Japanese culture and tradition are alive and well in Kyoto. This is a place where you’ll see Geishas walking down the street, vintage kimono shops, and antiquated tea houses. Kyoto looks quintessentially Japanese, with bamboo forests, Zen rock gardens, and paper lanterns. This city is also the place for traditional temples. There’s an entire trail lined with some of the country’s most exquisite temples. Visitors simply can’t miss them while roaming around the city. And, there’s really no reason not to stop in and see a temple or two for yourself. If you’re spending some time in Kyoto, and want to witness the beauty and history of these temples, here are a few you should see.
This temple may be small, but it’s surrounded by manicured gardens, and peaceful nature sounds. It’s the spot to visit if you appreciate beautiful landscaping, babbling brooks, groves of bamboo, and grassy fields. Spend some time meditating in the gardens of this Tendai Buddhist temple, right at the bottom of the Higashiyama mountains. Originally, this temple was built for the son of a prominent, Japanese Emperor. Today, guests are free to wander and enjoy one of the exclusive tea ceremonies on the property.
Need some time away from the city? This is the temple to visit. It’s located north of Kyoto, in the woods of Kitayama. The mountainous landscape is home to the village of Kurama, as well as Kurama-dera Temple. The temple is located on the slope of the mountain, and gives off a more spiritual aura than other Kyoto temples. It looks like a Japanese painting, perched up there amongst the trees and changing colors of the seasons. Visitors can hike up to the temple, enjoying the views along the way.
This popular temple is often referred to as the ‘silver pavilion.’ Expect large crowds, or come during off-peak season to have more space to yourself. This is one of Kyoto’s top temples, so most people have it on their itinerary. It’s a Shokuku Buddhist temple that’s located right at the foot of Kyoto’s eastern mountains. There’s a walking trail that offers beautiful views of both the temple and the surrounding areas. And, there will be plenty of gardens on the grounds to keep you busy. Keep in mind that this is one of the best examples of Japanese architecture around, so take it in and snap a few photos.
This temple dates back to the 13th century. Over the years it has seen additions and renovations so that it’s now a mosaic of eras from Imperial Japan. It has become of on Kyoto’s largest and most important Zen Buddhist temples. The temple is surrounded by gardens, and each of them has its own style and purpose. There’s a rock garden, plenty of ponds, and a blanket of lush greenery. Visiting in the fall is highly recommended. This temple is famous for the maple trees that show off their vibrant colors when the season changes.
Japan has five important Zen temples and this is one of them. It’s located on the outskirts of the bamboo forest, Arashiyama, to the west of Kyoto. If you’re going to visit this forest, a stop at Tenryu-ji is a great addition to your trip. It’s one of the temples that incorporates ‘shakkei,’ which means ‘borrowed scenery.’ This means that the garden landscape was designed to interact with the natural landscape of the area. Basically, it’s meant to be extremely beautiful. Visit in the fall and you’ll be treated with drastic oranges, reds, and yellows.
This is one of the largest temples in Kyoto. It’s also one of the most important for the Rinzai group of Zen Buddhism. The grounds include various, smaller temples, and plenty of landscaped trails to connect them all. It’s located just on the outskirts of the city, near Higashiyama, and has some of the best features when it comes to Japanese temples. There are trees, streams, and gardens all around for visitors to enjoy. One of the more unique parts of the property is the hidden grotto. It can be found behind a waterfall in the hillside, behind the temple.
Kyoto has a whopping 17 UNESCO Heritage sites. And, this temple happens to be one of them. It gives off a serene atmosphere, as many of the Zen Buddhist temples do. The temple is slightly hidden, but this doesn’t stop thousands of tourists from visiting each year. In fact, this temple is quite famous, especially for its moss gardens. It’s nicknamed, ‘the moss temple,’ because there are more than 120 moss species growing around it. The gardens are quiet, peaceful, and hauntingly beautiful. If you want to tour the inside of the temple, make sure to book ahead of time. If you get a spot, you may be able to join in the Buddhist rituals of shakyo and kito.
This temple is the most iconic of all Kyoto’s sites. And, for good reason. It’s called the Golden Pavilion, and it is the subject of thousands of photographs. It stands right on the edge of a pond, so visitors can see both the golden reflection, and the real thing. No matter which time of year you visit, the Kinkaku temple always promises a beautiful view. In fact, the winter is one of the best times to see it, all covered in snow. The surrounding gardens are nice to look at too, but in the case of the Golden Pavilion, it really is the main attraction. The grounds get extremely crowded, especially during peak season. Get there early or later in the day for the best chance of smaller crowds.
Many locals claim that Honen temple is their favorite. The main gate is covered in moss, making it obvious that this temple is a beauty, before even entering. Visitors are said to be purified as they enter and pass by the stone mounds on their way to the main areas. The grounds are covered in meticulous gardens, moss-covered rocks, ponds, a stone bridge, and a secret grotto. Visitors can tour the grounds throughout the entire year, but the inside of temple itself can only be seen in April and November. These are the best times to visit anyways as the colors of the trees are incredible. There are always art exhibitions and events going on, with some of the most refined artists in the country and the world. It certainly is a place that inspires art and creativity.
Daitoku-ji is actually a complex of temples rather than just one singular building. This complex has some of the best examples of Zen gardens in all of Kyoto. It’s located in northern Kyoto and is both historical and beautiful. There are 22 sub-temples on the walled property, many of which aren’t able to be toured. You may see signs that indicate the temples are private, which can be a bit frustrating. However, they are still just as beautiful to view from the outside. Spend some time wandering around the manicured gardens and take in the scene that makes you feel like you’re in a whole new world.
Often called the Vatican of Buddhism, this is one of the largest and most popular temples in Kyoto. It’s a temple complex that is entered through an ornate, san-mon gate (these steps were featured in the Tom Cruise movie, The Last Samurai.) When you reach the main temple hall, take off your shoes and enter. You may even be able to catch the chanting ceremonies of the priests. Check out the Amida Buddha image and the 70-ton bell which is rung each year on New Year’s Eve. Keep in mind that this temple is being renovated until March 2019, but is still open for visitors.
Known as The Temple of The Dragon at Peace, this beautiful structure can be found in northwest Kyoto. It’s part of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, and it has one of the best known examples of a ‘dry landscape.’ This kind of garden is characterized by large stones, small pebbles, and sand that is raked into designs to help promote meditation. The garden and temple are listed as a World UNESCO Heritage Site, and a Historic Monument of Ancient Kyoto. If you want to see the best example of a Zen garden in Kyoto, this place is a must for the itinerary.
To-ji temple comes from the Shingon sect of Buddhism. It’s name means east, and there used to be a west temple nearby. Together, they served to protect the nation. Now, only the To-ji temple remains, and is a historical gem in Kyoto. It was founded in the Heian period, and dates back to 796. During this time, only three Buddhist temples were allowed in the capital, To-ji being one of them. Out of those three, this temple is the only one that’s still standing. It’s a designated World UNESCO Heritage Site, an exclusive private school, and the site of a well-known antique flea market that happens once a month.
This temple can be found looking over the southern Higashiyama Sightseeing District. The views are some of the best in the city, and the exaggerated design makes this temple popular for photographs. Kiyomizu-dera is quite different from other temples in Kyoto. It’s bustling, full of noisy crowds and commercial shops selling trinkets. Despite the hustle and bustle, this temple still makes a fun and interesting visit. Wander the complex and make sure to see the Tainai Meguri grotto, Jishu-jinja, where students will walk from pillar to pillar with their eyes closed to try and find good luck in their love lives, and the cherry blossoms if you come during the right season.
Considered part of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, this temple is the head of the Omuro School branch of Buddhism. It was established back in 888, and can be found in western Kyoto. It has been designated a World UNESCO Heritage Site, and is considered a Historic Monument of ancient Kyoto. It used to be known as an imperial palace, and was once the home of a head priest. While visiting, make sure to stop into Goten, the head priest’s former residence, located in the southwest corner of the complex. The rock and pond gardens are beautiful in every season, but when the cherry blossoms come in during spring, this is one of the most scenic times to visit.
This temple complex is associated with the Rinzai Zen Buddhism branch. In fact, this is one of the largest sects of the Rinzai branch, as the Myoshin-ji is one of 3,500 temples of its kind throughout the country. The grounds were once a palace for Emperor Hanazono, and almost all of the buildings were destroyed in the Onin War of 1467. Many of the buildings were reconstructed over the years. One of the highlights of a visit here is the Okikicho bell, which is the oldest example of a Buddhist temple bell that is known of. It’s the oldest bell in Japan, and the oldest one in the world that is still in use. Make sure to also wander the complex and get a look at the sub-temples which all offer their own kind of beauty.
Located in the Arashiyama sightseeing district, this temple is one of the most unique. It’s dedicated to all of the souls who have died without leaving families behind. There are hundreds of stone statues that give this place an eerie, yet spiritual atmosphere. It’s said that it was founded in 1811 in the spot where people abandoned the bodies of the dead during the Heian period. Every year, there is a ceremony called the ‘sento kuyo,’ when ten thousand of these statues are lit up by candles.
If you’re visiting Kyoto, a tour of the temples is a must. Follow the temple trail around the city, or get out to the surrounding suburbs and mountains to see some more unique spots. While you may not get to all seventeen, it’s worth adding a couple to the itinerary as each temple holds important culture and history. You can find out more about interesting Kyoto traditions here, or if you’d like to book a food tour or cooking class then please get in touch today.