Saturday, October 13, 2012

Tofuku-ji, Kyoto

As you approach Tofuku-ji temple, the Tsuten-kyō bridge is the first structure you see (image above left). Walking on it reminded me one of those forest canopy walks, except that the walkway is done in medieval Japanese style (images above).
Tofuku-ji is the main temple of the Rinzai sect and it has some impressive buildings. On entering the gate (image below center) you see the Main Hall or Hon-dō (image below left). It’s quite imposing, but elegant too.

Another imposing structure is Tōfuku-ji's main gate, the oldest of its kind in Japan (images below). There is a very old juniper between the Main Hall and the main gate (image below right). I wish I could read the explanation plate about this tree, unfortunately it was only in Japanese (for a story about junipers at Kencho-ji temple in Kamakura see my blog entry at

Other buildings I saw included priests’ living quarters or Kuri (image below right) and the Abbot’s Hall or Hōjō (image below left).

The original Hōjō building dates back to the 13th century, while its current version was built in 1890. However, the main attraction here is not the old building, but its four gardens designed by a scholar and garden designer Shigemori Mirei in 1939. At that time these gardens were perceived as a radical deviation from the tradition. The Southern Garden (images below) is the largest of the four. Its rocks symbolise four mythical islands, where each island is suggested by a group of rocks. The white sand represents “eight rough seas”, while mossy knolls at the far end of the garden signify “five sacred mountains”.

In the Eastern Garden Shigemori Mirei arranged seven old building foundation stones in the shape of the Great Bear constellation (images below).

The Northern Garden is just a moss field with square stones arranged like a gradually disintegrating checkerboard (images below). To me, this gradient from regular to random is another way of saying “nothing is perfect”. The checkerboard pattern is unusual for Japanese gardens, but I’ve seen it in the interior decoration of traditional houses (see rightmost image below).

The checkerboard theme continues in the Western Garden (images below). Although this garden is Japanese in its essence, it shares many similarities with the French Formal Garden. Here, trimmed azaleas, moss turf and decorative gravel can be viewed as a variation of parterre de gazon of the French garden.

After that, I went to see the garden of Kaizan-dō Hall. This garden is divided by a central path (leftmost image below). The two sides of the garden created by this path stand in sharp contrast to each-other. One side is a field of white sand raked in a checkerboard pattern (panel below, third image from the left). This part of the garden is framed by the building. The only irregularity in the perfect geometric order of this side is a single mossy island with a beautiful tree growing among the rocks (rightmost image below).

The other side of the garden is a very textural juxtaposition of moss, button-shaped azaleas, water and rocks (see images below). It has a beautiful backdrop of tall trees (panel above, second image from the left).

The temple’s grounds also have lots of parkland some of which is quite scenic (see images below).

My visit to Tofuku-ji offered me more than I expected. The only regret is that I missed out on seeing dry gardens of Reiun-in and Ryoginan-tōtei buildings. I guess it’s an incentive to visit this temple again.

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