The 25 Best Temples to Visit in Kyoto
Standing as the cultural and spiritual centre of Japan, Kyoto is renowned for its immense amount of temples…many many temples! In fact, there are more than 1600 temples scattered throughout the city and 400 Shinto shrines to boot!
While some find themselves amongst tranquil Zen gardens or beside rippling mirror-like ponds, others hide amongst creaking bamboo forests and overgrown moss. From big to small, Buddhist artwork and megalithic halls, Kyoto has it all!
With such an immense selection to choose from, it can be difficult to work out which ones are worth visiting. So in that case, let me show you the 25 best temples to visit in Kyoto!
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Founded under the Hosso sect of Buddhism (one of the oldest sects) in 780, Kiyomizu-dera is not only one of the oldest temples in Kyoto but it’s also one of the most iconic!
The vast wooden stage that stretches out across the city’s forest-covered mountain slopes makes for quite a sight, particularly during the cherry blossom season!
The main hall houses the temple’s most revered object of worship – an eleven-faced, thousand-armed Kannon (the Goddess of Mercy). Yet, plenty of other quirky attractions can be found amongst the giant complex. That includes the Jinshu Shrine, which is popular amongst young lovers! Hopeless romantics arrive in droves to attempt to walk from one stone to the other with their eyes shut in the hopes it will bring luck to their future relationships.
There are a few images as synonymous with Japan as this one! The consecutive lines of crimson torii gates winding their way up the trails of sacred Mount Inari provide some of the most pristine postcard images you’re likely to find anywhere in the world!
Fushimi-Inari is actually a Shinto shrine, which belongs to Japan’s ancient belief system. Since its inception in 794, it has become the inspiration for over 40,000 other Shinto shrines scattered across Japan.
Each torii gate has been donated by individuals or companies, whose names and dates of donation have been inscribed upon them. You’ll also come across numerous figures of their main figure of worship – a fox, that is believed to be the protector of harvests.
Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion)
Known as the “Golden Pavilion“, Kinkaku-ji is another renowned shrine, this time belonging to Zen Buddhism.
The UNESCO World Heritage site was once the retirement villa for shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu before being given a more spiritual purpose. The gold-covered, 3-tiered structure also comes with a unique blending of styles. While the first floor represents a place style, the second mimics a samurai house while the third is a more humble Zen temple design.
Sadly, visitors cannot enter. Though no matter, the tranquil pond and traditional Japanese gardens that surround it make for quite the picture!
Ginkaku-ji (The Silver Pavilion)
After creating a golden pavilion, what’s the next logical step? A silver one, of course! Just like Kinkaku-ji, Ginkaku-ji is yet another retirement villa of a former shogun, built with an equal lack of modesty.
Though this temple was supposed to be covered in silver, the plans never came to fruition. Though, again just like Kinkaku-ji, the villa later became a Zen temple.
Built in the 7th century, Yasaka Shrine is considered the guardian shrine of the city’s geisha district. The shrine also symbolises prosperity as well as protection against fatal diseases!
Many will seek their wishes by writing their prayers on a piece of paper and tying it to a nearby tree covered with tiny paper bows.
Sadly, the stunning 5-storey pagoda is all that remains of the former temple. Regardless, it still plays a vital role during the annual Gion Festival.
Want to learn more about Geisha culture in Japan? Watch down below…
Constructed in 1606, the Zen Buddhist temple was built in memory of Toyotomi Hideyoshi by his faithful wife Nene, and would later become the final resting place for both of them.
Once covered in gold, these days the main hall has a more modest look after the original was sadly burnt down.
The grounds of the temple include beautifully interconnected structures, Zen gardens and a miniature bamboo grove at the back. There’s also the memorial hall where Nene would pray for her late husband and a mausoleum designed with rich powdered gold and silver. Quite the lavish memorial!
The ultimate 4-day itinerary for Japan’s religious centre and ancient capital, Kyoto.
For the uninitiated, it might be difficult to tell the difference between many of the temples in Kyoto. Yet, Sanjūsangen-dō certainly stands out from the crowd!
Within the dimly lit halls and clouds of earthy incense, crowds shuffle along a succession of 1000 identical statues of Kannon that flank a central figure of the same deity. The primary figure has 11 faces and 1000 arms. It’s said they are used to better see the suffering of man and have enough arms to help fight against it.
The Japanese know a thing or two when it comes to gardens. That’s even the case when they’re made entirely up of rocks!
Ryoanji Temple has the distinction of housing Japan’s most famous rock garden with its 15 miniature boulders placed on small islands of moss.
What they represent is up for debate. While some believe they’re islands in the ocean, others think it’s a tiger carrying her cubs. Either way, the gardens are a beautiful representation of Zen.
Yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tenryu-ji’s construction was inspired by a dream! The founding abbot envisioned his deceased enemy, Emperor Go-Daigo, as a golden dragon rising from the nearby river. To avoid any future bad luck, shogun Ashikaga Taka built the temple where Go-Daigo’s villa retreat once stood. It was also given the flattering nickname of the Temple of Heavenly Dragon.
Dating back to 1339, the garden was one of the first examples of “borrowed scenery“ where it attempts to imitate other landscapes. In this case, they mimicked that of Mount Horai in China.
Would you believe it, Kyoto has yet another UNESCO-rated temple! Founded in 794, To-ji Temple was built after the capital was moved to Kyoto and it became the city’s guardian temple. This also makes it one of the oldest temples in Kyoto!
To-ji also became one of the most important Shingon temples in Japan after Kobo Daishi, the sect’s founder, was appointed as its head priest.
One of the most iconic features of the temple is the 5-story pagoda. Standing at 57 metres tall, it’s one of the tallest pagodas in all of Japan! Quite a lot with this one!
Tofuku-ji is yet another Zen temple with a huge open complex and stunning gardens to match. With some gorgeous examples of traditional temple architecture and Japanese maple trees that bloom in a sea of orange during the autumn, it’s certainly one of the most beautiful temples Kyoto has to offer.
One of the largest temples in Kyoto also stands as one of the most significant! Higashi Hongan-ji temple makes up one of a pair of temples that stand a few blocks away from each other but act entirely independently.
The temple boasts some of the most enormous structures you’ll come across in any temple! In fact, its main hall is Kyoto’s largest wooden structure and is dedicated to Shinran, the sect’s founder.
Behind the grandiose 28-metre-tall Founder’s Hall Gat, the courtyard is filled with incredible relics. Those include a long black rope which is completely made of female devotees’ hair.
Making up the second half of the pair of UNESCO temples is Nishi Hongan-ji. This particular one acts as the headquarters of the Jodo-Shin sect of Buddhism, one of Japan’s largest with over 10,000 sub-temples across the country.
Though it may not be as grandiose as its partner, it’s actually the oldest, making it a far more significant one for most!
This next temple is a real hidden gem and one that’s barely mentioned in any must-see list! This temple is unique in the fact it’s dedicated to the fallen on both sides of the Pacific War.
The notable centrepiece of the temple is a 24-meter-high figure of Kannon which overlooks the temple’s courtyard. The hollow centre of the figure holds a collection of eleven different images of Kannon each with its own separate shrine.
The truly unique feature of the temple though is placed in a small chapel-like structure next to the temple. Inside are a series of filing cabinets full of documents detailing each victim (both Japanese and otherwise) that died on Japanese territory. There’s also a display that contains samples of soil collected from each allied cemetery that took part in the Pacific War.
Want to learn more about some jaw-dropping sites related to the Pacific War? Check out The Ultimate Travel Guide: War Tour of Okinawa.
The oldest Zen temple in the city was founded by a Buddhist monk that introduced both Zen Buddhism and tea cultivation to Japan following his visit to China. It’s also one of the main temples of the Rinzai sect of Buddhism.
Throughout the temple are immaculate Zen gardens and stunning interior sliding doors that feature decorative artwork with images. Though just as striking is the spectacular mural of twin dragons which adorns the roof of Dharma Hall which commemorated the temple’s 800th anniversary.
While there are many sects of Buddhism in Japan, some try to make their stand as the big dogs in town. This particular temple was built to demonstrate the superiority of the Jodo sect of Buddhism, one of the most popular in Japan. Since then, it has become the head of the temple of that sect.
The temple was where Honen, the founder of the Jodo sect, initiated his teachings and later fasted himself to death in 1212.
One of the temple’s defining features is the Sanmon Gate, which is the largest wooden gate in Japan standing at 24 meters tall. The temple also used to hold another record when at one point in time it had the world’s largest bell!
Nanzen-ji is yet another retirement villa that was later converted into a temple and has since become one of the most important Zen temples in all of Japan.
At the base of Kyoto’s forested Higashiyama mountains, and standing behind the enormous Sanmon entrance gate (built for the soldiers that died in the siege of Osaka Castle), the temple holds some of the city’s most tranquil scenes.
There are plenty of photogenic temples in Kyoto, but there are few as glorious as this one! The long winding staircase that leads to the shrine is red lantern lined with vermillion red lanterns that create a stunning postcard image!
There’s little wonder why this spot is most popular amongst Instagrammers!
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Dating back to 701, Matsuo-taisha is one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Kyoto. The site is also home to a natural spring that is believed to have water with mystical powers. So much so, the spring attracts sake makers and miso producers from far and wide to pray that their products are blessed and successful.
Lucky visitors might even get to try some sake that’s prepared at the shrine itself. The fact that it’s filled with gold leaf makes it all the more special!
Yet another temple is an immense history, this 1200-year-old structure was once the imperial palace before being converted into the temple it is today.
Within the temple grounds are a multitude of wooden halls and a cherry tree-lined pond that bursts into life each Spring.
Yet another thousand-year-old structure, this shrine was built in the memory of Abe no Seimei, a spiritual advisor to the emperors and the Heian government at the time.
Nearby is yet another natural spring that’s believed to have supernatural powers. There’s even a bridge which some believe to be the gateway to the spirit world!
This is certainly one of the more unique-looking temples in Kyoto! With a thick blanket of moss engulfing the entire temple and its surroundings, it makes for quite the fairytale setting!
Gio-ji also has the ability to transform its beauty with each season, with a bright green sheen during the summer and a winter wonderland by winter.
This little visited temple hides some of Japan’s greatest treasures! Within the moss-covered gardens and temple structures are a myriad of national treasures both from Japan and China.
Being much more obscure than others on this list, you’ll end up having it all to yourself!
Yet another temple perfect for spotting cherry blossoms at the right time of year, Konkai-Komyo-ji is yet another century-old temple that remains below people’s radar.
The simplistic wooden architecture and the surrounding greenery create a wonderfully peaceful environment.
Found tucked away along the Philosopher’s Path, this little tranquil temple packs a big punch. Hidden behind the moss-covered gate and pristine stone bridge is a small gallery showcasing art exhibitions. Certainly a rare find for a temple around here!
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