shoichi Kokushi. Built to rival Todaji and Kofukuji, two great temples in Nara, its name is derived from the to of Todaji and Kofukuji’s fukuji.

Tofukuji is home to numerous historic buildings and valuable treasures, even though many of the original buildings were burned down during the period of civil strife and great families’ conflicts over succession known as the Onin Wars (1467-77). Although the temple’s colossal Sanmon Gate dates back to 1273 and is now a designated national treasure, it too was burned to the ground three times between 1319 and 1336.

Aside from the wonders of its buildings and the treasures they house, Tofukuji is also well known for its colorful display of Japanese maples in mid-November. Indeed, autumn there is very beautiful, but it is also a season when the whole complex is crowded with visitors.

I prefer to visit during the off season. Even on sunny days in January or February you can virtually have the place to yourself. While strolling through the gardens, though, remember to view them in context with the whole temple, as Zen and Japanese gardens go hand in hand — and especially the karesansui (dry-landscape gardens) whose stones and rocks symbolize distant places in Buddhist mythology.

Meanwhile, the steep-sided valley running through the temple complex is spanned by three delightful wooden-roofed bridges. The earliest of these is the Gekka bridge, which was donated by Emperor Kameyama (1249-1305) and is located just outside the main complex. Tsuten-kyo, located within the temple grounds, connects the main complex to the Fumon-in Garden. This bridge was first built in 1380 and stood intact until 1959 when it was destroyed in a typhoon. The present bridge was rebuilt the following year. While the support beams are, unfortunately, made of reinforced concrete, one small section of the destroyed bridge was salvaged and skillfully positioned next to the moss garden north of the abbot’s quarters.

My favorite of the three bridges is Engetsu-kyo. Built in 1603, this is the smallest of the three. Last year it underwent major restoration.

Tofukuji is home to three separate gardens: the Abbot’s Garden, Fumo-in Garden and Ryo-gin-an Garden. The first of these surrounds the hojo (abbot’s quarters) and is divided into four small gardens. In 1888, a fire destroyed the hojo and it was rebuilt in the original shoin architectural style of the Kamakura Period.

In 1938, Mirei Shigemori was commissioned to restore the gardens around the hojo. Born in Okayama, Shigemori was one of Japan’s foremost garden designers and he chose to re-create the spirit of the Kamakura Period together with a combination of modern artistic flair. This is what makes these gardens different from others in Kyoto.

To the south side of the hojo there is a rectangular dry-landscape garden that runs from east to west and is composed of large rocks symbolizing Horaijima (the mythical island where immortals live) with, at its far end, five moss-covered mounds representing five mythical islands in Indian mythology. The carefully raked white gravel separating the rocks and the mounds, meanwhile, represents the mythical “seven oceans.”

The eastern garden to the left of the corridor is composed of moss, raked gravel and seven round granite stone pillars. Here, however, the gravel represents clouds, while the granite pillars — originally used as foundation stones — represent the Great Dipper constellation.

In contrast, the western garden is a modern combination of dry landscape and moss. Here, satsuki-tsutsuji (Satsuki azalea; Rhododendron indicum) are laid out in a checkerboard pattern in imitation of seiden ichi-matsu, which derives from the old Chinese way of dividing land.

On the north side of the hojo, there is a pleasant, modern-style moss garden, which has square stones embedded in the ground at irregular intervals. While there, look out for the beautiful nana-me-no-ki (Ilex chinensis), a smooth-barked holly tree of Chinese origin whose colloquial Japanese name derives from its gorgeous red berries. Nana-me-no-ki is an evergreen and grown in the warm temperate parts of Japan.

Fumo-in is a Zen garden in Kaisan-do, one of Tofukuji’s 25 subtemples, and dates back to the early Edo Period (1603-1867). Access to this garden is by crossing Tsuten-kyo bridge. The dry-landscape garden here is composed of gravel raked into perfect squares. At one end of the gravel garden there is a small “island” with rocks representing a turtle and a crane — both symbols of longevity.

In total contrast to the checkered gravel, there is an artificial hill garden (tsukiyama) with azaleas clipped into round shapes, a dry waterfall and a pond with a turtle island. This garden was designed by the famous landscape painter and monk Sesshu (1420-1506).

Ryo-gin-an Garden is a very secluded garden in Tofukuji. Located on the far side of Engetsu-kyo bridge, it is only open for three days every year, on March 13, 14 and 15.

In 1964, Shigemori designed the gardens that surround the monastery in Momoyama style. Ryo-gin Garden literally translates as “dragon garden,” and the large rocks in the center symbolize a dragon, with the dark gravel being its body and the white gravel the sea.

As well, there are two interesting bamboo fences in Ryo-gin Garden. One has “bolts of lightning” made from bamboo on the surface of the fence, contrasted with the raked gravel this creates a very unusual effect.

When you do schedule a trip to Tofukuji, be sure to allow plenty of time to enjoy not only the magnificent buildings, but also the wonderful gardens.

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