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Daigo-ji Temple 醍醐寺

Daigo-ji Temple (© javarman - Fotolia.com)
Daigo-ji Temple with bright autumn leaves, Kyoto

The UNESCO World Heritage Daigo-ji Temple is a vast Shingon Buddhist complex in south-eastern Kyōto. Six of its buildings were designated National Treasures of Japan, including the Kon-dō (金堂 ; Main Hall), the Sanbō-in (三宝院 ; Three Treasures' Hall) and the Gojū-no-tō (五重塔 ; Five-story Pagoda). The 38m-tall pagoda was built in 951 and is the oldest building in Kyōto.

The gardens of Daigo-ji are reputed for their autumn colours, but are especially famous as a place for cherry blossoms viewing ("hanami"). The gardens were expressedly built for Toyotomi Hideyoshi's famous hanami party of 1598, and the event is now commemorated in the annual Hideyoshi Hanami Parade on the second Sunday in April.

The temple's name, Daigo, is a Buddhist term meaning "the finest thing in this world". Emperor Daigo was named after the temple (see below).

History

The temple was founded in 874 when Shōbō (a.k.a. Rigen-daishi) built a hermitage dedicated to Kannon (Avalokitesvara in Sanskrit), the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. A well was discovered nearby, which water was said to have medicinal powers. As a result, in 907, Emperor Daigo ordered the construction of hall in honour to Yakushi Nyorai, the Healing Buddha. On 16 October 930 the emperor fell ill and abdicated. One week later he entered the Buddhist priesthood, but (ironically for a temple he had dedicated to the Healing Buddha) died shortly after the same day. He was buried on the precincts of Daigo-ji, and received his posthumous name after the temple's name (his real name was Atsuhito).

The subsequent Emperors Suzaku (930-46) and Murakami (946-67) further pledged support for the temple's development. Most of the main buildings were constructed in the first half of the 10th century. Emperor Murakami, second son of Emperor Daigo, had the five-storied pagoda built as a mausoleum to his father.

Daigoji played an important historical role as a main temple of the Ono branch of Shingon Buddhism. During the Heian period (794-1185), the Minamoto clan kept close ties with the temple, providing several generations of head priests. It is during this period of prosperity that the Sanbō-in Hall was constructed, in 1115.

Like most temples in Kyōto, Daigo-ji suffered extensive damages during the Ōnin War (1467-1477).

In 1598, Toyotomi Hideyoshi committed himself to the restoration of Daigo-ji. He had the Kondō relocated from Yuasa (Wakayama Prefecture) and the cherry-blossom gardens laid.

Kon-dō Hall, Daigo-ji Temple, Kyoto
Niō-mon Gate, Daigo-ji Temple, Kyoto (photo by 663highland)

Grounds

The Daigo-ji complex is divided in two parts, the Kami-Daigo (upper part) and Shimo-Daigo (lower part). Visitors enter through the Niō-mon Gate and access first to the Shimo-Daigo compound, where most of the important buildings are located. This is where you will find the Kondō, the five-storied pagoda, and a series of minor halls (Benten-dō, Daikō-dō, Fudō-dō, Nyonin-dō, Shinnyo Sanmaya-dō, Sōshi-dō).

The most interesting edifice is the Sanbō-in Hall, the official residence of the head-priests. This is where the connections with the Minamoto clan and the Imperial family show up. The Sanbō-in is a real palace-cum-gardens, an abode worthy of a mighty daimyō or Imperial prince. The palace is articulated in five interconnected buildings, each of which is an individually listed Important Cultural Asset. A large pond separates the main garden from the rock garden and the moss garden.

The Daigo-ji Temple possesses over 100,000 valuable historical items, among which 40,000 designated and non-designated cultural assets, including mostly carvings, paintings, craftworks, and ancient documents. Most of them are preserved at the Reihōkan Museum.

The Kami-Daigo compound, is one-hour walk uphill from the Shimo-Daigo area, on the slopes of Mount Daigo-san. This is where most of the earliest buildings were originally built. The Juntei Hall has replaced the 9th-century hermitage dedicated to Kannon. It was rebuilt many times, lastly in 1968. The statue of Kannon is only shown to the public on 18th May each year. Other important buildings are the Godai Hall (dedicated to the Five Kings of Light), the Yakushi Hall (Healing Buddha's Hall), the Seiryū-gū Haiden (a Muromachi-period palace) and the Momoyama-era Nyoirin-dō and Kaisan-dō Halls.

Daigo-ji Temple, Kyoto
Benten-dō Hall, Daigo-ji Temple, Kyoto

Opening Hours & Admission

The temple is open daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm (till 4:00 pm from December to February - last entry 30min before closing). There are separate tickets for the Sabōin, Garan (Kondō, Five-storied Pagoda, etc.) and Reihōkan Museum. Each costs ¥600. You can buy a combined ticket for two of these for ¥1000, or for the three of them for ¥1500. Discounts are available for students, children and groups.

How to get there

Daigoji is located roughly 6 km (4 mi.) south-east of Kyōto Station, half-way to Uji city. The easiest way to access it by public transport is by metro, taking the Tōzai line until Daigo Station. The Tōzai line conveniently passes near many attractions in the city centre. You can take it, for instance, from Nijōjō-mae, Sanjō-Keihan (from Gion), Higashiyama or Keage (from Nanzenji). The ride takes 22 min from Nijōjō-mae (¥310) and 13 min from Keage (¥280). The temple is 500m (10-15 min walk) east of Daigo Station.

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