Japan Catch-Up: Tofuku-Ji Temple and Shugakuin Rikyu

Well I think it’s fair to say that I’m a little behind in my blog posts. I’ve been in the US working at Longwood Gardens for almost 2 months now and I realise I’m yet to write a blog about my experience here.

However, before I fill you in on what I’ve been getting up to on this side of the pond I’d like to get you up to speed on my last couple of weeks in Japan. At the close of my last blog I had just spent a week travelling Japan independently and was due to meet Mori-san and Phil at our hotel in Kyoto on Sunday night back in April…

The hotel where Phil, Mori and I stayed that week in Kyoto was interesting to say the least. I had thought that, as in the UK, all public places in Japan would be entirely non-smoking; the Japanese are a very clean and health-conscious people after all. Surprisingly many restaurants and cafés here still permit diners to smoke; so do many hotels, including ours. Our tobacco-infused rooms were just the start of it though. Our rooms were replete with not a kettle but a thermos flask of hot water, and it was the job of the sole member of staff to traipse from room to room every morning to fill each thermos with hot water from a small urn-type device upstairs. Perhaps no one had told him about kettles.

And that’s not all. A sign at reception warned guests that a 10pm curfew would be strictly enforced. Another – most amusing to Phil and I – gave guests the following warning about use of the two communal showers:

‘You cannot take a shower in the morning. Only at night.’

And before 11pm at that.

When we asked Mori-san about the strange set up he told us that we must understand that this is ‘not a normal place’ (we could have told him that). Apparently in the past various small hotels were set up around Kyoto, each accommodating worshippers of a specific temple, shrine or castle in the city. Our hotel originally accommodated worshippers of Nijō-jō Castle and had only very recently opened its doors to tourism. At a very reasonable price I might add, so really I shouldn’t complain. The hotel was also only a stone’s throw from Kyoto Station so very convenient for exploring the city.

The member of staff was very friendly and I even began to enjoy the little morning routine we got into where I tried to explain in a mix of Japanese and English that I was just popping out to get a take-out coffee from Lawson’s (the water in my thermos had grown cold by now) whilst he rattled out a stream of Japanese and tried to take my keys off me for the day. He won of course. So each morning I would then return to the hotel with my hotto kōhī to find the man at the front desk gone and would then have to wander the corridors in search of him to retrieve my room keys. By the time I had done this and regained entry into my room my hotto kōhī was lukewarm at best, so I may as well have just used the water from the thermos. Oh well, we can but try…

Enough about the hotel, it’s time to introduce you to some of Kyoto’s finest gardens.



On Monday morning we visited Tofuku-ji Temple, HQ of the Rinzan sect of Zen Buddhism. Built in the Kamakura era (1185–1333), Tofuku-ji is one of five ‘Kyoto Gozan temples and thus one of Kyoto’s 17 Unesco World Heritage Sites. Interestingly the name is derived from the two main temples in nearby Nara: Todai-ji and Kofuku-ji.

The temple complex is breathtakingly beautiful at this time of year with its covered corridors over a forest of spring green Acers. Even the rain couldn’t spoil the ambience.

Like most large temples in Japan, the Tofuku-ji temple complex also contains many subtemples, and several of these are famed for their beautiful gardens. The first that we visited today was Hojo.

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The gardens surrounding Hojo (the Abbot’s Hall) are by Japanese standards very modern, designed as they were by the landscape sculptor Shigemori Mirei (1896-1975). Comprised of 4 separate but interconnected gardens , ‘The Hasso Garden’ represents the eight aspects of the Buddha’s life. In the South Garden four large rocks symbolise the Elysian Islands, while in the West Garden small, square-trimmed azaleas intersperse with same-size squares of white gravel. In the East Garden stone and gravel are used to represent the Great Bear constellation, while the famous North Garden is a striking chequerboard of moss and stone.

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The next subtemple we visited was Kaisan-do. Just as lovely but with a very different feel, it is almost impossible to find any detailed information about the garden here, so I’ll let the photos do the talking…

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As if the morning’s visit to Tofukuji wasn’t enough that afternoon we had a real treat in store – a visit to Shugakuin Rikyū (Shugakuin Imperial Villa). A visit to the gardens which Emperor Gomizuno constructed in the 17th century and which are now managed by the Imperial Household is something of a privilege , and Mori-san had to reserve our tickets some months in advance. The highlight of the trip for me was the stunning view out over the pond and surrounding paddy fields – a view which is all the more appreciated due to the pine-flanked paths which cleverly conceal the view until one reaches the ultimate vantage point at the top of the gardens. http://sankan.kunaicho.go.jp/english/guide/shugakuin.html

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