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Kyoto has over 2000 temples and shrines… so realistically you are definitely not going to be able to cover even 10% of them all... But there are a few a would highly recommend you check out. At the top of this page you'll find the more famous and perhaps more touristy temples and shrines of Kyoto. Down at the bottom of this page, you will find the more 'off the beaten track' temples and shrines which will tickle the adventurous bone in you.
Possibly one of Kyoto's most iconic and famous temples and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kiyomizu Dera (literally: “pure water temple”) is set on the east hills of Kyoto, facing in towards the city. Founded in 780, the Temples was associated and tied with the Hosso Sect, one of Japan's oldest Japanese Buddhist schools. Its most famous for the wooden stage/platform that juts out of the side of the hill, allowing incredible views of Kyoto city. The temple is spread out over a large area but you can follow the path or indeed the crowds and it’ll take you round the whole site. I recommend getting there earlier in the day as it gets incredibly crowded with tourists.
One of the other fun things I enjoy about Kiyomizu Dera is the streets that lead up to the temple entrance. The main street is called Matsubara Dori. Have a stroll up and down this street and enjoy the fun foods and wares that are being sold. You can even take some left and right turns down some smaller streets. Shops are selling loads of tasty rice snacks, ice cream, fried snacks and other Japanese Oyatsu (snacks). You can even find the famous Machiya style starbucks which is great fun. The temple is located just a kilometer east of the city centre and accessible on foot.
! Note that there are repair and refurbishment works going on on the main building and pavilion/balcony until 2018/19 !
►Admission fee: 400yen
Be sure to check out bustling Matsubara Dori and the little streets that run off it. You will find the worlds only Japanese machiya style Starbucks there too! See below.
With its iconic and mysterious corridors of red gates (Torii) set in the Inariyama (mount Inari) in southern Kyoto, you’ll feel like you’re in a period movie. The corridors are very mysterious and slightly trippy!
This shrine is dedicated to the Shinto God of rice, Inari, and is considered the most important of thousands of shrines dedicated to Inari. Each Torii gate is donated to the shrine by a business or individual as they believe it brings good luck and good business to the donor.
While the actual shrine buildings are pretty and interesting, the main reason people come here is to see the corridors of Torii gates. You can hike up the summit of the mountain which will take about 2 or 3 hours there and back, and it’s not a difficult hike. The signs are clearly marked and the path is easy to follow. I would recommend doing this. The beginning of the trail is marked with two dense corridors of Torii next to each other (they end up in the same place). The location is just south of the city centre and easily accessible by metro and subway.
►A local tip!
Go at night. Near the top, you'll be rewarded with epic views over Kyoto. And at night time there won't be many/any people around at all. Therefore you'll avoid the enormous crowds during the day. Also, there are rumours and stories of hauntings here. Click here for our haunted guide to Kyoto!
►Admission fee: Free
►Hours: Open 24/7
A famous Zen temple that you may have seen images of during your research of Kyoto. Originally a retirement villa for the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu of the 14/15th century, it is now a beautiful building that looks over a large pond. The top two floors are completely covered in Gold leaf. The location is in the north of Kyoto city.
►Caution! The temple gets super crowded. Avoid coming here on weekends on peak times.
►Admission fee: 400 yen
Tofukuji is a large Zen temple, and one of the Gozen (Great five zen temples of Kyoto). This temple is particularly beautiful in Spring, Summer and Autumn, where the appropriate colours really stand out. The temple was founded in 1236 and takes its name from two temples in Nara, Todai-ji and Kofuku-ji. Tofuku-ji is spread out over a fairly large area with many buildings and gardens to enjoy. This temple is a particular favourite of mine. Zen temples tend to be very peaceful and calming, but this one in particular stands out. You can get some amazing autumn views on the Tsutenkyo bridge which looks over a valley of maple trees which go a deep purple red in autumn. One of the main buildings is the Kaisando Hall (pictured below) which serves as the mausoleum of the temples original head priest. The stone path to the hall is flanked by lush greenery. Be sure to check out the Hojo as well, which is the other fee paying area. The Hojo was the former living quarters of the head priest.
►Admission fee: Kaisando Hall and Tsutenkyo Bridge - 400 yen, Hojo Building and Gardens - 400 yen
►Hours: 9:00 - 16:30 (April - October), 8:30 - 16:30 (November - December), 9:00 - 16:00 (December to early March)
Located just a short walk on the east side of the river Kamogawa in central Kyoto is Heian Jinja (shrine). Considered one of the main Shrines in Kyoto, it was awarded that status of ‘Beppyo Jinja’, which is the highest rank for Shinto Shrines by the Association of Shinto Shrines.
The architecture has Chinese influence, and was built to mark the 1100 anniversary of the establishment of Heian-Kyo (the old name of Kyoto). The architecture is also very similar, in fact is essentially based on the architecture of the Kyoto Imperial Palace.
On the lamps that are dotted around, you can see ‘The four Symbols’ of Chinese mythological animals of the Chinese constellations. The Azure Dragon of the west, The Vermillion Bird of the South, The White Tiger of the West and The Black Turtle of the North. See if you can spot them!
►Admission is Free.
Probably at the top of my personal favourite is Nanzenji. Possibly Japan's MOST important zen temples, this complex is based at the foot Kyoto's mysterious and beautiful Higashiyama mountains. It is the head temple of one of the main schools in the Rinzai sect of Japanese zen Buddhism. In the 13th century, Emperor Kameyama built his retirement villa where the temple is today, and later converted it into a zen temple.
Fun Fact: The famous Sanmon gates tower above the treetops and is the location where the legendary thief Ishikawa Goemon and his son were boiled alive for a failed assassination attempt on the warlord Hideyoshi. Goemon stole gold and other goods and gave them to the poor - some say he inspired the story of Robin Hood. These days when you go to hot spring onsens and bathhouses, you often will find a iron or stone bath that is in the shape of a cauldron, called Goemonburo - named after Goemon and the cauldron that he and his son were boiled alive in.
Another fun fact: Near the Hojo (main building and former residence of the head priest) you will come across a large structure that looks very out of place - a huge red brick European aqueduct. It was built by a British architect during the Meiji period (1868-1921) and is part of a canal system that connects Lake Biwa and Kyoto, and is still active today.
Nanzenin is a sub temple located just behind the brick aqueduct. This spot is a particular favourite of mine as it's incredibly beautiful and peaceful all year round. The main building hall looks out onto a pond and Japanese garden that surrounds the building. There is a mausoleum for the Emperor Kameyama as this was the original location for his retirement villa.
►Admission fee: Temple grounds and Sanmon gates are free of charge to walk around and look at, Hojo Building: 500 yen, Nanzenin: 300 yen, Konichi-in Temple: 400 yen
►Hours: 8:40 - 17:00
One of my personal favorite spots in Kyoto due to the tranquility and peace here. It really is very Zen.. meaning you can just sit and meditate, and reflect on life while looking over a Zen rock garden. Daitokuji is a large zen temple complex in the north of the city. The complex consists of around 12 sub temples and has a fantastic selection of zen gardens and culture. I highly recommend coming here. This temple was damaged during the Onin war 1467-77, much like a lot of Kyoto. After the reconstruction of the temple it became a hot spot associated with Tea ceremonies and indeed a favorite of tea master Sen no Rikyu as well as war lords who were fond tea ceremony practitioners.
Take a walk around the many buildings and relax by the zen gardens. Zen gardens are iconic in granite gravel with patterns carved into them with rakes. This practice takes many many years to master for young monks and priests. My favourite is the Ryogenin, one of the main sub temples. It features a large zen garden with several smaller ones. This sub temple was built in 1502. The main zen garden has raked gravel which represents the universe, and rock and moss islands which represent a crane and a turtle, which are symbols of health and longevity.
Zuihoin is another pretty sub temple. Its one of the smallest but richest in history. It was built in 1535 by a warlord from south of Japan who later converted to Christianity, which is very unusual. The main garden to this building is a raked gravel garden with sharp high peaks which are representative of rough seas and sharp rocks. There is a garden to the rear of the building which has rocks laid out in the shape of a crucifix, appropriate for the newly converted christian Daimyo (warlord). Very close to here is Imamiya Shrine (see below). Its worth taking a talk there once you've finished at Daitokuji.
►Hours: 9:00 - 17:00
►Admission fee: 400 yen
Imamiya shrine is an old Shinto Shrine, located close to Daitokuji (see above). Shinto is the traditional religion specific to Japan. Imamiya (meaning newly constructed) shrine was built around 994 during the Heian period but in 1001 it was moved to its current location due to an epidemic that had hit Kyoto that year. The Shrines purpose was for patrons to come and pray for protection against an epidemic but these days people come to prey for general good health.
Fun fact! A 1 minute walk from here are two very famous competing mochi shops which are both over 1000 years old! I would highly recommend checking them out and trying their Aburi Mochi. Ichiwa and Kazariya are two of Kyoto's oldest sweet shops. They sit facing each other on the opposite side of the road and have had healthy rivalry for 1000 years! They both serve delicious sticky sweet mochi which is cooked on a charcoal fire and served with barley tea. You sit on tatami mats on with open sliding doors onto pretty Japanese gardens. A very welcome treat after walking around temples all day!
►Admission fee: Free
►Hours: 9:00 - 17:00 (office hours)
Personally I like to explore temples that are more untouched by the mass of tourists. Here are a few places I think are worth visiting, and infact are far more exciting, tranquil and atmospheric than the ones above. These are my favourite, so get your adventure boots on!
Location: North west Kyoto - Arashiyama
Located a few clicks north west of the Kyoto city and a 30 minute walk from Arashiyama is a pretty little Buddhist temple. Founded in the 8th century by Empress Shotoku, the temple is one of my favourite due to its tranquility and beauty. Another beautiful feature is many 'Rakan' which are little statues carved by professionals and amateurs. Each expressing different moods, like anger, joy, laughter, happiness etc, some of which are even holding glasses up saying cheers! The Rakan were carved by, and under the guidance of famous sculptor Kocho Nishimura in 1981 after a typhoon in the 50’s had heavily damaged the Temple.
The temple is a 30 minute walk from Arashiyama station, through Arashiyama and the back streets. It’s a very pleasant walk and you will pass some nice little local shops, restaurants and cafes. The other great thing is that not many tourists know about it.
►Location: North Kyoto
Kurama Dera is the main temple in the Kurama mountains, and stores some of Japan's National Treasure. The temple is shrouded in mystery and history and ascends up the Kurama mountain. This means that it is a bit of a walk up, but nothing unmanageable. The first 50 meters are steep but there is a tram-train that takes you up the first 50 meters.
The area is famous for ‘Tengu’. The locals, to this day, still believe that Tengu and other mountain spirits/monsters live in the mountains. Tengu are essentially half man half bird type of creatures that are said to be Shinto gods. They are neither good nor evil, however, historically have been associated as bringers of war and problems.
The first version of the temple was built by a Chinese monk who saw in a dream/vision that the Kurama mountain had supernatural powers, so built the temple to focus this power. Even today, Shugendo monks and other mountain region disciples will walk the mountains praying and carrying out rituals.
Once you have reached the top of the temple, you should take the mountain walk up and over the other side of the Kuramayama to the other side, and visit Kifune shrine. The walk will take 30-40 minutes if you’re relatively fit. You may even encounter a Tengu! I was walking this path with a friend, and we both got hit by tiny little pea-sized pebbles as we were walking, yet no one was around us. Creepy!
►How to get there? go to Kurama station.
A very interesting little temple in Arashiyama. As you walk up the Saga Toriimoto (Preserved street), on your left, quite high up, you'll see the entrance of Adashino Nenbutsuji, a very beautiful and mysterious temple.
The temple has around 8000 buddhist statuettes, which commemorate the bodies and souls of the dead. Since the Heian period, people abandoned the bodies of the dead here, exposing them to the elements. The statues were then used after this period, to commemorate the dead. It is a very beautiful and somewhat spooky place. Knowing that thousands and thousands of bodies have been left in the area without proper burial sounds like the start of a horror film.
Adashino Nenbutsuji is a 30/40 min walk from the Arashiyama main area and stations. So do consider this is you want to visit, it is a bit of a schlep.
►Admission: 500 yen
►Opening hours: 9:00 a.m - 4:30 p.m - March to November
9:00 a.m - 3:30 p.m - December to February
9:00 a.m - 5:00 p.m - Saturdays and bank holidays in April, May, October and November
A 20/30 mins walk up along the Katsura River and you'll reach steps to the stunning Daihikaku SenkÅ-ji, or commonly known just as SenkÅ-ji, is a zen temples up in the hills of Arashiyama. Considered by many as the best view in Kyoto, it is definitely worth the walk and short hike up the stairs. The temple has a fantastic observation deck that looks over Kyoto and the mountains.
It is especially beautiful in Autumn, and indeed Spring.
►Admission fee: 400 yen
►Opening hours: General Admission: 10:00 - 16:00, (09:00 – 17:00 in spring and fall)