During the peak of the cherry blossoms I finally went to a light up! I had seen posters for them during the Autumn but I never managed to get to one. Not only did I go to a light up, I also got to go to a temple I’ve been meaning to go to since I spotted its pagoda from Kyoto tower early on in my year abroad. All in all, a visit I had been hoping to do for a long time.
The temple in question was Toji 東寺, which means East Temple. Toji was founded in 796, just after the capital was moved from Nara to Heian-kyo (ancient Kyoto). Toji is one of only two temples that was permitted to be built in the city itself, along with its partner temple Saiji 西寺 (West Temple). The reason for this exclusion of Buddhist temples from Heian-kyo was the increasing influence of Buddhist sects over the imperial court in Nara; the Emperor felt the need to escape the political influence of the Nara sects and start afresh. Only Saiji and Toji were built either side of the main gate to Heian-kyo to defend the capital from evil spirits. Toji used to be a temple tasked with the defence of the whole nation; it has always been rather important.
This exclusion of other sects meant that those that controlled Toji and Saiji gained considerable power simply by being closer to court. The sect that gained Toji was the newly created Shingon sect, founded by Kukai, who was put in charge of Toji by Emperor Saga. Saga himself was supportive of Buddhism while also recognising the importance of keeping most sects away from the capital. It was Saga that decreed the consumption of meat (aside from fish and birds) illegal, cementing the Japanese diet as such until Europeans reintroduced the consumption of other meats in the 1800s.
Toji is the only surviving temple from this period; its partner temple, Saiji, ran out of money due to a bad harvest in its district and was forced to close. There is a story that Kukai and his counterpart monk at Saiji, Shubin, were both praying for a good rainfall. Only Kukai succeeded and Shubin became angry and shot an arrow at Kukai but an image of Jizo appeared and took the arrow for Kukai, saving his life. Near the original gate to Heian-kyo (now just a single stone marker) there is a Jizo statue which is chipped where the arrow hit it.
Toji has the tallest wooden building in Japan, the pagoda, originally built by Kukai and recontruted in the Edo period. It measures 57 metres and it was beautifully lit in gold, making it appear metallic rather than wooden. The pagoda is a marker for the storage of Buddhist treasures and sacred relics. The pagoda at Toji houses some Buddhist treasures but it is closed to the public for most of the year.
The light-up itself was spectacular and not that busy – it was open from 6 – 10 and cost 300円 per person. The grounds were lit up spectacularly as well as the pagoda. They had also opened the halls to allow you to see the Buddhist statues. Toji’s main object of worship is Yakushi Nyrai, the Buddha of medicine. I would definitely recommend visiting Toji regardless of whether or not it is sakura season. It’s also a world heritage site, so clearly UNESCO agree with me. This temple also has a famous flea market on the 21st of every month. I’m definitely going to go and check it out at some point.