This section of the gate is usually off-limits to tourists, but you can now view its hidden gems.

While most foreign visitors to Kyoto will have famous sites like Kinkakuji’s Golden Pavilion on their itineraries, there are impressive treasures to be found at some of the city’s lesser-known temples, like Tofukuji.

In recent years, Tofukuji has become known for its stunning fall foliage, but it’s well worth visiting at any time of the year, because there’s more to see here than beautiful trees.

▼ Tofukuji’s Tsutenkyo Bridge is surrounded by leafy maple trees that are beautifully red in autumn and vibrant green in summer.

Founded in 1236, Tofukuji is the head temple of the Tofukuji School of the Rinzai sect of Buddhism, and its vast grounds are home to many important cultural properties. However, on a recent press tour, we were introduced to a number of secret treasures that even locals don’t know about, and we had no idea they existed until the guide opened the doors to areas that are usually closed to the public.

This special Tofukuji Treasure Tour is only limited to five groups per day, but the schedule can change at short notice, due to temple events. The tour consists of three special sites usually off-limits to the public — the Komyo Hoden (Treasure Hall), the Sanmon Gate, and the Main Hall — and takes roughly an hour and a half, with prior reservations required.

▼ The jaw-dropping sights you’ll see on this tour start with the enormous “Blue Dragon” painted on the ceiling of the Main Hall.

Visitors are usually only able to glimpse the dragon from the outside of the hall, but this tour takes you right underneath it, and over at the Treasure Hall, you can get up close to several Buddhist statues that are registered important cultural properties, made during the Heian (794-1185) and Kamakura (1185-1333) periods.

▼ The entrance to the Treasure Hall.

▼ Despite the formality of the surroundings, temple staff conduct these tours in a friendly manner, and even serve matcha tea to guests at the end.

While the Main Hall and Treasure Hall have a charm of their own, what really blew us away was the Sanmon Gate, which, at around 22 metres (72 feet) in height, is is one of the largest in Japan. It’s not a modern-day recreation, either, as it dates back to 1425, when it was rebuilt by Ashikaga Yoshimochi, the fourth shogun of the Muromachi Shogunate.

▼ The gate has three gates (“sanmon”), hence its name.

This national treasure is astounding to look at from the outside, but it’s even more impressive inside, because up on the usually restricted level above ground you’ll be able to view 19 intricately carved statues — the Shaka Nyorai, alongside attendants Zenzai Doji and Gakkai Choja, and the Sixteen Arhats.

The statues aren’t the only highlights here, as the pillars and ceiling are adorned with art created by legendary painters, including artist monk Kitsusan Mincho (1352-1431).

▼ Some of the paintings depict celestial maidens and “Karyo Takagi” (creatures with the upper body of a human and the lower body of a bird).

The colours and images are still vivid today, centuries after they were painted, largely due to the fact that the space is rarely opened so it’s well protected from the elements.

▼ The interior pillars and beams have a finish that conveys both strength and beauty, supporting the heavy roof  with a design that’s captivating to look at.

Tour participants are also able to take in the view from the top of the gate, where there’s a handwritten plaque by Yoshimochi Ashikaga…

▼ …and a stunning vista towards the 本堂 (“Hondou”), or Main Hall.

From here, you can also see the 禅堂 (“Zendou” [“Meditation Hall”]), which is said to be the oldest and largest in Japan, and the only one remaining from the Middle Ages. Beyond that, you can see the five-storied pagoda (“五重塔”) of Toji Temple and Kyoto Tower (“京都タワー”).

▼ Old and new, together in one shot.

Being able to see Kyoto from this vantage point is an incredibly special experience, especially when you consider the fact that for centuries, it was a view only reserved for temple monks. Opportunities to step inside an ancient gate like this are incredibly rare, but it does come at a cost, with the tour costing 5,000 yen (US$31.07) per person.

It’s a small price to pay for those wanting a memorable experience that even locals don’t usually get to enjoy, though, so if you’re looking for something special to do in Kyoto, this tour is definitely something to put on your itinerary. And while you’re in the area, there’s another temple in nearby Nara where other special hidden gems await

Temple Information

Tofukuji / 東福寺
Address: Kyoto-fu, Kyoto-shi, Higashiyama-ku, Honmachi 15-778
Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m.

Related: Let’s go to Kyoto
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