Article updated on May 20, 2020
Text & photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Cherry blossoms in spring, red maple leaves in autumn, hidden temples, modern buildings, bamboo forests, bright orange torii gates, philosophical strolls, haute cuisine, Geisha culture: Kyoto has so much to offer! One would have to spend months in that wonderful city to only start uncovering its treasures. Far from being exhaustive, we ranked our favourite temples and shrines for you in our top chart, to make sure you are really enjoying it and not merely running from one temple to the next. Let’s go temple hopping in Kyoto!
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1. Kokedera, the most stunning moss garden
Known as Kokedera, or the temple of moss, Koinzan Saihoji is a very special Buddhist temple and requires quite a bit of efforts to be visited, as its precious treasures need to be protected: 120 different types of mosses are grown in this stunning Japanese garden that was designed in 1338 by the Zen priest Muso Kokushi.
As the few other Japanese-only visitors, we sit on our knees in a tatami mat room of the temple when three monks enter. After burning a scent stick and bowing deep to the altar, they start chanting the prayer… Visiting Kokedera is an experience in itself before uncovering its jewel: the garden of moss. All details and photographs to be read in our article devoted to Kokedera.
2. Fushimi Inari Taisha, the never-ending path through the bright orange torii gates
The business shrine Fushimi Inari Taisha is not only a true place of worship for people praying for a fruitful year but draws tourists from all over the world to stroll underneath the more-than-30,000-famous-torii gates which are placed on the Inari mountain in Kyoto.
Originally Inari is the god of rice, worshipped for good harvests. In these days, it has become the god of business. Each torii gate was donated by a Japanese company to thank the gods for their fortune and to pray for future success of their organisation.
It is early morning, just after sunrise, when we walk up the mountain through the never-ending line of gates which are placed tightly one after the other. We are alone and the atmosphere is magic. The morning light peeps through the dense leaves and playfully alters the colours and shades on the bright orange coloured gates. The small shrines along the winding steep path and the graveyards which are squeezed in, are surrounded by smaller offerings adding a mysterious feel to this place. After walking up for more than 45 minutes, and still seeing a never ending toriis, we decide to walk back down via a different way, and we are welcomed by herd of tourists when we arrive back at the main temple.
3. Taking it in in Shoren-in
Sitting down in Shoren-in temple, overlooking its gardens and peaceful pond while hearing the rain falling on its roof was a very serene moment when we contemplated and took in all these new impressions. Curiously enough, this temple is off the tourist path while it has had very close connections to the imperial ceremonies and provides a peaceful break.
4. Honen-in: as close to a Zen temple as it gets
The main hall is not always opened but the garden itself is completely worth visiting: moss-covered fountains with delicately floating flowers, small stone bridges, sculptures, to-perfection-raked sand symbolizing waters cleaning mind and body, different green tints of moss, smell of nature… The sereneness of Honen-in surprised us. Opening at 6a.m., and on the way to the Ginkaku-Ji, it is accessible without paying an entrance fee.
5. Mount Fuji in the garden of the Silver Pavilion
Ginkaku-Ji or the Silver Pavilion is a Zen-temple with a beautiful raked zen-garden. The perfectly-shaped cone next to the temple itself (which is by the way not covered in silver as the name might suggest) symbolizes Mt. Fuji. Walking up in the garden on a winding stony path, we enjoyed lovely views on the temple itself and the modern city beyond. Arriving early, waiting for a few minutes for it open made our visit very special.
6. Visiting a temple in and out in Eikan-do
Eikan-do temple is one of the few which is completely accessible as a visitor, in and out. The buildings are massive and very different in styles, with one of them hosting the famous statue of the Amida Buddha looking over his shoulder. Make sure you pour some water in the bamboo well: close your eyes and focus on the sounds of drops dripping down creating unique melodies. Some maple leaves started to turn red, revealing how incredibly breath-taking this place must look in autumn.
7. Ryoan-ji, the puzzling stone garden
We found ourselves a spot on the wooden terrace of Ryoan-ji or the rock garden, slightly overlooking the garden where 15 stones are standing. This tiny Zen garden only surrounded by walls is quite puzzling as it is said that only the enlightened can see all of the 15 stones at the same time, making it the most famous zen garden in the world.
8. The world-famous Golden Pavilion
The Golden Pavilion (or Kinkaku-ji or Rokuon-ji) may very well be the most popular temple in Japan: covered in gold, it is a real eye-catcher! Our visit was spoiled by the herds of tourists, making it feel more like being in Disneyland during a public holiday than in a religious Zen landmark hosting precious ashes of the Buddha. From what we have been told, this temple is so famous that it is always packed. The golden temple reflects itself in a pond where 10 small islets covered in rocks and bonsai trees are scattered and represent famous places of the Chinese and Japanese literatures.
9. Catch and drink some wish-granting water at Kiyomizu-dera
The wooden structure of Kiyomizu-dera or the Pure Water temple is indeed very impressive. Visiting it late in the day, we were surprised by the huge crowds killing the atmosphere. It was funny to see all the Japanese people ringing bells, or walking eyes closed from one stone to another 18 meters away to find out if they could find true love.
10. The path of philosophy – not quite a temple but an inspiring stroll among them
The path of philosophy in Kyoto is especially beautiful in the springtime as hundreds of blooming cherry trees cover the way pink on both sides, along a small canal. The path, scattered with boutiques and cafés, starts around our favourite Gingaku-ji temple and leads south along some others like the lesser-known Honen-in. Biking along this path, named after the influential Japanese philosopher Kitaro Nishida, who used to walk it countless of times while meditating, one can discover many details like these two delicate statues. Highly inspirational.
- Transportation: get yourself a bicycle in Kyoto: it is definitely the best way to discover the city without being completely exhausted, or wasting precious time waiting for public transports. The Japanese cycle on sidewalks.
- Food: to make the most of your day, you may want to consider bentos for lunch that you can enjoy in many serene places (along the philosopher’s path for instance) without wasting too much time.
- Almost all temples require an entrance fee, and there are no discount cards available.
- If it is your first time visiting shrines or temples, you may want to read our articles about the cleaning ritual to not offend the monks, and about the differences between shrines and temples to understand the symbolism better and make your visit more valuable.
- Documentation is given in Japanese. Make sure you download our interactive map to get some basic explanations to make your visits more enjoyable and interesting.
- Check out this interactive map (quick tutorial) for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles (zoom out) about the area!
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