Where can you find cherry blossoms, art exhibitions and food stalls all in one place? Toji Temple, of course! Located in Kyoto, this 5-story pagoda was given to the venerable monk Kukai by Emperor Saga in the 8th century. Registered as a World Heritage Site in 1994, it has flourished as a training place for the Shingon sect of esoteric Buddhism, founded by Kukai himself.
On my visit here, I learnt that most of the initial buildings were lost due to riots by provincial samurais, peasants, and sect followers. Today, the Kodo hall houses Japan’s oldest Buddhist sculptures. Step inside the Kondo and Taishido halls, and you can find precious Buddhist artworks that are designated as national treasures of Japan.
I particularly enjoy visiting in the evening when the temple grounds are beautifully lit up. The scenery is made even more stunning with the cherry blossoms in full bloom! Twice a year, exhibitions featuring traditional Japanese crafts and important cultural properties are held for about two months, mostly during spring and fall in Hobutsu-kan and Kanchi-in.
Another famous highlight is the large flea market (Kobo-san) held on the 21st of each month. Open from 5:00am to 5pm, you can explore nearly 1300 stalls selling an assortment of food, antiques, interior goods, and handmade accessories! The entrance fee is 500 yen for adults (above high school student age), and 300 yen for kids. Take note that the price varies according to the season — and it's free to see the building from the outside.
Toji Temple is a 15-minute walk from JR Kyoto station. You can also hop on buses 18, 71, 207 from Omiya station (Hankyu Line) which stop in front of the temple.