When you hear the word ‘Kyoto’ images of ancient temples and perfectly preserved pagodas spring to mind. The old imperial capital is home to over 1500 of them and each serves a special purpose, from bringing good fortune in your work life to helping you bag a date with that certain someone you’ve been admiring from afar. Some temples are more famous than others, attracting crowds that number in their thousands, whereas smaller, lesser known places can offer the opportunity of quiet contemplation whilst admiring sacred architecture that feels as though it’s been put there just for you. Here’s a list of my favourite of Kyoto’s most picturesque shrines and temples, both off-the-beaten-path and awe-inspiring monuments of grandeur.
Also known as the Golden Pavillion, this is one of Kyoto’s most iconic temples. It’s beauty is simply incredible and as such is always busy, but most definitely worth fighting the crowds to catch a glimpse of its golden walls glistening in the sun.
One of the grandest temples in Kyoto, Chion-in is in the Higashiyama area and is one of a number of temples in the area that are all worth a visit. This is by far my favourite, from the intricate san-mon gate to the steep steps leading to the eastern mountains, everything about Chion-in gives you a feeling of the vast lengths that people will go in pursuit of their faith.
Fushimi Inari Taisha
One of Japan’s most famous religious sites, these vermillion Torii are high on everyone’s Kyoto hit-list. As such, they’re always busy so head here in the early morning or evening to snap some selfies sans tourists.
A tiny shrine in Higashiyama, this place is often overlooked and devoid of tourists. It makes for a lovely stop whilst wandering more well-known sights in the area and is particularly lovely in the mid afternoon sunshine when the walls, bathed in the perfect light, appear to glow.
Famous for its wonderful garden and dragon ceiling mural, the grounds of Kenninji are a tranquil oasis in the heart of Gion. The temple itself can get quite busy but nothing in comparison to some of the more famous spots.
A rather large and very active temple complex in the north of the city, not far from Kinkakuji, this is a wonderful place to spend a few hours wandering. A number of the constituent temples offer zen meditation classes, temple stays and even kaiseki lunches in the grounds.
A very tiny shrine at the start of Nishiki Dori. I love this place as it’s semi hidden along one of the busiest streets in Kyoto and is a great vantage point for people watching. The perfect place to spend ten minutes before or after tackling Nishiki market.
Moving away from central Kyoto, the city’s surrounds have a rich religious history too. A few of my favourite places to visit include…
A small temple in the mountains of Arashiyama. It’s famous for its stunning moss garden which is like something from a fairytale. The best time to visit is in late summer when the air is thick and humid and the moss glows bright green, it’s completely other-worldly.
The most famous of Arashiyama’s temples, this place is always very busy but the stunning gardens more than make up for the crowds.
Mount Hiei, Kyoto’s most famous and tallest mountain, has at its summit the stunning complex of Enryakuji. Sprawled across the mountain, there are too many shrines and temples along the way to stop at them all but the walk through the cedars (one of Japan’s ‘Kaori Fueki 100 Sen’ or the ‘Best 100 Scent Sceneries’) is one of the most relaxing and architecturally rewarding for temple-hunters.
Another tiny temple on the list, this one is packed full of history. Famed for its blissful garden of bamboo, moss and the remarkable ‘Goyo-no-Matsu’; a 700 year old pine tree, there’s an undisturbed harmony with nature that is so pure it was even immortalised in ‘The Tale of Genji’, Murasaki Shikibu’s classic Japanese novel. The ceiling is made from blood-stained floorboards from the infamous Fushimi castle battle where over 100 samurai committed suicide after their defeat and the grounds are dotted with suikinkutsu, a type of Japanese water feature that emits relaxing sounds and reverberations – an interesting juxtaposition to the horrible history.
Ohara’s largest and most famous temples complex, this place is awash with oranges, reds and golds during the autumn. The garden is a highlight for me and the town of Ohara is quaint, cute and sells the most incredible pickles.