Between the internationally-known festivals, an exploding foodie scene, traditional geisha that still practice in the Gion, and an annual cherry blossom event that draws travelers from around the world, Kyoto just might have it all. Even with all of that, it's this fascinating city's temples that have been luring tourists, pilgrims, and everyone in between for centuries. Kyoto has anywhere from 1,600 to 2,000 temples depending on how you're counting, and some of those have survived wars, fires, and typhoons, dating back a millennium (or more). The sheer number of temples in Kyoto can be overwhelming, and is far more than any traveler will be able to tick off in one journey (or a lifetime of journeys, for that matter). Luckily, we've visited many of the city's prettiest, most atmospheric, and most important temples (though, admittedly, we gave touristy and crowded Kiyomizu-dera a pass). With the list that follows, you're certain to come home with plenty of memories and a healthy urge to return to Kyoto as soon as possible.
With its serene lakes, emerald hillsides, gorgeously manicured (yet precisely unkempt) landscaping, and a tranquil atmosphere that manages to overcome even hordes of crowds, Kinkaku-ji is arguably one of the prettiest temples in Japan — if not the world. Perhaps it’s the striking Golden Temple that stands in the middle of this gorgeous complex, but the overall atmosphere is enough to draw six million visitors a year, according to Travel + Leisure. Since the 14th century, this sacred ground has been ransacked and razed in various ways, but today, the shimmering reflection of gold in the lake’s black waters has been carefully restored.
2. Fushimi Inari-taisha
Fushimi Inari-taisha is the shrine that’s been photographed with such frequency that you may think a visit here isn’t necessary. Trust us: It is. That striking scenery comes, in part, from the mountainside setting. However, the thousands of crimson orange torii gates are what make this shrine a stunner. The densely packed torii are lined up so closely to one another that they create a compressed optical illusion that makes for striking vistas no matter where you look. The shrine also happens to be one of the oldest in Kyoto (the oldest structures date back to the eighth century).
This important Zen Buddhist temple is one of the most otherworldly sights on this list. And that’s not due to its ornate pagodas or bold architectural choices. Instead, nature is used in almost reality-defying ways to evoke a sense of awe in travelers before they even visit the temple itself. Located in the Arashiyama area of the city, visitors using the north entrance to the temple compound are greeted by soaring groves of bamboo that create an organic counterpoint to the manmade repetition seen in Fushimi Inari-taisha. This proximity is intentional, as bamboo is closely linked with both Shinto and Zen practices. Inside the temple proper, rustic wooden structures emerge from dense forests to create a prototypically reserved atmosphere.
4. Otagi Nenbutsu-ji
You might spend your time fighting the hordes of tourists that clamor to see the views from Kiyomizu-dera, so we think going off the radar reaps excellent rewards — both for beauty and tranquility. It’s estimated that Otagi Nenbutsu-ji holds at least 1,200 stone Buddhas, arranged in a dense plane that makes for nothing short of an impressive sight. While the statues aren’t the original ones that were found here — like many of Kyoto’s temples, everything from war to typhoons have caused significant damage and reconstruction over the centuries — one can’t help but be struck by the spectacle. Otagi Nenbutsu-ji also happens to be one of the quieter, less-visited temples in Kyoto, making it a nice break from the tourist fray.
Spring and fall are the best times to visit Daigo-ji, which is constructed amid groves of cherry trees as well as naturalistic woodlands. In the spring, that means abundant white and pink cherry blossoms. In the fall, bright orange and red foliage shrouds the lakes and the Momoyama-era pagodas. Some of the temple’s buildings date back to the 10th century, and have played a crucial role in the development of Shingon Buddhism in Japan. On clear days, views from certain vantages throughout the complex can stretch all the way to Osaka.
While the Zen garden may have been co-opted and mass marketed in the west, it still holds a sacred place within Kyoto’s ancient Buddhist traditions. This form of artistry — in which sand, gravel, and rocks are raked and arranged in spartan patterns — works as a meditative exercise for both the gardener and those who bear witness to it. Ryoan-ji has one of Japan’s most famous rock gardens, and likely dates back several centuries. These days, a mix of international and Japanese tourists post up on the platform of the adjacent priest’s quarters to sit in quiet contemplation of this serene space.
Originally constructed in the 13th century, this Zen temple is home to the oldest surviving main gate of all of Japan’s Zen Buddhist complexes. Known as Sammon Gate, the structure dates back to the 15th century, and was last rebuilt after a series of fires and war-related strife wreaked havoc on the region. Tofuku-ji’s gardens are also some of the most famous in Kyoto, and have been designated a National Site of Scenic Beauty. They include in-laid stone and moss spaces, traditional rock gardens, and manicured hedgework — all of which serve metaphorical and meditative purposes.
One of the Kyoto Gozan — the five most important Zen temples in the city — Kennin-ji is the oldest Zen complex still in existence in Kyoto. It’s also one of the easiest to reach, located near the bustling Gion district (home to the city’s still-preserved geisha culture). Kennin-ji is one of the more compact temples in Kyoto, but it packs in a ton of beauty, from its peaceful gardens to the tight, maze-like layout of its well-preserved wooden buildings. However, it’s this temple’s interiors that are its most striking feature. Once inside the hodo, the priest’s quarters, look up. There, you’ll spot an eye-catching painting on the ceiling that depicts twin dragons, painted to commemorate the temple’s founding in the 13th century.
Daitoku-ji is one of the largest temples in Kyoto and consists of 21 different buildings arranged amid striking Zen gardens. Given the amount of foliage here, it’s perhaps no surprise that autumn is a particularly atmospheric time of year to visit, as the humble wooden buildings peek out from the scenery. The complex is vast, and almost has the feel of a Buddhist village, though it remains far more tranquil than other large temples, like Kiyomizu-dera. Everything from Japanese maple trees to rock gardens spread across the grounds, making it a pleasure to wander in and out of the various different temples and sub-temples.
This diminutive temple is one of Kyoto’s more unique places of worship, though it’s almost entirely beloved for just one feature: its moss garden. There isn’t too much to see here beyond the garden, but that’s just fine, because there are few places on earth that feel so peaceful, yet artfully composed. A small thatch-roofed pagoda is also contained within the grounds, though it’s not exactly noteworthy. You won’t spend a ton of time here, but when enjoyed with the other Arashiyama temples, it makes for a perfectly hushed break in the day.
Where to Stay
While its ancient reputation may have travelers thinking that Kyoto is a small, mild-mannered town, it is, in fact, a big city that sprawls between the mountain chains ringing its periphery. Many of the major temples are located outside of the city center, so it makes more sense to stay downtown. This way, your mornings and nights can be spent exploring the fabulous urban culture that’s also in full effect throughout Kyoto.
Of course, the most authentic way to experience Kyoto is by staying in one of the many ryokan (traditional inns) found throughout town. Hiiragiya is one of our favorites and dates back to 1818. Many of its rooms look out onto a tranquil rock garden. Opt for a room with traditional wooden baths if you really feel like embracing local life. For something closer to the geisha culture of Gion, opt for equally historic Shiraume. The Hyatt Regency Kyoto is a fine bet for those who’d prefer more modern digs, though rates are high (even in expensive Kyoto). For travelers on a budget, check out the 9 Hours Capsule Hotel Kyoto. It’s a futuristic take on this only-in-Japan sleeping trend.
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