As a lover of travel, I really like to get a local taste of every place I go. When I first moved to Kyoto 3 years ago to study at Kyoto University, what really struck me about the city was its history, gardens, impressive temples and the unique Japanese way of life. There are lots of beautiful places to explore and many things to do in Kyoto among the city’s temples with, for some, nostalgic surroundings. A quick look around and it’s easy to understand why Kyoto was the previous capital city of Japan for almost 1000 years. For me, it feels really peaceful; there is not much noise; it’s convenient and not too big. The city is for relaxing and enjoying the landscape, the trees aligning the river, the light breeze, the mountainous backdrop, the respectful people and the beautiful Kyoto shrines.
There are two types of temples in Kyoto: Shinto and Buddhist. Visually and on reading, the temples can be differentiated in this way: Buddhist temples often end with -ji (Kinkakju-ji, Nanzen-ji, Ginkaku-ji, Kodai-ji, Tofuku-ji), -dera (Kiyomizu-dera Temple) or -in (Honen in Temple), and are likely to be a solid colour; wooden, brown, black or gold with no contrast colours. Shinto shrines, however, often end with jingu or jinga (Heian-jingu, Yasaka-jinja) and are mostly orange and black coloured. But the philosophies coexist harmoniously. There is no conflict of interest between Buddhism and Shintoism and they reside side-by-side.
Shinto is the original, spiritual practice, indigenous to Japan. It is a collection of traditional Japanese beliefs and a way of life which promotes preservation of the environment and nature, the wisdom of how to live in harmony with the natural world, while being grateful and respectful of all the spirits of life (Animism), found in rocks, mountains, trees and streams. It also values living with sincerity and virtue and recognises family as the foundation for preserving traditions. Buddhism is practiced as a complementary spiritual form to the native Shinto, and some people practice both philosophies.
Unlike the Shinto practice, Buddhism did not originate in Japan, rather near the Indian-Nepalese border about 2,500 years ago, and eventually made its way to Japan through Tibet, China and Korea. Buddhism originated in Hinduism, which is the traditional belief in India as Shinto is traditional in Japan. Buddhism is founded upon the teachings of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, and the Universal Dharma; the Law of Life. Buddhism recognises that the life of human being is not dictated by spirits of nature but by own potential to attain enlightenment or nirvana, and focuses on transforming sufferings into meaningful experiences which impart harmony and joy. The Buddhist path can be summed up as leading a moral life, being patient, mindful and aware of thoughts and actions, as well as developing wisdom, understanding and compassion through meditation. Some teachings are based on Hinduism; like reincarnation, dharma, moksha and karma.
Kyoto shrines are sacred places of peace and are well worth a visit regardless of your own way of life since they are architecturally and historically fascinating and often situated in scenic paradisal settings. Wondering which are the best temples for you to enjoy? Check out this Kyoto temples map and work your way through the best and most beautiful Kyoto shrines.
Anyone can go to the independent Buddhist Kiyomizu-dera temple and enjoy the peaceful view of Higashiyama district with its narrow lanes, wooden roofs and traditional merchant shops. Kiyomizu-dera Temple offer guides in English around the grounds; which allow a deeper understanding of Kiyomizu through shared traditional stories. Guides often begin at the Otowa Waterfall; a spot with a deep connection to the origin of the temple. You may be surprised to discover that you are actually welcome to drink the water. Throughout the grounds of the 1200-year-old temple are historic monuments and sub-shrines for meditation. The opening hours are 6.00 to 18.00 daily and admission is 400 yen. Experiencing the temple with a local can provide an intriguing and profound insight into the grounds along with the best secret spots to enjoy the beautiful views of each season’s colourful landscapes.
Kinkaku-ji - Golden Pavillion
The magnificent golden temple Kyoto is undoubtedly one of the most iconic, and so it is popular and often crowded. Kinkaku-ji Zen Buddhist temple is located in northern Kyoto and the top two floors are coated in gold leaf. The golden temple Kyoto’s history dates to 1397 but it has been burned down many times throughout its lifetime; most recently in 1950. It was then rebuilt in 1955. It’s not possible to enter the pavilion, but the impressive structure overlooking a peaceful pond can be viewed from across the water, and if you look closely, you may notice that the front windows of the first floor are open. The gardens are a haven abundant in greenery and the Anmintaku Pond is said to never dry up. Many visitors can be seen throwing coins at the statues for good luck. The Kinkaku-ji temple was the inspiration for the similarly named Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion), built a few decades later on the other side of the city. The temple is open daily from 9.00 to 17.00 and admission is 400 yen.
If you’re searching for a scenic view of the city, a non-too strenuous hike in the surrounding hills, and a glimpse at beautiful trees, one of the best things to do in Kyoto is to visit to the Fushimi Inari shrine. Pass through the hypnotic orange Shinto shrine gates and enjoy walking through a network of woodland forest trails. It is believed that Fushimi, located at the base of Mt. Inari, 233 metres (764 ft) above sea level, is the most significant of the many shrines dedicated to the Shinto god of rice, harvest, commerce and business: Inari. The site predates the capital’s move to Kyoto in 794 but the main shrine structure was built in 1499. The site has exceptional views of Southern Kyoto and during springtime, the walkways transform into pink cherry blossom tunnels and create a magic that you’re unlikely to find elsewhere. The Kyoto shrine is found outside the Inari Station on the Nara Line of the West Japan Railway Company (JR); a five-minute ride from Kyoto Station. It is also just a short walk from Fushimi-Inari Station on the Main Line of the Keihan Electric Railway. It’s open 24 hours and is most spectacular during sunrise or sunset when it is illuminated. There is no entrance fee.
Honen in Temple
Honen in Temple is one of Kyoto’s most beautiful shrine settings. You enter through a moss-covered gate, passing between two sand mounds which are said to purify you. After crossing a quirky, stone bridge over a pond, you head through a mossy garden towards a secret grotto. Honen in Temple is one of the best Kyoto shrines for quiet contemplation and meditation. The main hall is only open from the 1st to the 10th April during the blossoming of the camellia plants, and from the 1st to the 7th of November when the maple trees are tinged with crimson leaves. During these times, you have to pay to enter the main hall, but it’s more than worth it for the sublime shrine of the black Amida Buddha figure. The rest of the Honen in Temple grounds can be accessed for free all year round.
The Nanzen-ji Temple is a green hilly, sprawling zen paradise in the Northern Higashiyama district. Home to a mystical San-mon gate, a subtle karesansui (dry stone Zen gravel) garden, an extensive main hall, and open walkways which welcome mindful strolling. As well as the main temple, the site is home to smaller sub-temples such as Konchi-in, Nanzen-in and Tenju-an.
Head to the secret waterfall grotto; Oku-no-in, which is hidden about 200 meters in the hills behind the main temple and stone archway. It is open between 8.40 and 17.00, with the last entry at 16.40 from March through to November. During the winter months of December to February, Nanzen-ji is open from 8.40 to 16.30, with the last entry at 16.10. Admission to grounds is free. The Hojo garden costs adults 500 yen, students 400 yen and children 300 yen. The San-mon gate costs 500 yen for adults, 400 yen for students and 300 yen for children.
Arashiyama and Sagano
The magical Arashiyama and Sagano district is not to be missed when in Kyoto exploring the temples and landscapes. Relish in the beauty and tranquility of the Arashiyama district while strolling the soaring stalks of bamboo at the Bamboo Grove and the quieter winding woodland paths beyond. Arashiyama is located west of Kyoto, tucked along the base of the Arashiyama Mountains, which means Storm Mountains. It takes about 30 minutes to get there from the centre of Kyoto. The site is home to the blissful Zen Tenryu-ji Temple, as well as smaller temples away from the crowds that can often be overlooked by tourists, such as the Jojakko-ji Temple. Tenryu-ji has stunning mountain views. Arashiyama is also home to the Iwatayama Monkey Park and Kameyama-koen Park where you can escape the crowds and mingle with the monkeys on the hilltops. Arashiyama is especially popular (and beautiful) during the cherry blossom and autumn seasons for its stunning colourful foliage.
Yasaka Shrine and Gion
The Yasaka Shrine is always open and costs nothing, other than your time. It is home to the Gion Shrine, one of Kyoto's most popular shrines founded over 1350 years ago. It can be found at the eastern end of Shijo-dori, between the popular Gion District; a traditional entertainment district with theater-goers, geisha, bars, restaurants and traditional teahouses, and the Higashiyama District. Seeing Gion after dark is one of the top local things to do in Kyoto, so don’t miss it. The Yasaka Shrine is located next to Maruyama public park. During the first half of April when the sakura trees are in full bloom, Maruyama Park is a well-frequented hanami spot for cherry blossom viewing. The shrine’s main building is home to an inner sanctuary (honden) and an offering hall (haiden.) In front of this is a dance stage with hundreds of hanging lanterns that are lit every night after dark.
One of the most aesthetically-enchanting temples in Kyoto, located southeast of the city, the Tofuku-ji Temple has the upperhand of not being very crowded unless you visit during the colourful autumn season. It’s not unheard of to see the site completely empty, and you will feel at total peace wandering the walled mystical Zen world of spacious grounds, charming sub-temples and pretty gardens of dry rock and greenery. The temple was founded in 1236 and has historically been one of the primary Zen temples in Kyoto. It is a head temple to one of the schools of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. It’s open from 9.00 to 16.00 from April to October, 8.30 to 16.00 from November to early December and 9.00 -15.30 from early December to March. Admission to the Hojo garde is 400 yen. The 100 metre long Tsutenkyo Bridge, which covers a valley of maple trees and a lush pond, and Kaizando Hall are 400 yen and the grounds are free.
Ginkaku-ji Temple, Jisho-ji Temple or the Temple of the Silver Pavilion, is a lesser known elegant temple which belongs to the Buddhist Shokoku School of the Rinzai Zen sect. Set at the base of Kyoto’s eastern mountains, the grounds have scenic views which are some of the best to be seen among Kyoto’s shrines. Full of charming details, the Ginkaku-ji Temple was modeled on its sister temple Kinkaku-ji Temple (the Golden Pavilion). Unlike the gold leaf plating of Kinkaku-ji Temple. Ginkaku-ji Temple has never been plated with silver. The main building is instead a simple, unpainted brown and invites the idea of simplicity and beauty working together harmoniously. It is open year round: 8.30 - 17.00 from March to November, and 9.00 - 16.30 from December through to February. Admission is 500 yen for adults and 300 yen for children.
Often missed by tourists, Kodai-ji Temple is one of the most beautiful temples in the Southern Higashiyama area of Kyoto. The sublime gardens are designed by Japan’s most iconic garden designer; Kobori Enshu. Enjoy the gardens while drinking green tea at the tea house designed by the founder of the tea ceremony; Sen no Rikyu. The grounds are also home to a bamboo grove, with soaring, enchanting stalks to be admired. Soak up the influence of Japan’s best and most beautiful artistic and cultural traditions. By night during spring and autumn, the illuminations give an aura to the incredible Japanese architecture. Admission is 600 yen and includes the Sho Museum; an interesting museum attached to the temple which is home to a wide variety of beautiful traditional Japanese items such as lacquer-ware and paintings.
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