Many hundreds of kilometers away from Tokyo, the ancient castle town of Hagi sits upon an old volcanic outcrop in the far west of Japan’s main island of Honshu. Situated in the heart of north Yamaguchi prefecture, the town is one of Japan’s many historical hidden gems.
With the town’s long and vibrant history as the home of the Mori clan warlords during the feudal period, it is hard to imagine how the city has sunk into the shadows of the unknown during the modern era. When Terumoto Mori abducted two potters from Korea during the late 16th century, Hagi also became the birthplace of the famous Japanese pottery known as Hagi Yaki or Hagi Ware. Evidence of the town’s powerful past can be seen at the ruins of Hagi Castle and the surrounding samurai residential area which still continues to survive at the base of the ruins. Hagi Yaki is also still in production in the area through several small pottery factories that have been passed down through the generations from the original Korean potters of Hagi.
At the temple grounds
Hidden away in a forest just southeast of the main castle town sits the ancient Tokoji Temple. A beautiful 17th-century Zen temple that provides some tranquility inside the peaceful grounds and houses the graveyard for around half of the Mori clan warlords.
Belonging to the Obaku sect of Zen Buddhism, the temple shows stronger Chinese influences than most Zen temples through its architectural structure and style. A large vermillion red gate embezzled with Buddhist sculptures at the main entrance stirs up the feeling of a strong sense of power as you pass through its open doors. Further up, a second larger wooden gate and an immense bell tower welcome you into the inner court of Tokoji temple. Up ahead the main hall, known as the Daihoden houses a statue of the original Buddha; Shaka Nyorai. Look out for the Onigawara (demon roof tiles) adorn the top of the complex’s roofs in an attempt to ward of evil.
The grounds of Tokoji cover a much smaller area than what they had originally, however, the buildings and the main red entrance gate, as well as the bell tower, are all original and date back from the founding of the temple in 1691. The larger wooden gate located inside of the grounds was constructed in a later era but is still it’s original build.
Behind the main building at Tokoji temple, lies the graveyard of the third, fifth, seventh, ninth, and eleventh Mori warlords. The other warlords, the first, second, fourth, sixth, eighth, tenth, and twelfth lords are buried at Daishoin temple which is located at the opposite end of Hagi town. You may notice that the Mori family chose to bury their odd-numbered lords at Tokoji and the first lord and the even-numbered lords at Daishoin. It is said that the family chose to bury their dead in these two separate temples as a way to hide their power from the shogunate.
The graveyard is often the main attraction for tourists to the temple and is a very impressive sight. Graves of famous Meiji Restoration leaders from Hagi mark the approach up to the Mori tombs. Each individual tomb is marked by its own large stone torii gate which stands looking over hundreds of stone lanterns donated by members of the clan. There are more than 500 stone lanterns at the graveyard and a further 600 at Daishoin temple which are lit each year during the beginning of the Obon Festival to welcome back the souls of the dead. The lanterns at Tokoji are lit on the last day of the event to help guide the souls back to the land of the dead.
How to get to Tokoji Temple
The temple grounds charge 300 yen for high school students and adults, and 150 yen for elementary and junior high school students.
Tokoji Temple can be reached by a short 15-minute bicycle ride or a 30-minute walk from Higashi Hagi Station. Rental bicycles are available near Hagi Higashi train station for around 1000 yen per day. Alternatively, a loop bus, on the maru east line, serves both Hagi and Hagi Higashi train stations and stops outside of the temple. The loop bus runs every 30 minutes from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. and costs 100 yen no matter the distance travelled. It is also possible to get a day pass for the loop buses in Hagi for 500 yen.
West Honshu, especially the north, can be slightly troublesome to get to unless travelling by car, as train services tend to be slow and infrequent. Hagi and the surrounding area is served by the local trains on the JR Sanin line and Mine Line, which takes around 1 hour and 10 minutes from Asa Station located on the Sanyo Shinkansen line (only served by Kodama trains).
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