Kyoto is a city of temples. While most people travel to Tokyo for its urban appeal and delirious nightlife, Kyoto is where people go when they seek a slower pace. Travelers come here hoping to taste some of Japan’s religious flavor, to meditate on the rock formations of a Zen garden, participate in a tea ceremony, or chant sutras alongside Buddhist monks. While there are over 1600 temples in Kyoto, there is enough diversity among their sects and traditions to make each one special in their own right. From the very popular to the slightly obscure, here are Kyoto’s top 10 temples.
Kiyomizudera is easily number one on any Kyoto temple guide. Its verandah is one of the city’s most recognizable structures, a gigantic wooden stage-deck that is a 1633 reproduction of the 798 original. It juts out over the steep hillside, floating over maple trees that glow red in the autumn months. Descending the slope via a narrow path that skirts the edge of a forest, visitors encounter Otowa-no-taki, a waterfall with three streams partitioned by man-made stone conduits. People line up to drink from Otowa’s waters, as each stream promises success, love, or longevity. But be wary not to drink from all three: it’s considered bad luck if you do.
Sharp-eyed travelers might also notice Jishu-jinja, a Shinto shrine that lies at the top of the narrow stairs past the main temple hall. Try your luck at some amateur divination at the “love fortune telling stones” – walking between one stone to the other with eyes closed fulfills your desire in love.
Second to Kiyomizudera can only be Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion. The present structure dates to 1955, after a crazed monk burnt down the previous temple in a defiant act of arson. The top two floors are coated in real gold leaf, as per the wishes of the shogun who designed this place as his retirement villa. Following the style of the Heian era, the temple sits on the edge of a lake that reflects Kinkaku-ji’s glittering patina. It’s a bit ironic that this particular temple has come to represent Kyoto, a city that otherwise prizes rustic simplicity and muted tones (the local government has building codes in place that force even McDonald’s to tone down the bright reds and yellows of their iconic signage). Take a break from the crowds by popping into the tea garden for a small Japanese sweet and a hot cup of matcha.
Ryoan-ji is a Zen temple in Kyoto’s northwestern region, famous for housing one of Japan’s most intriguing rock gardens. Although very little is known about its origins, the garden became a part of Ryoan-ji’s complex around the year 1500. Visitors naturally fixate on the supposed meaning of the design: 15 small boulders arranged in three groupings of seven, five, and three. From the temple’s verandah, only 14 of these rocks can be seen at one time. Move slightly, and another rock appears, and one of the original 14 vanishes from sight. So that you have ample space and time to experiment with perspective, it’s best to get there as early as possible, before the droves of tourists have a chance to spoil your Zen.
Ginkaku-ji, or the Temple of the Silver Pavilion, is not actually silver. Unlike its sister Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion), the shogun that commissioned this villa never had the time to coat the temple in shimmery foil. Still, most Kyotoites believe that the exquisite gardens at Ginkaku-ji outshine Kinkaku-ji’s golden exterior.
Entry into the grounds requires moving through a tall hedged walkway that completely blocks any view of the outside world. The first sight upon exiting the hedge is not the temple itself, but a large sand garden with a cone-shaped sculpture, about 2 meters high. The cone supposedly represents Mount Fuji, and the surrounding expanse of raked sand depicts a legendary lake of ancient China. The rest of Ginkaku-ji is a delight to the senses; take time to admire the extraordinary moss that carpets the bottom of the garden all the way up the adjacent hill.
Nanzen-ji’s claim to fame is its “gateless” gate, or sanmon – an impressive wooden structure that towers over the temple grounds, radiating an uncanny stillness. It’s not uncommon to see locals and tourists alike resting on the gate’s platform, relaxing and soaking in this temple’s peaceful charm. For those who want to get a bird’s eye view of the place, you can pay a small fee to climb up a steep flight of stairs to the sanmon’s balcony. Don’t leave Nanzen-ji without visiting its large aqueduct, one of the most photogenic spots in Kyoto.
For travelers unable to make the trek to Ryoan-ji, there are two phenomenal rock gardens at Kennin-ji, a temple located in central Gion, the famed “geisha district.” Founded in 1202, Kennin-ji is the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto. One of the gardens, Circle-Triangle-Square, purportedly symbolizes the fundamental forms of the universe; the second, “the garden of the sound of the tide,” is made up of three stones that represent the Buddha and two Zen monks.
After some casual meditation, gaze up at the painted dragons on the ceiling of the dharma hall, a 2002 addition commissioned for the temple’s 800th anniversary. This place is a peaceful retreat amidst the hubbub and color of Gion, and occasionally hosts tea ceremonies that are open to the public.
Your itinerary should include Tofuku-ji before or after a visit to the Shinto shrine Fushimi Inari, the much celebrated, much photographed rows of vermillion gates that extend all the way up one of Kyoto’s eastern mountains. Like Nanzen-ji, Tofuku-ji is famous for its spectacular sanmon. At 22 meters tall, it is the oldest gate of its kind, dating to 1425. The temple is also known for the Tsutenkyo Bridge, which is particularly lovely when shrouded in red autumn leaves.
Here too are some of Kyoto’s best rock gardens, a collection of dry landscapes that are rarely overcrowded with tourists. One of these hidden gems is the “Big Dipper” garden, created in 1939 by artist Shigemori Mirei. Shigemori decided to recycle some of Tofuku-ji’s old pillar supports when constructing this miniature landscape; the effect is seven stone cylinders from which radiate psychedelic swirls of raked white sand. Tofuku-ji’s hojo, or head priest’s former quarters, has been designated a national treasure, and is unique for having rock gardens on all four sides of the structure.
Daitoku-ji is a large walled temple complex of several subtemples, each significant to the history of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. Daisen-in, founded 1509, contains the oldest tokonoma in Japan, a type of alcove that became an essential feature in Japanese architecture. Ryogen-in (1502) contains the oldest meditation hall in Japan, and five rock gardens – one of which, Totekiko, is the country’s smallest. Finally, there’s the remarkable Zuiho-in. The gardens here were also designed by Tofuku-ji’s Shigemori Mirei, but later in his career in the 1960s. This temple was originally founded by warlord Otomo Sorin, who converted to Christianity but had to keep his adopted religion a secret from his Japanese countrymen. As a nod to this history, Shigemori created the “garden of the cross,” a rock garden where jagged stones form a rough crucifix shape. A statue of the Virgin Mary also lies buried underneath one of the temple’s stone lanterns.
While its official name is Rengeo-in, everyone in Kyoto and Japan as a whole knows this temple as Sanjusangendo. Sanjusan is Japanese for 33, which is the number of spaces between the 35 pillars of the narrow, 394-ft-long hall of the temple. In the center of the hall is a 6-foot-tall, 1,000 armed statue of Kannon, the female buddha of compassion. On either side are 1,000 smaller statues of the same buddha, and in the adjacent corridor stand 28 guardian deities that preside over this supernatural scene. The number 33 is significant because Kannon can assume 33 different forms. As for the 1,000 arms? They’re there to make it easier for her to heal as many suffering beings as possible.
Higashi Hongan-ji is located just north of Kyoto station, making it a convenient temple to visit after immediately arriving in the city, or just before you depart to your next destination. The Goei-do, or Founder’s Hall, is the second largest wooden structure in Japan, after Nara’s Daibutsu-den, or Great Buddha Hall. The inside is an open worship space, with golden chandeliers and an extravagantly carved ceiling. Be sure to remove your shoes before entering – this hall is one of the largest remaining tatami rooms in Japan. Higashi Hongan-ji is also one of the two head temples of the Jodo Shinshu sect, the most popular form of Buddhism practiced in Japan today.