Kodai-ji Temple is an outstanding Zen temple in Kyoto offering one of the best sightseeing experiences in the southern Higashiyama area. At Kodai-ji, you can admire a traditional Japanese garden, visit important cultural properties, wander through a bamboo grove, and relax at a tea house- all without the crowds that flock to Kyoto's more famous sites.
Kodai-ji may not be as well known to foreign tourists as other temples in Kyoto, like the iconic Kiyomizu-dera or golden KINKAKU-JI, but it definitely should not be overlooked as it lovingly brings together several of Japan's artistic and cultural traditions.
About Kodai-ji Zen Temple- History, Construction, and Design
Kodai-ji Temple, formally known as Kodaiji-jushozenji, belongs to the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. Kodai-ji was founded in 1606 to honour Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a distinguished feudal lord and politician known for his contributions to the political unification of Japan, thereby bringing an end to the tumultuous Sengoku period.
The idea to memorialize Hideyoshi with a temple was that of his widow, Kita-no-Mandokoro, also known as Nene. Kodai-ji's construction was financed by Hideyoshi's successor Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate. After its completion, Kodai-ji Temple became recognized for its exquisite craftsmanship, lavishly decorated interiors, and beautiful gardens. Perhaps most notable is the elegant "Kodai-ji Makie", a Japanese lacquer technique where wet lacquer is sprinkled with gold and/or silver powder.

Visiting Kodai-ji Temple- Our Self-Guided Tour
Upon entering Kodai-ji Temple, we were directed down a long path leading towards the back of the temple grounds. It wasn’t the sort of grand entrance with a towering gate we had experienced at other TEMPLES IN JAPAN, but rather a simple, understated approach. Along the pathway there were some pretty pink blossoms, a small cemetery, and lovely tree-framed view of Daiun-in Temple and its unique Gionkaku tower.
Another highlight of the path into Kodai-ji Temple was the Iho-an (Cottage of Lingering Fragrance). I thought this tea ceremony room was the cutest of Kodai-ji’s historic teahouses. Turning the corner past Iho-an, we were met with a wonderful view of a rock-framed pond backed by the partially concealed Kaisando. It was just the type of calming scenery I was hoping to see at a Zen temple and got me excited to discover more features of the gardens at Kodai-ji Temple. Before exploring the gardens further, we made our way into Kodai-ji’s main hall, the Hojo. The current structure was built in 1912, after a fire destroyed the original. Even though the reconstruction is more modest than the original, which was covered in lacquer and gold decorations, the interior is still worth seeing.
What really makes the main hall special is the view it offers of Kodai-ji’s rock garden. From the verandah, we got to enjoy views of this impeccably raked rock garden that was designed to represent an ocean. After exiting the main hall, we continued our self-guided tour of Kodai-ji Temple by admiring the temple garden. Designed by renowned landscape architect Kobori Enshu, this tsukiyama style garden incorporates artificial hills, decorative rocks, ponds, islands, and pine and maple trees.
Throughout the garden there are several details adding visual interest to the space. The group of stones in the south section of the garden are said to represent a crane, whereas the island in the north end of the pond resembles a turtle. And then of course, there’s the Kaisando (Founder’s Hall) and its covered walkway fitting in flawlessly among the landscaped, yet natural looking scenery. The small, four-pillared structure with the Chinese-style roof is the Moon Viewing Pavilion, built over the pond so people can easily see the moon’s reflection in the water.