As the season of autumn leaf-changing comes to an end, I decided to visit to one of the most well-known and popular sites for Momiji-watching (‘Momiji,’ which indicates the changing of the leaves), Tofuku-ji. Tofuku-ji is one of the five great Zen temples of Kyoto, and is the head temple of the Tofuku-ji school of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. (Four other temples of the five great Zen temples of Kyoto are Tenryuji, Kenninji, Shokokuji and Manjuji with Nanzenji presiding as the chief temple of Kyoto Gozan.) It was founded in 1236 under orders of the powerful Fujiwara clan by the imperial chancellor, Kujo Michiie, who appointed the monk Enni as the first head priest. Interestingly, it takes its name from two temples in Nara, Todai-ji and Kofuku-ji, which are also associated with the Fujiwara clan. Tofuku-ji suffered fires as many as three times in the past – 1319, 1334, and 1336 – but was rebuilt in the 15th century. 600 years later in 1969, large-scale disassembling and repair work was started on the temple, taking more than eight years and costing 2.5 million dollars. The new buildings were completed in March, 1978, and now has 24 sub-temples, though in the past there were as many as 53. Tofuku-ji is considered to be the best place for Momiji-viewing, and it is something of a tradition to view the leaves from the Tsuten-kyo Bridge, which is 100 meters long and allows the viewer a breathtaking view of the many brilliantly coloured trees and gardens. Tofuku-ji is only a short walking distance from the station, and it is not by any means an unpleasant walk – the roads are filled with numerous buildings which just scream ‘Kyoto’ at you, modern and traditional mixed in a blend which would only work in a city like this. If you come in November – primetime for Momiji-viewing – the roads will be tightly packed and almost impossible to come by in car, so I recommend the train. Following the slowly moving crowd of people, you can already see some spectacular temples and changing trees, street vendors selling hot mochi (rice cakes) and other traditional Kyoto specialties which are just right for a blustery cold day. The moment when you first enter Tsuten-kyo Bridge is the real challenge – it is an ongoing battle to try to get an optimal spot to get just the right pictures, though when that picture is taken, the wait is worth the while. Following the bridge, you can see so many breathtaking snapshots of red, yellow, and orange leaves, delicate gardens, and beautiful wooden structures. Once you get off the wooden bridge, there is a stone stair path leading down into even more brilliant sceneries. Winding around the paths after that, the contrast between the colourful leaves and the charcoal black and red temples is starkly amazing, and the clean, winter air has a certain magical feel to it.
Tofuku-ji’s main temple complex is a paid area, beginning in the famous main gate, a National Treasure and the oldest sanmon in Japan. A sanmon is the most important gate of a Japanese Zen Buddhist temple, and is part of the Zen shichido garan, the group of buildings that forms the heart of a Zen Buddhist temple. The sanmon in Tofuku-ji is the oldest sanmon in Japan, dating back to 1425, and is 22 meters tall, and is also considered to be one of the most resplendent sanmons in the country. The framed picture on the tower was painted by the Tycoon Yoshimochi Ashikaga, and the picture on the ceiling was drawn by Cho-Densu and Kan-Densu. The sculpture of Buddha and sixteen other Buddhist Monks on the front-side was made by the Buddhist Teicho. Behind the sanmon is the Hondo, or main hall, which underwent a recent reconstruction completed in 1934. There are a number of temple buildings surrounding the Hondo and sanmon which are rare examples of surviving Zen architecture from the Muromachi Period – the meditation hall, or zendo; the belfry, or shoro; the bath, known as yokushitsu, and lavatory, known as tosu, and more. Included is the Hojo, which is the head priest’s former living quarter. What is unique about the Hojo in Tofuku-ji is the fact that the surrounding rock gardens were built surrounding the building on four sides, instead of the alongside them as was usual. Mr. Mirei Shigemori, one of the Japan’s famous garden-builders, designed and built the four gardens in 1939 as an attempt to display the Zen’s simplicity in Kamakura period through an abstract orientation of modern arts. The moss garden in particular has been emblematic of the renewal of Japanese gardening principles in the 20th century. Each garden has a different personality, employing different elements of nature to express them. In Japanese design, you can truly say that less is more. The southern garden in the forefront of Hojo is the elaborate work among the four gardens and is made in the Zen-style (dry stone-garden). It is composed of four rock structures symbolizing Elysian Islands (the Islands of the Blessed in Greek mythology), which from east to west are named ‘Eiju’, ‘Horai’, ‘Koryo’, and ‘Hojo’. These rocks rest on a sand floor named Hakkai (meaning ‘the eight rough seas’), and five moss-covered mountains are positioned at the right corner. The western garden has a gentle style composed of moss and azalea shrubs trimmed in a checkered pattern in imitation of Seiden, a Chinese way of dividing land The northern garden has square-cut stones and moss distributed in a checkered pattern. This is the garden facing the Tsuten-kyo Bridge, and is called Sengyokukan, or ‘autumn-tinted valley’, for its remarkable colouring in the autumn. The eastern garden has seven cylindrical stones arranged in beds of moss, representing the main stars of the Great Bear constellation. These stones were originally foundation stones used at another place of the temple. Another popular spot in Tofuku-ji is the Kaisando Hall which serves as the mausoleum of the temple’s first head priest. The stone path leading to the Hall is flanked by contrasting gardens of dry rock on the left and a lush pond on the right, and they both were last reconstructed during the Edo Period.