Kyoto is an ancient city that was once the capital of Japan. It sits on the island of Honshu in central Japan and is extremely famous for its shrines, Buddhist temples, palaces, wooden hours, and stunning imperial palaces.
The city of Kyoto is actually an extremely popular tourist destination thanks to its ancient culture and heritage and was named one of the world’s top cities to visit on numerous occasions.
While there is a lot to do in Kyoto such as try out the traditional kaiseki dining rituals, be entertained by some geisha, you have to visit some of the amazing shrines and Buddhist temples in Kyoto while you’re there.
Since there are over 1500 Shinto shrines and temples in Kyoto. It’s impossible to see them all which is why we have selected some of the best for you to visit while you’re there.
The Kinkakuji Temple, also known as the Golden Pavilion, dates way back to 1397 and it belonged to Saionji Kintsune, a powerful statesman from the time. It was then sold to Ashikaga Yoshimitsu and when he died was converted to a Zen temple by his son according to Ashikaga Yoshimitsu’s dying wishes.
The Kinkakuji Temple is a three-story temple that is known for its beautiful gardens and amazing decorated golf lead halls. The temple you’ll see today isn’t quite the same one from 1397 as in 1950 a fire destroyed it but it was then restored in 1955.
The Kinkakuji temple is made of wood and the first floor is decorated as a Hean Palance would be, the second floor in the style of a samurai house, and the thirst in keeping with the design of a Zen Buddhist Temple.
Every floor in the temple is covered with gold leaf on all the walls, even the floors on the first and second floors. It’s quite something to behold and you’ll also find restored paintings along with Yoshimitsu’s statue inside.
The setting at Golden Pavilion couldn’t be more peaceful. It’s surrounded by hills, forests, and its borders are lapped by a beautiful lake. It’s hard to beat this idyllic location.
You’ll find the temple on the northern end of Kyoto city and it’s easy to get to via public transport but the easiest way is with a taxi. The temple is open to visitors every day between 9-5 pm and entrance costs just 400 Yen for adults and 300 Yen for children.
The Sanjusangen-do Buddhist Temple is one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of ancient Kyoto and is a must-see while you’re there. It pays to get there when the gates open at 9 am if you don’t want to hustle with crowds but luckily it’s a pretty huge temple so you’ll always manage to find some space even if it’s a little busy.
Sanjūsangen-dō dates back to 1164 and was founded by Taira no Kiyomori a local samurai and politician. He built it for Emperor Go-Shirakawa in the emperor’s compound so that he could become Chancellor of the Realm, and was the first samurai ever to do so. When Go-Shirakawa died he was buried in the east hall of the temple, Lotus Sutra.
The temple managed to survive until 1249 when it was destroyed by a fire after which Emperor Go-Saga order it to be rebuilt. The restoration was completed in 1266 and is the same temple you’ll find today.
One of the features that attract so many tourists to the temple is the 1000 statues of standing Thousand-armed Kannon. Now, only 124 were spared in the fire but Go-Saga ordered 879 to be built to replace the lost ones. It took three groups of Buddhist sculptors 16 years to replace them all.
The temple itself is huge at 12o meters long and is made exclusively of Japanese cypress. You’ll also find a ton of historical buildings such as Ginkakuji, Kiyomizudera, and Yasakajinja plus you’ll also find a huge statue of Senju Kannon, the main object of worship.
The temple is open daily and costs just 600 Yen per adult and 300 Yen per child. You’ll find the temple in central Kyoto and it’s super easy to get to.
The Fushimi Inari Shrine is over 1,300 years old and the head shrine of the kami Inari religion. You’ll find the shrine at the base of the Inari mountain, a 233-meter mountain that’s full of beautiful hiking trails and well worth exploring before or after visiting the shrine.
Inari is the God of rice and agriculture and the shrine is there so anyone can come and worship the Inari god to ensure they have good crops each year.
The Fushimi Inari Shrine is known for its incredible red tunnel that is made up of 10,000 torii gates and is an iconic picture associated with Kyoto temples and shrines. While walking around the shrine you can not help but be taken aback by the stunning colors of the red buildings with the backdrop of the Inari mountain and forest behind.
The reason for the strong red color used is because it’s believed that red has the ability to block supernatural powers and it’s also associated with the bountifulness of the god Inari.
The shrine is open every day from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm and the grounds are open 24 hours a day so you can visit anytime you like if you want to plus entry is free. It’s pretty easy to get to the Fushimi Inari Shrine via public transport and it sits on the eastern end of Kyoto.
The Kiyomizu-Dera Temple dates back to 778 AD was built by Sakanoue no Tamuramaro. Over time the temple faded and the buildings you’ll see today at the temple were constructed back in 1633 under the order of Tokugawa Iemitsu.
When you look at the Kiyomizu-Dera Temple you’ll notice it sits on a huge bed of structures on a mountainside and it’s hard to believe that the entire temple was built without using a single nail, quite an amazing thing to accomplish, especially considering the era.
The name of the temple, Kiyomizu, translates to pure or clear water and it gets its name from a waterfall, called Otowa, that runs through the temple complex and from the mountainside. You’ll find the waterfall under the main hall which then splits into three channels and ends in a pond. While visiting you can drink and/or catch the water as it’s believed to grant wishing powers to those that do.
Kiyomizu-Dera is where people go to worship the goddess Kannon and this is a Kannon temple. It’s in a stunning spot surrounded by trees, is named a national treasure of Japan and as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is, therefore, one of the most popular places to visit in all of Kyoto.
The temple is open every day from 6 am to 5:30 pm and it costs just 300 Yen per adult and 200 Yen per child to enter. It’s highly recommended to visit at sunrise, the most beautiful hour to see the temple and you’ll avoid the crowds too. If you can time your trip with autumn, all the leaves on the trees will be changing color and it makes the site even more beautiful.
One of the loveliest Kyoto temples and shrines to visit is the Eikan-dō Zenrin-ji Buddhist Temple. Eikan-dō Zenrin-ji is the head temple of the Seizan branch of the Jōdo-shū Buddhist sect in Japan.
The temple was built by a monk called Shinshō, a pupil of Kūkai, who wanted to create a temple to worship Gochi Nyorai, the Five Wisdom Buddhas. Shinshō bought the land for the temple in 853 but was only give permission to build it 10 years later.
The temple is famous for its amazing trees that blossom into amazing colors during autumn, being an excellent learning center, and having a very different statue of Amida Buddha.
The statue of Amida Buddha looks over his shoulder instead of directly ahead. It’s said the statue is in this position because, during a celebration in 1082, Buddhist monks were practicing a ritual around the statue reciting sutras when Amida came to life and looked over his shoulder to say to one of the monks “Yōkan you are slow” and then the statue of Amida Buddha stayed in that position forever.
While visiting the temple you can see the statue of Amida along with old Buddhist paintings, and wandering around the beautiful temple grounds is also a must. The garden is spectacular and features a pond with a bridge, plus there is no better way to reflect on the architecture of the temple than from outside.
It’s an incredibly peaceful place to visit and you should certainly time your trip to the temple with the autumn leaves. The forest turns to a mix of red, yellow, and orange. The Temple is open from 9 am – 5 pm every day and costs 600 Yen per adult and 400 Yen per child.
The Ginkaku-ji Temple, also known as “Temple of the Silver Pavilion,” is one of the most stunning temples in Kyoto with amazing gardens that represent the Higashiyama Culture of the Muromachi period.
The temple was created by Ashikaga Yoshimasa to be used as his retirement villa. Construction began in February of 1482 and was designed to emulate the golden temple Kinkaku-ji which was built by his grandfather Ashikaga Yoshimitsu.
In the end, Ashikaga Yoshimasa used the villa as a place of solitude and rest during his reign as the Shogun. He would sit in the villa and contemplate the beauty and calm-fullness of the building and gardens while the Onin War burnt Kyoto to the floor.
It wasn’t until 1485 when Ashikaga Yoshimasa became a Zen Buddhist monk and when he died in 1490 the gardens and villa became a Buddhist temple, named Jishō-ji, Ashikaga Yoshimasa’ Buddhist name.
The temple is known as Ginkaku, “Silver Pavilion” because the plans were initially to cover it in silver foil but this was never completed.
When you visit the temple you’ll find a two-story temple with a ground floor that features a domestic design to it and the second floor with a Buddhist design. It’s beautifully laid out and surrounded by a pond and stunning trees.
The garden is one of the best areas to spend time in. The temple grounds are covered in trees, special mosses, and the garden was designed by the famous Japanese garden landscape artist Sōami. It’s an incredibly peaceful and thoughtful place to hang out and you can visit any day from 9:00 AM ~ 4:30 PM.
Nanzen-ji is a Zen temple and is one of the Kyoto Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines you have to visit, especially if you are there during spring and fall. Outside of the temple being quite amazing, the gardens take it to the next level.
The Nanzen-ji is known as one of the best places in all of Kyoto to experience the cherry blossoms blooming in spring. The entire garden is lit up with color and it’s quite an amazing thing to behold. Autumn in the temple gardens is a little less impressive than the cherry blossoms of spring but still stunningly beautiful.
The Zen temple was built way back in 1291 by Emperor Kameyama. He built it on the sit of his detached palace and today it is the HQ of the Nanzen-ji branch of Rinzai Zen Buddhism.
The temple you will see today is not the same one that was built in 1291. The original temple burned down in 1393, then again in 1447, and again in 1467, and was finally rebuilt into what you see today in 1597.
The complex is quite large with numerous buildings to visit while you’re there the most famous being the Sanmon, one of the three of Japan’s greatest gates You’ll walk through the gate on the way to the temple’s elevated viewing area with gives you stunning views over Kyoto.
Another great thing to see at the temple is the Nanzen-ji Aqueduct which carried water for the gardens of the temple from Lake Biwa Canal. You also must see the Hōjo, its amazing rock gardens, and its art. The setting is so beautiful it was named a national Place of Scenic Beauty.
The Toji Temple, which translates to the “East Temple” is actually a five storied pagoda, originally built by Kobo Daishi in 826. This is one of the most common shots you will see in Kyoto, especially during the Fall, when the red leaves of the Japanese maples are bright and photogenic.
This Buddhist Temple is rarely open to the public, but sometimes the ground floor can be accessed.
The Heian Shrine is a Shinto shrine that can be found in the Sakyō-ku region. This unusual shrine is a reproduction of the Imperial Palace, the original one from 794.
The bright red shrine is actually one of the largest torii gates in all of Japan. The Heian Shrine was rebuilt in 1979 after it was destroyed by a fire in 1976.
Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!