With over 1600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, Kyoto is the heart of traditional and religious Japan.
We didn’t make it to every one, but we gave it a good shot during our two month-long stays in the city. Temple burnout was prevented by how unique each of the shrines and temples in Kyoto felt.
Every one we visited had a feature we loved: a shimmering gold pavilion, reflection in a pond, stunning view of the city, peaceful forest location, quiet bamboo grove, or calming Zen stone garden.
Some are huge commercial complexes with souvenir stands and school groups, while others are tiny and tranquil with exquisite gardens that are perfect for quiet meditation.
Below I share our favourite Kyoto temples and shrines divided by area, as well as tips for your visit and the common features to expect.
This post was originally published in 2011 but was majorly updated in 2019 after our latest visit to Kyoto.
- Planning Your Kyoto Temple Visits
- Shinto and Buddhism in Japan
- Features of Kyoto Shrines
- Features of Kyoto Temples
- Map of Kyoto Temples and Shrines
- Northern Kyoto Temples
- Eastern Kyoto Temples – Southern Higashiyama
- Eastern Kyoto Temples – Northern Higashiyama
- Southern Kyoto Shrines and Temples
- Western Kyoto Temples – Arashiyama
- Nara Temples
Planning Your Kyoto Temple Visits
There are so many temples in Kyoto that it can be overwhelming deciding which ones to visit. My advice is don’t try to do it all and to mix a few popular temples with quieter, less well-known ones that you can enjoy without the crowds.
I highly recommend visiting the major temples early in the morning (or an hour before closing) to minimise the crowds. This is most important for Fushimi Inari, Kiyomizu-dera, Kinkaku-ji (Golden temple), and Ginkaku-ji (Silver temple).
I haven’t ranked the sights below in order as choosing the absolute best temples in Kyoto is an impossible task and it depends what’s important to you. Instead I have grouped them by area which makes more sense when planning your itinerary.
If you are struggling to decide which ones to visit, my number one pick is Fushimi Inari shrine as it’s so unique.
I also love the quieter Otagi Nenbutsu-ji and Jojakko-ji in Arashiyama and Kodai-ji in Southern Higashiyama.
To escape the crowds, the Yoshida Hill temples and shrines are very peaceful (and have free entry) and can be combined with the Philosopher’s Path.
Try to visit some shrines as well as temples for a different experience. Shrines are usually free to enter, but most temples charge a fee ranging from 300 – 600 yen (US $2.80 – 5.60).
If you have limited time and would prefer to take a tour, this Kyoto early bird tour escapes the crowds by starting at 6 am and visits Fushimi Inari, Kiyomizu-dera, and the bamboo forest in Arashiyama.
If starting so early isn’t for you, this 1 Day Historical Sites of Kyoto tour starts at 9 am and covers Fushimi Inari, Kiyomizu-dera, Kodai-ji, Yasaka Shrine, and Kinkaku-ji.
Alternatively, this Kyoto UNESCO and Historical Sites tour visits Kiyomizu-dera, Sanjusangendo, Fushimi Inari, Tenru-ji (in Arashiyama) and Kinkaku-ji.
Note that you usually have to remove your shoes inside temples so slip-on shoes (and non-holey socks!) make life easier. I often wear my Tieks ballet flats which are comfortable enough for a long day sightseeing.
For more tips on escaping the crowds in Kyoto, as well as activities beyond the temples, see my detailed guide to the best things to do in Kyoto.
Shinto and Buddhism in Japan
There are two main religions in Japan and many people adhere to them both—they 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. Buddhists don’t worship a creator god. The basic philosophy is that suffering is inherent in life and that one can be liberated from it by cultivating wisdom, virtue, and concentration.
Zen is a sect of Buddhism that was brought from China in the 11th century. Zen Buddhists believe that self enlightenment can be achieved through meditation and discipline.
Kyoto has many incredible Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples and this is one of the reasons it tops our list of the best places to visit in Japan.
The architecture of the main shrine and temple buildings is similar, but some elements within and the rituals worshippers practice are quite distinctive.
Features of Kyoto Shrines
Kyoto shrines are called Jinja or Taisha and welcome you with a bright red or orange torii gate. We came to love these colourful entrances that you find 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 is 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 (we got one from a vending machine at the Golden Temple).
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. If you get a good fortune, keep it with you.
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.
Features of Kyoto Temples
Kyoto temples are called Tera or Ji. Buddhist temple complexes feature entrance gates, but they are usually dark wood rather than the red torii gates of shrines and they are bigger structures.
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.
Map of Kyoto Temples and Shrines
Northern Kyoto Temples
1) Kinkaku-ji Golden Temple
The iconic Golden Temple is one of the most famous Kyoto temples 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 in the style of a samurai house, and the third is Zen temple style. The top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf.
We got there early before the worst of the crowds and found the leafy gardens a peaceful place to wander.
Details: 400 yen entry fee. Open 9 am – 5 pm. There are no train stations nearby. You could cycle here (like we did), take a taxi, or get the bus 101 or 205 from Kyoto Station (at least 40 minutes).
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, then 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, entirely 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.
Details: 300 yen entry fee. Open 9 am – 4.30 pm. The train on the Eizan Kurama Line from Demachi-Yanagi Station to Kibuneguchi Station takes 30 minutes. Hike over the mountain then return on the same line from Kurama Station (or just take the train to Kurama).
It’s easy to do this trip independently, but if you’d prefer to have a guide you can take this Kurama hike tour with includes the onsen.
Eastern Kyoto Temples – Southern Higashiyama
Southern Higashiyama in the eastern hills is one of Kyoto’s most traditional neighbourhoods with picturesque streets of old wooden houses and many temples to explore.
If you only have one day in Kyoto, you could spend it temple-hopping through these temples (from south to north) and up to Northern Higashiyama (we always do it on foot).
One of the most popular temples in Kyoto, Kiyomizu-dera is usually 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.
Visit at opening to avoid the crowds or during one of the special night illuminations that take place in March, April, and November.
The large wooden main hall was built without nails and houses a statue of the eleven-faced, thousand-armed Kannon. Unfortunately, the hall is currently being refurbished and will be covered until March 2020, but the temple is still worth visiting.
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.
Details: 400 yen entry fee. Open 6 am – 6 pm. It’s a 20-minute walk from Kiyomizu-Gojo Station on the Keihan Main Line. Walking up through the atmospheric lanes full of souvenir shops is part of the fun.
Kodai-ji is in a convenient location to combine with other major attractions but it doesn’t get too busy, especially if you visit in the morning.
The Zen Buddhist temple was established in 1606. The main hall features beautiful artwork and painted screen doors. It overlooks a raked gravel garden with a weeping cherry tree.
You’ll also find a lovely strolling garden with a pond, attractive teahouses, and a bamboo grove (which we enjoy much more than the famous one in Arashiyama).
Three times a year (April, August, and November) the temple opens for special night illuminations, which are well worth visiting although it’s much more crowded. It’s one of our favourite Kyoto cherry blossom spots.
Details: 600 yen entry fee (or 900 yen combo ticket with Entoku-in). Open 9 am – 5 pm. It’s a 15-minute walk from Gion-Shijo station or a bus will get you closer.
Entoku-in is a sub-temple of Kodai-ji with a small karesansui (dry stone) garden and some beautiful screen paintings.
We enjoyed the interactive elements—make your own miniature raked stone garden, trace a Buddha picture or sutra, or try zazen meditation.
You can also take part in a tea ceremony overlooking another small stone garden at the end of your visit (1500 yen at the table including a fan or 500 yen if you sit on the floor).
Details: 500 yen entry fee (or 900 yen combo ticket with Kodai-ji). Open 10 am – 5 pm. It’s a two-minute walk from Kodai-ji.
Kennin-ji is another quieter temple in Gion. It was founded in 1202 and is the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto.
You can wander the large complex for free, but it’s much better inside.
The main building overlooks a large raked gravel garden, one of the best we visited. There are lots of small rooms where you can admire screen paintings and you can walk in the gardens to an old teahouse.
In a separate building there’s a gorgeous ceiling painting of twin dragons that was painted to celebrate the temple’s 800th anniversary in 2002.
Details: 500 yen entry fee. Open 10 am – 5 pm. Gion Shijo is the nearest station.
Yasaka-jinja is in Gion and is considered the guardian shrine of this geisha quarter.
You enter through a huge torii gate (one of the tallest in Japan). It’s especially magical at night when the lanterns are lit up.
Details: Free entry. Open 24 hours. The closest train stations are Gion Shijo Station on the Keihan Line and Kawaramachi Station on the Hankyu Line.
At Chion-in 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 fewer visitors than other temples in the area.
Details: Free entry. Grounds open 24 hours. Temple buildings open 9 am – 4 pm. The closest subway station is Higashiyama Station on the Tozai Line.
Eastern Kyoto Temples – Northern Higashiyama
Nanzen-ji is an extensive complex of sub-temples leading off quiet, shady lanes.
The grounds are free so it’s definitely worth stopping by before you walk the nearby Philosopher’s Path. You can see the massive Sanmon entrance gate, a large brick aqueduct built during the Meiji period, and walk up the hill into the forest to visit the simple shrine Nanzen-ji Oku-no-in beside a small waterfall.
You can also pay to enter some of the sub-temples. We visited Tenjuan and had the beautiful gardens to ourselves.
Details: Grounds are free. 500 yen to enter Tenjuan which is open 9 am – 5 pm. The nearest subway station is Keage Station on the Tozai line. We usually walk from Gion and continue along the Philosopher’s Path.
After visiting Nanzen-ji, I recommend walking along the lovely Philosopher’s Path beside a cherry-tree-lined canal to Ginkaku-ji. Along the way you can stop at the small, peaceful temple Honen-in.
There’s a small gallery showing contemporary art exhibitions, a moss-covered gate, a stone bride over a pond, and a pretty moss garden.
It’s considered a hidden gem, but I think the secret is out now as it was fairly busy when we visited (perhaps due to the unusual free entrance).
Details: Free entry. Open 6 am – 4 pm. Best visited on foot.
At the end of the Philosopher’s Path is Ginkaku-ji, which means Silver Pavilion, but it was never covered with silver leaf.
It’s still a lovely temple reflecting into a pond with beautiful gardens to wander through including the immaculately raked white sand of the Zen garden. Follow the path up to a shady mossy section within the forest and 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 other souvenirs.
Details: 500 yen entry fee. Open 8.30 am – 5 pm. It’s best reached by walking the Philosopher’s Path or you can take bus 17 or 100 from Kyoto Station (40 minutes).
12) Yoshida-Jinja (and Takenaka Inari)
If you want to escape the crowds in Kyoto, I highly recommend heading to Yoshida Hill near Kyoto University where there are a cluster of peaceful shrines and temples (all with free entry).
We reached this area on foot after walking along the Philosopher’s Path from south to north. We started at Takenaka Inari Shrine which is small but well worth visiting in sakura season to see the line of torii gates framed by cherry blossom trees.
From here it’s a short walk over the hill to Yoshida-jinja, a larger shrine complex in a peaceful forest setting. We saw a monk performing a ceremony and there’s a nice collection of sake barrels and some vibrant torii gates.
On our way to Shinnyodo Temple we passed Saijōsho Daigengū, a sub-temple of Yoshida-Jinja, which has an attractive thatched roof.
Details: Free entry. It’s best reached on foot—it’s about a 20 minute walk from Ginkaku-ji on the Philosopher’s Path. You could also approach it in the opposite direction from the Kamo River— Demachiyanagi Station is a 20-minute walk away.
13) Shinnyodo Temple
If you make it to Yoshida-Jinja you might as well continue to these next two temples as they are only a 10-minute walk away and are equally quiet (and free).
Shinnyodo is a large temple complex featuring a huge hondo (main hall), various other buildings, and a pond. There are many cherry trees on the grounds (we were a little too early for the blossoms) and it’s also a beautiful spot in autumn.
To get to the next temple, we walked down the hill through the neighbouring graveyard, which has great views of the city.
Details: Free entry to grounds. Apparently you can pay 500 yen for the inner chamber and gardens, but this wasn’t obvious to us (or possibly not open). Open 9 am – 4 pm.
14) Konkai-Komyoji (Kurodani)
Also known as Kurodani Temple, Konkai-Komyoji is a large complex with an impressive grand entrance gate and staircase lined with cherry trees. If like us, you arrive via Shinnyodo and the graveyard, you’ll enter from the side and leave through the main entrance.
Amongst the wooden buildings in the complex is a large main hall that was originally built in 1175 and rebuilt in 1605.
Details: Free entry. 600 yen for back gardens in November. Open 9 am – 4 pm. This was the last of our Yoshida Hill temple tour. We took a taxi to the Kamo River but you could also walk. It’s a 20-minute walk to Jingu-Marutamachi Station.
Southern Kyoto Shrines and Temples
15) Fushimi Inari Taisha
In the far southeast of the city (reached by a short train trip to Inari) is Fushimi Inari Taisha, our favourite Kyoto shrine. If you are a fan of torii gates, 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 takes us about an hour and a half to complete the circuit, but you could easily spend two or three hours exploring all the little shrines along the way.
Many visitors turn back after the lower loop (at a viewpoint over the city), but I love the upper section deep in the forest as it’s much quieter.
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 to £10,000 depending on the size.
Along the way we passed small shrines with fox stone statues and mini torii gates—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.
Fushimi Inari is a wonderful place where nature is intertwined with spirituality. Make sure you go early (preferably before 7 am) to experience it in peace as it gets insanely crowded during the day.
You could also visit late at night for a different, atmospheric experience.
Details: Free entry and open 24 hours. Take the train to Fushimi Inari Station on the Keihan Main Line (if coming from Higashiyama, 10 minutes from Gion-Shijo) or JR Inari Station on the JR Nara Line (if coming from Kyoto Station, 5 minutes).
Tofuku-ji is a large Zen temple one train stop (or a 15-minute walk) from the popular Fushimi Inari shrine.
It’s famous for its autumn leaves, and although we enjoyed our visit, I don’t think it’s a must-do at other times of year.
You can wander the grounds for free or pay to enter two areas—the Hojo Gardens and the Tsutenkyo Bridge which leads to the Kaisando Hall.
There are different gardens on each side of the Hojo (the head priest’s former living quarters) including a beautiful rock garden.
Details: Free grounds. 400 yen each entry fee for two areas. Open 9 am – 4 pm (from 8.30 am in November and early December). The nearest train station is Tofukuji.
17) Sanjusangendo (Rengeoin)
Sanjusangendo is the popular name for Rengeoin temple. It’s located between Southern Higashiyama and Tofuku-ji and is walkable from both.
The 120-metre long temple hall is Japan’s longest wooden structure. It houses 1001 human-sized gold statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, along with a giant wooden statue of a 1000-armed Kannon that dates back to the 1200s.
It’s an impressive sight and unlike any other temple in Kyoto.
Details: 600 yen entry fee. Open 8 am – 5 pm (9 am – 4 pm in winter). The nearest train station is Shichijo.
Western Kyoto Temples – Arashiyama
Arashiyama is another of the major traditional neighbourhoods ripe for wandering amongst temples and quiet streets.
It’s up in the western hills and takes a little longer to reach (20 minutes on the train from Kyoto Station to Saga Arashiyama). If you don’t mind walking you can visit all of these on foot from the station.
Tenryu-ji is the most important temple in Arashiyama and is a UNESCO world heritage site. The gardens are the main attraction and include a pond and Zen garden with an overlooking platform where you can sit and contemplate.
We came here to experience shojin ryori or 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. Many of the eight dishes were unidentifiable and rather strange, but mostly it was delicious and a real treat for vegetarians.
See my Kyoto vegetarian guide for more details.
Details: 500 yen entry fee. Open 8.30 am – 5.30 pm.
Jojakko-ji is a short walk from Tenryu-ji, but it’s much quieter and is one of my favourite temples in Kyoto.
The hillside gardens are extensive and feature a large cherry tree, mossy roots, small bamboo cluster, a thatched roof gate, and pagoda. There’s a fantastic view of Kyoto from the top.
It’s a beautiful temple to visit in autumn, but it won’t be as quiet then.
Details: 400 yen entry fee. Open 9 am – 5 pm. It’s a 15-minute walk from Saga Arashiyama station.
Gio-ji is a lovely small temple with a lush moss garden and a thatched-roof main hall. It’s usually quiet and is worth a quick stop when wandering through the area, especially if you are planning to visit Daikaku-ji as the combo ticket is good value.
It’s especially beautiful in autumn when the green moss contrasts with the red of the maple trees.
Details: 300 yen entry fee (or 600 yen combo ticket with Daikuku-ji). Open 9 am – 5 pm.
21) Otagi Nenbutsu-ji
If Fushimi Inari is our favourite shrine, then Otagi Nenbutsu-ji is our favourite Kyoto temple. 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.
Details: 300 yen entry fee. Open 8 am – 5 pm. We walked from the Saga Arashiyama station, which takes about 40 minutes, and there are other temples to visit on the way. There’s also an infrequent bus.
Daikaku-ji is one of Kyoto’s oldest and grandest temples. 1200 years ago it was the imperial palace of Emperor Saga before being converted to a temple after his death.
It’s a huge complex with multiple wooden halls overlooking a large gravel garden. It’s rich in history, culture, and art including a copy of the important Heart Sutra written by the emperor. You can even try copying your own sutra for an extra fee.
Outside there’s a large pond lined with cherry trees. At the end of March they were only just starting to bloom, but in the height of sakura season, you don’t want to miss it. It’s also stunning in autumn.
Details: 500 yen entry fee for temple or 200 yen for just gardens (or 600 yen combo ticket with Gio-ji). Open 9 am – 5 pm.
Nara makes an easy day trip from Kyoto (35 minutes on the fastest 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.
Todai-ji is the main attraction in Nara 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 the Giant Buddha, known in Japan as Daibutsu. This gold and bronze buddha is one of the largest bronze statues in the world at 16 metres tall and dates all the way back to 746.
Details: 600 yen entry fee. Open 7.30 am – 5.30 pm (April – October) and 8 am – 5 pm in the winter. The nearest station is Kintetsu Nara Station, but if you are travelling with a Japan Rail Pass, you’ll need to go to JR Nara Station, which is a 40-minute walk from the temple—you can see the deer in Nara Park on the way.
Before we first arrived in Kyoto, I was a little overwhelmed by how many temples and shrines there were to visit. I was sure we’d get templed out after a while, but we really enjoyed all of our temple explorations. I know we’ll be back to visit even more.
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