An independent Buddhist temple of the Rinzai Zen school, Daitoku-ji is a walled temple complex in northern Kyoto. Founded in 1315, the majority of the buildings were destroyed during the Onin War then rebuilt under the care of the new head priest, Ikkyū, a famous Zen monk and poet. Later in its history the temple was associated with the famous tea master Sen no Rikyū, who developed what we now consider to be tea ceremony. Comprised of main temple buildings and twenty two sub-temples, each in its own walled structure, Daitoku-ji is a sprawling complex that is pleasant to walk through and explore. Most of the sub-temples are closed to the public, operating largely as cemeteries, but a few notable ones, (Daisen-in, Zuihō-in, Ryōgen-in, Kōtō-in, etc.) are open year-round. Within Daitoku-ji there are a variety of Zen gardens, art pieces, and relics, making for an interesting trip for those interested in this particular branch of Buddhism. The large vermilion gate belonging to the main temple is a grand sight, and the Buddha Hall is open to visitors to take a peek inside. An interesting point some overlook is the bamboo lined walkway leading to one of the side entrances to the complex, where the walls are embedded with interesting surprises.
Within Daitoku-ji there are a variety of Zen gardens, art pieces, and relics, making for an interesting trip for those interested in this particular branch of Buddhism.
Laid out in the traditional Zen temple format, Daitoku-ji possesses a notable Sanmon Gate, Dharma Hall, and Abbot’s Residence; though they are not usually open to the public. The Butsu-den (Buddha Hall), however, can be entered by visitors, and is a large, open hall in classic wood and plaster-white tones focused around a large golden statue of the Buddha. Though the other buildings cannot be entered, the Sanmon still makes an impressive site from the outside, and walking through the winding paths between walled sub-temples, arching pine trees, and the bamboo forests of Daitoku-ji is a pleasant activity in itself.
A sub-temple particularly famous for its fall colors, Kōtō-in is located on the western side of Daitoku-ji and is accessed
through a long stone path leading to the entrance. The garden filled with maples is split into two portions, one best viewed from the interior and one with a path for strolling through with a lovely old-fashioned well and small cemetery.
The cemetery contains a Kasuga Lantern dedicated to the passing of samurai lord Hosokawa Tadaoki and his Christian wife Gracia, who committed suicide by proxy to avoid being used as a political prisoner against her husband, as well as graves said to belong to Izumo no Okuni, the founder of the theater art kabuki, and her lover, samurai Nagoya Sansaburō.
With a name like "The Academy of the Great Immortals”, it’s not hard to imagine that Daisen-in is actually one of the five most important sub-temples in Daitoku-ji. Founded by the priest Kogaku Sōkō and built in the early 1500’s, Daisen-in is most famous for its main hall, a National Treasure which has stood for over 500 years without being replaced, as well as its Zen garden that is designed to appear as a Song Dynasty landscape painting, with mountain waterfalls leading in a river in which a boat and turtle appear, all of which is said to be a metaphor for the flow of life. Those interested can also partake in a cup of green tea and a Japanese sweet at this temple. It must be noted that photographs are not allowed.
Located near the Sanmon Gate of the main temple, this small sub-temple is famous for its Zen gardens, boasting five different gardens surrounding the abbot’s quarters of the complex. Tōtekiko Garden, rather recently designed in 1960, is said to be the smallest Zen Garden in Japan. Two other karesansui “dry” gardens, composed of raked gravel and carefully placed stone, are named Isshi-dan and Koda-tei, and the moss garden Ryōgin-tei has been attributed to the 16th century artist Sōami. Ryōgen-in is also home to a lovely ink painting of a dragon in the abbot’s quarters and a screen featuring a kitsune fox spirit in the garb of a monk.
Founded in 1535 as a family temple, this sub-temple was built after the Ōnin War and therefore maintains many original structures. What Zuihō-in is most famous for though is that its founder, Ōtomo, was a Christian convert who went by the name Francisco, though the religion was banned in Japan shortly after his conversion and no teaching occurred at the sub-temple itself. The small temple also has a dry landscape garden designed by famous modern garden architect Shigemori Mirei, as well as a garden called the Garden of the Cross, with a stone lantern housing the Virgin Mary hidden beneath it.
What we know now as Daitoku-ji was originally a small monastery founded in 1315 by a monk named Shūhō Myōchō, who received the title of Daitō Kokushi ("National Teacher of the Great Lamp") from Emperor Go-Daigo (r. 1318 –1339). Its founding date is sometimes considered to be 1326, however, when by request of the retired Emperor Hanazono it was converted into a supplication hall for use by the imperial court and received a proper dharma hall and abbot’s quarters. Daitoku-ji was ranked among the top five “mountains”, major temples in the Zen Buddhist temple hierarchy, but during the rise of the Ashikaga Shogunate Daitoku-ji chose to withdraw itself from that system.
Though the majority of the buildings were destroyed during the Ōnin War, it was rebuilt under the care of the new head priest, Ikkyū, a famous Zen monk and poet, with tremendous support drummed up from merchants in the port city of Sakai, in current Osaka Prefecture. Daitoku-ji also benefitted from the patronage of the second Great Unifier of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The warlord selected Daitoku-ji in 1582 as the burial place for his assassinated former lord, Oda Nobunaga, and donated substantial amounts of land to the temple. Partly through the connection with Hideyoshi, later in its history Daitoku-ji was associated with the famous tea master Sen no Rikyū, who developed what we consider now to be tea ceremony, as well as Kobori Enshū, another tea ceremony master and garden designer. Through these connections Daitoku-ji gained a reputation as a center of cultural study.
A famous incident occurred in 1590, when Sen no Rikyū renovated the large Sanmon Gate of the temple. It is said that Sen no Rikyū installed a statue of himself in the second story of the gate, and this prideful act of building a structure wherein the leader of the country would have to pass beneath the statue of a “lesser” man angered Toyotomi Hideyoshi so greatly that he ordered the tea ceremony master to commit suicide. Sen no Rikyū followed through with this command in 1591 at the age of 70 and was interred in a Daitoku-ji sub-temple.
As Zen Buddhism became the sect of choice for the rising warrior class, Daitoku-ji’s fortunes rose along with it. Wealthy samurai and lords would commission sub-temples or sponsor expensive plots for their own inevitable deaths, and the majority of sub-temples in Daitoku-ji are private cemetery temples to this day.
- General admission - Free
- Kōtō-in Sub-Temple - ¥400
- (Junior High: ¥300, Children: ¥200)
- Daisen-in Sub-Temple - ¥400
- (Junior High & Elementary: ¥270)
- Ryōgen-in Sub-Temple - ¥350
- (High School: ¥250, Junior High & Elementary: ¥200)
- Zuihō-in Sub-Temple - ¥400
- (Junior High & Elementary: ¥300)
- General Admission: 9:00 to 16:00 (some sub-temples open until 16:30 or 17:00)
- Closed: No closing days