We didn’t make it to all 2000 but we gave it a good shot.
Kyoto was Japan’s capital for over 1000 years and is the heart of traditional Japan. When you arrive in downtown Kyoto it doesn’t look promising with its concrete high rises and busy highways, but to discover traditional Kyoto you need to look further afield and walk amongst the neighbourhoods towards the mountains that surround the city. Here you’ll find the Kyoto you imagined: narrow stone streets of old wooden houses; monks in flowing robes in one of the many temples and shrines; the sounds of chanting and gongs; all against a backdrop of lush green hills.
As we visited the many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines throughout Kyoto, temple burnout was prevented by how unique each one of them felt and they all had a feature we loved: a shimmering gold pavilion, a reflection in a pond, a stunning view of the city, a peaceful location amongst a forest or a calming Zen garden. But we also noticed recurring features in them all.
There are two main religions in Japan and many people seem to adhere to them both which co-exist and complement each other. Shinto is the indigenous faith without a founder or scriptures. The kami or gods are sacred spirits that take on the form of wind, rain, mountains, trees and other natural elements. Buddhism was brought from India via China and Korea in the 6th century. The architecture of the main shrine and temple buildings is similar but some elements within and the rituals worshippers practice are quite distinctive.
Shrines (called jinja or taisha)
The shrines welcome you with a bright red or orange torii gate. We came to love these colurful entrances and you find them scattered all over the city at even the smallest shrines.
A shimenawa is a rope with white zigzag paper hanging from it. It is often found attached to torii gates or even a tree and marks the boundary to a sacred place.
Komainu are a pair of guardian dogs or lions found at the entrance to the shrine. At Inari shrines they are foxes instead.
Just inside the entrance you’ll find a purification fountain to wash your hands and mouth before approaching the main hall. The water spurts out of a range of animals but a dragon was common.
There are a number of buildings around the shrine complex including the main hall (honden) which contains a sacred object, and an offering hall (haiden) where people pray. This is done by throwing a coin into the box as an offering, bowing deeply twice, clapping twice, bowing again and then praying.
Often there is a gong which may be used before praying to get the kami or Shinto gods’ attention.
Ema are wooden plates where people leave their wishes in the hope they will come true. Mostly they are in Japanese of course but at some of the more popular temples we found a few left by tourists in English and Spanish.
Omikuji are paper fortunes that can be bought at both shrines and temples. The fortunes range from great good luck to great bad luck. There are places to tie the fortunes to avert the bad luck if you are unlucky enough to draw that fortune. We got an English fortune from a vending machine at Kinkaku-ji – ours was “pretty good”.
It’s worth seeking out shrines in Kyoto, although most aren’t as famous as the temples, as they are usually free, very colourful and the rituals are fascinating to observe.
Temples (called tera or ji)
Buddhist temple complexes feature entrance gates too, but they are usually dark wood rather than the red of torii gates and are a bigger, sometimes huge structure.
The main gate features a pair of rather frightening nio or guardian statues.
There are a number of buildings including the main hall and often a pagoda where the remains of the Buddha (or representation of) are stored. There is also a bell which is rung at New Year.
Worshippers pray at the sacred object after making an offering into the coin box. Incense is often burned.
Many temples have beautiful gardens featuring ponds, raked gravel Zen gardens, rock gardens and peaceful walkways.
It was a fairly common feature to find ponds or pots to throw money into – testing your aiming skills in search of good luck.
At the most touristy temples you’ll find an array of souvenir stands and of course, the ever present (and rather convenient) soft drink vending machines.
These are some of our favourite temples and shrines in Kyoto and the surrounding areas.
Kinkaku-ji Golden Temple
The famous Golden Temple is one of the most iconic images in Kyoto and we were prepared for it to be overrated. Instead we couldn’t help but be impressed by the shimmering pavilion reflected in a pond dotted with islands of trees. The pavilion features three unique styles of architecture – the first floor is palace style, the second the style of a samurai house and the third is Zen temple style.
We got there early before the worst of the crowds and found the leafy gardens a peaceful place to wander around.
Cost: 400 yen (US$5.20)
A wonderful escape from the city is to take the train 30 minutes north to Kibune or Kurama. We started at the small riverside village of Kibune, visited the shrine there and walked across the valley to Kurama-dera. This gorgeous temple was a wonderful reward after the steep 35 minute climb (it felt like longer!). It has the best location of all the temples we visited completely surrounded by forest covered hills with expansive views.
The main hall is a cheerful red with large white lanterns and there are tiny Zen rock gardens throughout the complex.
Cost: 200 yen (US$2.60)
Eastern Kyoto – Hirashiyama
Hirashiyama in the eastern hills is one of Kyoto’s most traditional neighbourhoods with picturesque streets of old wooden houses and many temples to explore. We spent a day walking between these temples and although it’s a popular area with tourists (mostly Japanese) we still found it easy to find peaceful lanes to stroll along.
One of Kyoto’s most popular temples, Kiyomizu-dera was crowded with school and tour groups and the many souvenir shops add a more commercial air. It’s still a beautiful place though with an impressive location overlooking the city and you can walk down a quiet path into the forest where the cicadas drown out the school kids.
One of the most interesting things about the temple is the Tainai-meguri to the left of the temple entrance. It costs an extra 100 yen but it’s worth it for the bizarre experience. After taking off your shoes you enter a dark hallway, and continue into complete pitch blackness. It’s rather disorientating and you have to cling to the hand rail to follow the path. Apparently you are figuratively entering the womb of Daizuigu Bosatsu, a female Bodhisattva who has the power to grant wishes. After a few minutes in darkness you reach a gently lit large round stone where you place your hand to make a wish.
Cost: 300 yen (US$4)
We first visited Yasaka-jinja at night while wandering around Gion – it’s considered the guardian shrine of this geisha quarter. You leave the busy streets behind when entering the huge torii gate (one of the tallest in Japan) and enter a peaceful retreat, especially magical at night when it’s quieter and the lanterns are lit up. The main building is wonderfully colourful.
A giant wooden gate (the largest in Japan) leads to steep stone steps up to the main temple complex which has a lovely backdrop against the green mountains. The main hall is huge and inside is a large tatami room (no shoes or photography) where we sat quietly listening to the monks chant. People approached the ornate golden altar to make their offering, ring the bell and pray. They also lit incense and tea light candles flickered in the semi-darkness. We found it a peaceful place with far less visitors than other temples in the area.
An extensive complex of many subtemples leading off quiet, shady lanes. We chose not to pay to enter the temples (the fees can really add up) but instead walked up the hill into the forest to visit the simple shrine Nanzen-ji Oku-no-in beside a small waterfall. A good place to get away from the hustle and bustle of busier temples.
Cost: Grounds are free
After walking along the peaceful Philosopher’s Path beside a canal we reached our final temple of the day Ginkaku-ji. It’s name means Silver Pavilion but it was never covered with silver leaf. It’s still a lovely temple reflecting into a pond and with beautiful gardens to wander through, including the immaculately raked white sand of the Zen garden and a shady mossy section within the forest reached by following the path up to admire the temple from above.
It’s another popular temple and gets quite crowded. The street leading up to the temple is packed with touristy shops selling green tea ice cream, rice crackers, pickles, pretty fans and these ice pops. If they are good enough for Leo…
Cost: 500 yen (US$6.50)
Fushimi Inari Taisha
In the far southeast of Kyoto (reached by a short train trip to Inari) is Fushimi Inari Taisha, our favourite shrine. If you are a fan of torii gates then this special place is a must. Thousands of bright orange toriis form passageways and snake up through the forest into the mountains – the orange vibrant against the green backdrop. They just keep going on and on. It took us about an hour and a half to complete the main walk and it’s quite steep for much of the way. If you don’t want to walk the whole way though you can just turn back at any time.
The toriis are donated by individuals and companies, whose names are written on them in black. We saw a sign for this and it costs 3000 -10,000 pounds depending on the size.
Along the way we passed small shrines with fox stone statues and mini torii gates as the fox is considered the messenger of Inari, the god of the rice harvest. There are also occasional shops and vending machines but these don’t detract from the magic.
It’s a wonderful place where nature is intertwined with spirituality. Make sure you go early or late (it’s open dawn to dusk) to experience it in peace.
Cost: Free (the biggest bargain in Kyoto)
Western Kyoto – Arashiyama
Another of the major traditional neighbourhoods ripe for wandering amongst temples and quiet streets. Arashiyama is up in the western hills and takes a little longer to reach (20 minutes on the train to Saga Arashiyama).
The main attraction here is the gardens including a pond and Zen garden with overlooking platform where you can sit and contemplate. We mainly came here to experience Zen Buddhist temple cuisine at its restaurant Shigetsu. When we first arrived we had a huge tatami room to ourselves overlooking the garden with no tables or chairs. We sat on the floor Japanese style and our feast was brought on a tray. Of the eight dishes many were unidentifiable and rather strange but mostly it was delicious and a real treat for vegetarians.
Cost: Temple entrance is 500 yen (US$6.50) , the set lunch is 3000 yen (US$40).
If Fushimi Inari is our favourite shrine then Otagi Nenbutsu-ji is our favourite temple in Kyoto. It’s not very well known and you won’t find it in the guidebooks so it makes the perfect break from the busier temples. 1200 stone sculptures of the Buddha’s disciples are scattered throughout this shady temple complex, all with different facial expressions and poses – scary, serene, cheerful, cute and just plain bizarre.
Cost: 300 yen (US$4)
Nara makes an easy day trip from Kyoto (just under an hour on the train) and there are many temples to explore. We spent a morning wandering amongst the deer in Nara Park and visiting temples along the way.
This is the main attraction and rightly so. The Daibutsu-den (Hall of the Great Buddha) is the largest wooden building in the world and nothing prepares you for the immense sight. Inside is a huge golden Buddha dating back to 746.
Cost: 500 yen (US$6.50)
Before we arrived in Kyoto I was a little overwhelmed by how many temples and shrines there were to visit, and felt sure we’d get templed out after a while, but we really enjoyed all of our temple explorations.
What is your favourite temple in Kyoto? Leave a comment and tell us.