Kyoto's Top Ten Shinto Shrines & Buddhist Temples
Our advice is to visit early and avoid weekends and Japanese public holidays. We also list our top 10 free Kyoto temples and shrines with no admission fees and an alternative top ten of more obscure and quirky temples, where you hopefully can avoid the crowds, selfie sticks and tour buses.
1. Kinkakuji Temple (Golden Pavilion)
Kinkakuji is perhaps the most well-known temple in Japan. The main pavilion is covered in gold leaf and shimmers in front of a tranquil pond - kyoko-chi (Mirror Pond). The current building only dates to 1955. The ancient original was burned to the ground in 1950 by a disgruntled priest, an incident immortalized in the Yukio Mishima novel - The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. The wooded grounds are extensive and lovely to walk. Kinkakuji belongs to the Shoku-ji branch of Rinzai Zen and was founded by Muso Soseki (1275-1371) in the Muromachi Period. The temple was originally built in 1397 as a villa for court noble Kintsune Saionji and greatly improved by its second owner, Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, who converted it to his retirement home and spent the latter part of his days there, away from the troubles of the state. His son, Yoshimochi, converted the building into a Zen temple, (then called Rokuonji), according to his father's will. It was destroyed by fire several times during the Onin War.
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2. Kiyomizudera Temple
The hugely popular Kiyomizu Temple (Kiyomizu-dera, in Japanese) is a must for most visitors to Kyoto. The main hall of Kiyomizu is built out on a veranda onto pillars, a structure constructed without nails. The effect is that of a deck reaching out from the foot of the mountain - Otowa Hill. Kiyomizu-dera is composed of several Buddhist temples and was founded in 798. It is named for a waterfall on the grounds ("Kiyoi mizu" means pure water). Kiyomizudera temple brings in many young visitors hoping for luck in love. The sub-temple Jishu-jinja (Jishu Shrine) has two love stones (Mekura-ishi; Blind Stones) placed roughly 20 meters apart. If you can manage to walk between with the stones, eyes closed, you will find love - or so the faithful believe. (Cheating however is allowed: pilgrims are often seen being led by their significant other.) Love charms can be bought at Jishu-jinja to help you in your search for true love as well as charms for safe driving, easy childbirth and longevity.
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3. Toji Temple
The elegant pagoda of Toji Temple can be seen from the bullet train as you ride into Kyoto from the direction of Nagoya and Tokyo. Toji (lit. "East Temple") is a short subway ride south of Kyoto Station or it is possible to walk to Toji from the south east of the station. Toji Temple, which dates from 794, is known for its high pagoda tower (the tallest in Japan) and for its lively flea markets on the 21st of every month (called "Kobo-san" locally). Get there very early for the best buys, which include antiques, fine textiles, used kimono, ceramics and tansu furniture. Toji Temple was founded in 794 on imperial orders from the Emperor Kammu to pray for national peace and in 823 was given to Kobo Daishi (aka Kukai), the founder of the Shingon school of Japanese Buddhism.
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4. Heian Shrine
Heian Shrine is a scaled-down reproduction of the original Imperial Palace (Daigoku-den) constructed in 794. Heian Shrine was first built in the late nineteenth century and the present wooden structure dates from 1979 (after a fire in 1976 destroyed the original). The lovely Chinese-style garden behind the main shrine buildings to the left as you enter has a pond and covered wooden bridge and is meant to represent the kind of garden design that was popular in the Heian Period of Japanese history. The garden is divided in four sections: north, south, east and west and contains plum, cherry, iris, azalea, and lilies.
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5. Ginkakuji Temple (Silver Pavilion)
Restraint, elegance, wabi sabi. Ginkakuji is perhaps the pinnacle of Japanese artistic expression. Best known for its stone gardens (the Sea of Silver Sandbuilt to reflect the moon) and simple buildings, this fifteenth century temple was originally a villa for the artistic Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, a poor, inept ruler in a time of conflict and instability, but a great patron of the arts: Noh theater, the tea ceremony and ikebana (flower arranging). Yoshimasa lived here from about 1484 until his death in 1490. In accordance with his wishes, it was then converted into a Buddhist temple.
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6. Nanzenji Temple
If you're looking for the quintessential Japan don't miss Nanzenji. This temple is home to priceless treasure, echoes Japan's most violent history, and preserves a culinary style dating back eight hundred years. Nanzenji's origin is steeped in the mysticism of Zen.
Nanzenji (lit. "South Temple of Enlightenment") and its 12 sub-temples now occupies a large piece of real estate of some 10 hectares east of downtown Kyoto. Nanzenji, like other temples in Kyoto, began life as a retirement villa for a Japanese emperor, Kameyama in 1274. The Zen priest Fumon persuaded the emperor to grant him some land to build a temple and the present Nanzen-in became the first part of the present Nanzenji complex.
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7. Fushimi Inari
Fushimi Inari Shrine (Fushimi Inari Taisha), in south west Kyoto, is famous for its thousands (over 10,000) of closely-spaced orange torii gates that wind over the hills of Inariyama beyond the entrance to the shrine.
Inari shrines honor the patron deities of agriculture and business, ensuring a constant stream of worshippers and the individual torii are donated by merchants hoping to get ahead in business and replaced every 10 years. The black kanji lettering on each torii indicates the name of the donating company and is a subtle means of advertising!You will notice dozens of small statues around the shrine of the fox (kitsune) - the messenger of Inari.
The Inari is thought to be the protector of grains, in particular rice and thus sake. In Japan, that meant wealth. Even today the rich, and officials from companies, come to pay their respects.
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8. Tofukuji Temple
Tofukuji Temple is a massive religious complex that was founded in 1236 and built in the ensuing decades. Tofukuji takes its name from a combination of the Todaiji and Kofukuji temples in Nara - the great founding temples of Japanese Buddhism that were so influential in the flourishing of the religion. Tofukuji Temple is best known for its massive gate - at 22 meters it is the largest in any Japanese Zen temple - and its Zen gardens within the Hojo (Abbot's Hall). The gate was built in 1425 - then taken apart, fixed, and rebuilt in the 1970's. The stone Zen gardens surround the Abbot's Hall on all four sides and each is different in character and design. The gardens are named from the cardinal points thus: northern garden, eastern garden, southern garden and western garden. The garden by Mirei Shigemori (1896-1975) features a stone zen garden, and, in the rear, a moss garden. Tofukuji Temple is especially beautiful in the fall and is also known for its azaleas and hydrangeas in summer.
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9. Ryoanji Temple
Ryoanji Temple houses the most famous Zen rock garden in Japan arranged in the kare-sansui (dry landscape) style. Founded in 1450 by Katsumoto Hosokawa, the temple grounds also include an interesting wooded garden and pond. The site of Ryoanji Temple was originally the family estate of the Fujiwara clan. The garden at Ryoanji Temple is composed of raked gravel and fifteen moss-covered boulders of different sizes. It is said that only 14 of these can be seen from any one place in the temple. Until one attains enlightenment, the fifteenth boulder remains unseen. The whole walled garden can in fact be seen as a koan or Zen riddle, hiding its meaning from view.
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10. Sanjusangendo Temple
Kyoto's spectacular Sanjusangendo Temple, established in the twelfth century, houses 1001 carved wooden statues of Kannon - the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy - set in ranks in the main hall: 500, in ten rows of 50, on each side of the seated figure of Senju Kannon. Sanjusangendo is the only such Sentai Kannon-do (one thousand-Kannon hall) left in existence. The 1001 images are around 167cm tall and were made using a technique called yosegi, which allowed a number of craftsmen to work on one statue. First hollow blocks of wood were put to together and roughly carved, then the images were finely carved and lacquered for preservation. This is surely one of the most beautiful and evocative interiors, not just in Kyoto, but the whole of Japan.
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