Gokokuji – Very old, and with tea

One of the oldest Buddhist temples (Shingon school of Buddhism) of Tokyo is located in a corner of Bunkyo ward. Gokokuji was founded in 1681, established by the 5th shogun Tsunayoshi Tokugawa (1646–1709, reign as shogun: 1680-1709), built to commemorate his mother Keishōin, who was an important adviser during his reign. Gokokuji always catches my eye when glancing over old maps of Edo (old name for Tokyo). As I live in the Bunkyo ward, there is little familiar in my area except this major temple.

This temple is quite special in that several of the original buildings have survived the wars and disasters over the centuries. The main building, the Kannon-do Hall, was built in 1697 and even though parts of the building were destroyed by fire in 1883 and 1926, the building remains largely unchanged since its initial construction. While there are older temples in Tokyo, such as Senso-ji in Asakusa, they are usually newly built and only a few decades old. In the case of Tokyo’s most famous temple Senso-ji, its main hall was rebuilt with reinforced concrete in 1958, hardly an example of a traditional historical building.

Even though Gokokuji is one the oldest and most beautiful temples in Tokyo, it apparently does not get a lot of visitors from abroad. This might be due to the kind of “bland” image of the main hall, with its large pale green roof, located in a large open space, devoid of green foliage. However, if you get closer to the building, you see the darkened wood that has stood the test of time.

Needless to say, this temple is well worth your time, in particular for the following reasons:

The stairs leading up to the temple

From the entrance at the Akamon Gate, Gokokuji has a very pleasant lane with at the end stairs leading up to the Furumon Gate. It is the type of entrance you are more likely to see at large temple complexes in Kyoto, but not in Tokyo. As a matter of fact, the Furumon Gate (built in 1938) was modeled on the Kuruma-dera Yamamon in the northern mountains of Kyoto.

The stairs and Furumon Gate

The Kannon-do hall

This main building of the temple is still the original since it was built in 1697. It is designated as an important cultural asset in Japan. What made it special for me were the statues and artwork inside of the building. It has boddhisatvas, paintings on the ceiling and much more. Please note this hall is only open from 9:00 until 11:50 and from 13:00 until 16:00. No photos are allowed.

The front of the Kannon-do Hall

A strong connection to “the way of tea”

The temple became known for its dedication to the Japanese tea ceremony (sado in Japanese, literally “the way of tea”). There are even nine teahouses on the temple grounds, something unheard of on the grounds of a temple. They were designed by grandmaster of tsukiya architecture Ogi Rodo (1863-1941) and tea ceremony events are often organised here. Through these events participants (usually from tea schools) can get access to buildings and gardens that are otherwise closed to the general public.

Tea ceremony event taking place

And more

Apart from these must-see items at Gokokuji, the temple grounds are rather large, 82.000 square-meter, with many buildings and various items to see, such as:

  • Gekko-den (Moonlight Pavilion): designated as an important cultural asset and serves as a tea ceremony venue. It was built in the early 1600s as a reception hall for a temple in Shiga prefecture, moved to Shinagawa in 1888 and moved again to its current location by prominent temple patron Yoshio Takahashi in 1928.
  • Yakushido (Healing Buddha Hall): the oldest building of the site (built in 1691). It used to be the building to hold the buddhist scriptures, but after a fire in 1926, it became the Healing Buddha Hall.
  • Daishido (Hall with an enshrined statue of Kukai, also known as Kobo Daishi): at a Shingon school temple (to which Gokokuji belongs), it is the building in which its founder is enshrined. It was built in 1701 as the Yakushido, but changed its purpose to Daishido after the fire in 1926.

The graveyard is another interesting sight, it is large and littered with graves of famous people. For example two former prime ministers: Ōkuma Shigenobu (1838–1922, also founder of Waseda University) and Yamagata Aritomo (1838–1922); Josiah Conder (1852-1920), father of Japanese modern architecture; Prince Sanjō Sanetomi (1837-1891) an imperial court noble and statesman at the time of the Meiji Restoration, who held many high-ranking offices in the Meiji government, and also an interim prime minister for two months during the Meiji Restoration; and tea master Matsudaira Fumai (1751-1818).

Stone lanterns on the temple grounds.

In practice

5-40-1 Otsuka, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo

Closest station:
Gokokuji Station – 3 minutes walk from exit 2 (Yurakucho line)

Opening hours: always open, except the Kannon-do hall: 9:00-11:50 and 13:00-16:00

Budget: free entrance

Web: http://www.gokokuji.or.jp/ (in Japanese)

When to best visit? In spring during sakura season due its many varieties of the cherry tree. However, during autumn with the autumn colors it is also very beautiful

Why visit? One of the oldest temples in Tokyo, with beautiful artwork inside the main hall, and tea houses on the temple grounds.

Name in Japanese: 護国寺