Tofukuji Temple is one of Kyoto’s oldest and most famous temples. It’s also one of Japan’s most popular autumn viewing destinations.
For once, I was lucky. I accidentally visited right as November started, just before the season began. The leaves were changing colour and I could enjoy them without battling through the crowds that descend later in the month.
Tofukuji Temple was founded in 1236. It was built as a rival to the great temples in Nara. The temple complex is huge, and it matches its Nara counterparts in beauty and craftsmanship.
Like many famous places in Japan, Tofukuji Temple was ravaged by fire. The temple was destroyed in 1319, 1334, 1336, and also in the 15th and 19th centuries. It’s slightly ironic then that Tofukuji Temple is famous for its spectacular Zen gardens, places of peace and meditation.
Tofukuji Temple is also well-known for the ravine running through its centre. The wooden bridges named Tsutenkyo and Gaunkyo cross the ravine. Tsutenkyo can be translated as “bridge crossing heaven”.
It’s not hard to see why Tsutenkyo got this name. After all, the bridges are the best spot to appreciate the autumn colours of the maple trees, an activity called momijigari. The maple trees stretch out like a jungle canopy, only they are a sea of red and orange. It’s a spectacular sight.
Walking through the maples is as relaxing as you’d expect. Green moss carpets the ground, a contrast to the fiery leaves falling from the trees. A stream flows through the ravine, its trickle a calming soundtrack. You forget you’re in the centre of a bustling Japanese city.
My timing was even luckier than I first realised. After my visit, Tofukuji Temple banned photography in certain parts of its gardens. Officially, this was for “safety reasons”. I suspect it’s really because it’s not very Zen dodging selfie-sticks on every damn corner.
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