Toji Temple

April 10, 2009

by Maya Nogami

Its colossal pagoda or its popular flea market — it’s hard to say which of these delights Toji is best known for. A Shingon-sect Buddhist temple, Toji is located in the south-central part of Kyoto city, within walking distance from JR Kyoto Station. One of Japan’s earliest Buddhist temples, Toji was founded in 794, in the Heian era, when Japan’s capital city was changed from Nara to Kyoto. It is a registered World Heritage site.

Although everyone calls this temple Toji, its true name is “Kyo-o-gokokuji.” “To” means “east” and “ji” means “temple” in Japanese. This shorter name came into use because the temple was built on the east side of the legendary Rajomon, portal of the Heian Palace. And actually, a long time ago there was a temple called Saiji on the west side of the palace; “Sai” means west in Japanese.

Toji’s key structures are a five-storey pagoda, a kondo and a kodo. At 55 meters, Toji’s pagoda is the highest wooden tower in Japan. The pagoda was rebuilt many times because of fire. It was first constructed in 883, during the Heian era, but burnt down in 1055. Rebuilt in 1086, it burned down again in 1270. After these fires, in two similar cases, rebuilding was stopped two more times owing to flames. Finally, in 1644, the present pagoda was built as a donation by Iemitsu Tokugawa, the third Shogun in the Edo era.

The kondo is a temple building which enshrines idols. Inside Toji’s kondo are a Buddha statue and some Bodhisattva sculptures. The building is one of Japan’s national treasures. It is said that the first kondo at Toji was built in 796, but destroyed by a fire in 1468. It was rebuilt in 1603 and that structure still exists. To construct it, carpenters used a variety of different skills, not only Japanese ones but also Chinese techniques.

By contrast, the kodo was originally the place to take lectures or discourse. Toji’s kodo is one of Japan’s important cultural properties and in turn it contains many important cultural properties or national treasure images of Buddha. This building was first erected in 825 but it was destroyed a few times because of typhoons, earthquakes and the fires of riots. Rebuilt again in 1491, it has now stood continuously for more than five centuries. Carpenters who built it used only traditional Japanese techniques.

Some routine events are held at Toji, and “Kobo-ichi”, a monthly outdoor flea market, is well known. Traditionally Japanese have believed that the deities or the Buddha have had relationships between their world and ours at the festivals of temples or shrines. Therefore people believe that they gain more merit when they visit shrines or temples on festival days. During the Heian era, the priest Kukai, who was the abbot of Toji, died on March 21st. To commemorate this great man’s passing, people started to hold an outdoor market festival on the 21st day of each month. At first there were only a few kinds of shops, such as tea rooms, but from the Edo era, many kinds of vendors appeared, such as gardeners or pharmacists. Nowadays, the market festival is still held on the 21st of every month and there are 1200-1300 outdoor shop stalls that day. Moreover, we can find not only traditional shops but also second-hand clothing stores and antique stores. Every month, thousands of local people and visitors from all over Japan and around the world visit Toji to enjoy its market festival in the shadow of the great five-storey pagoda.

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