Daikakuji is what one would consider “slightly off the beaten path” as although it is located near Kyoto’s popular Arashiyama district, it hardly attracts any visitors outside the autumn and spring season. Featured in the Tale of Genji, the first Japanese novel, Daikakuji was originally a palace for Emperor Saga from which it derived its second name “Saga Imperial Palace”. After the emperor’s death in 876 the palace was converted into a temple, as was quite common at the time, as a sign of devotion to Buddhism. Afterwards it changed functions between serving as a temple and retirement palace for emperors, which has contributed to it maintaining its ancient court atmosphere. It is therefore little surprise that Daikakuji is often featured in novels and films of historical dramas.
The temple precinct consists of two sections, being the Osawa Pond and the temple itself. The pond is the beautiful secret of Daikakuji that attracts countless visitors during the autumn and spring when the trees change colors or the cherry trees blossom are in full, lively bloom. Seemingly a must-take picture is capturing the pond and its trees with the Shingyo pagoda in the background while the small bridge and torii gate enhance the scene even further. The pond is in fact over 1200 years old and together with the surrounding gardens is considered to be last Shinden style garden, which was the traditional architectural method of the Heian era in the 10th century. One can easily imagine Emperor Saga organizing parties to entertain his guests, throw out a line to catch some of the fish or watch the moon from Osawa Pond.
Photo from Wikipedia
Annie Guilloret on Flickr
ttshr1970 on Flickr
Apart from the pagoda and a small shrine, there are no buildings remaining in the garden and the temple buildings are actually separated from the pond. The temple consists of several buildings connected by open corridors with nightingale floorings, so-called as they make a noise when someone steps upon them. The floorings are quite common in Japanese castles and palaces to alert guards for trespassers. When you enter the temple you will most often see superb examples of ikebana being exhibited in the entrance hall. The buildings themselves feature several fusuma doors painted by the Kano school, which was one of the most dominant art schools in Japan for centuries.
Annie Guilloret on Flickr
Daikakuji is also praised for its copy of the “Heart Sutra”, written by Emperor Saga at the instruction of Kobo Daishi and according to legend ended a plague during the Heian period. Yet this script is not shown to the public, except for once every 60 years which will be in 2018.
Perhaps you too will come visit Daikakuji and have your health improved by this miracle-causing scripture since few people get to see it in their lifetime.
Access, opening hours and admission fee
Daikakuji is about a 15 minute walk away from the nearest stations, being JR Saga-Arashiyama Station on the JR Sagano Line, or 25 minute if you take the Randen to Keifuku Arashiyama Station. Instead of walking you could also take Kyoto City busses 28 and 91 from these stations. The temple is open year-round between 9:00 and 17:00 for a minor admission fee of 500 yen upon entry or 800 yen if you would also like to visit the Reihokan Museum. An English audio guide is also available for 500 yen and takes you around the precinct in about 45 minutes.