Which are the most interesting and cream-of-the-crop temples and shrines in Kyoto, that you absolutely must see? It is not an easy question to answer since there are around 2,000 fabulous temple constructions to choose from. We have picked 11 of our favourite temples and shrines which are both architecturally outstanding – as well as have an intriguing history and background.
Ainnelise Niyvold Liundbye UPDATED: 02 JAN 2020
Significant temples are located side by side in Kyoto – whether Shinto, Zen or another Buddhist branch. The religions go well together here as nowhere else in the world. It does not pose any problem having several creeds and honouring multiple gods. A Buddhist funeral and a Shinto wedding go hand in hand in the same family without any problems.
In Kyoto you really must see temples and shrines! The city abounds with the iconic and authentic masterpieces. In all there are around 2,000: 1,600 outstanding temples and 400 fabulous shrines.
Due to this large number of outstanding Buddhist temple constructions and fascinating Shinto sites it will be impossible to cover more than a small fraction of them during your Kyoto visit. You will therefore need to prioritise and make a tough decision of which temples and shrines to explore.
To help you decide and plan your itinerary in Kyoto, we have made a description of the temples and shrines that in particular have caught our attention due to either magnificence or history – or both. However, there are many other temples and shrines in Kyoto which are also absolutely impressive and equally worthy of a visit, and which you may want to include in your itinerary instead, depending on personal preferences. We can only cover a small fraction of the 2,000 temples and shrines in Kyoto here!
Must-see temples and shrines in western Kyoto
1. Kinkakuji Temple
The Kinkakuji Temple is a 14th-century Zen Buddhist temple scenically located in northwestern Kyoto in the midst of breathtaking nature at a small lake. It is really one of the must-see temples in Kyoto.
It was constructed during the rule of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. He was a shogun of power and had great influence on the Japanese society. When he retired as a shogun he had the Kinkakuji Temple built as his private residence. The location was a tranquil, private spot where he could dedicate himself to Japanese culture and values.
When he died the place was passed over to Zen Buddhist monks who used it as a place for meditation.
The tiny, slender temple is absolutely unique since it is coated in gold leaf. What also makes it unique is that each of the three floors is built in a distinct architectural style. When following the trail around the mirror pond with the pavilion reflected in the still water, you cannot deny that Kinkakuji Temple is top of the picture-postcard and one of the temples you just must see in Kyoto!
The picturesque temple was stroke by disasters multiple times throughout history. During the Onin Wars (1467-1477) part of it burned down. Fortunately, the main pavilion, the Golden Pavilion, was spared. It stood for the next 500 years, until it was intentionally set on fire by a monk. In the years to come it was restored in gold leaf. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Read more about Kinkakuji Temple.
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2. Ryoanji Temple
The Roanji Temple in northwestern Kyoto has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994. It is a Zen Buddhist temple from 1450 with a unique rock garden considered among the most significantly spectacular temple rock gardens in Japan.
At the time of contruction the Roanji Temple premises were very large which justified a certain number of additional temples around the main temple. However, both time and a fire during the Onin Wars (1467-1477) destroyed a great part of the constructions on the temple grounds. In the years to come the temple underwent restoration back to its original style.
The garden excels in being a garden of thousands of pebbles and precisely 15 rocks laid out on smaller moss patches. What is the real mystery about this garden is the ingenious layout. From no angle is it possible to view all 15 rocks at the same time. Only 14 rocks are visible wherever you stand along the edge of the garden.
It has been subject to many theories what the purpose and meaning of this puzzling layout may be. Several interpretations of the architectural design have been suggested, but there doesn’t seem to be an obviously simple or specific answer. The interpretation is left to each individual contemplating it.
3. Tenryuji Temple
The Tenryuji Temple is situated in the Arashiyama district in Kyoto. It is a Zen Buddhist temple within the Rinzai Zen sect and which is ranked top of Kyoto’s Zen temples. In 1994 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It was built in 1339-1345 by the shogun Ashikaga Takauji in honour of the Emperor Go-Daigo who had just passed away. In its heyday the Tenryuji Temple had 150 sub-temples. The original buildings were destroyed in fires and wars throughout the years, and so the present construction mainly dates to the Meiji period (1868-1219).
A picturesque landscape garden, one of the finest and oldest gardens in Kyoto, surrounds the temple. It features an iconic pond as well as pine trees and is framed by the steep, beautiful Arashiyama mountains as the background.
Right outside the garden you can step into the famous and popular Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. A walk through the lush grove is a breathtaking experience which on top of the Zen impressions from Tenryuji Temple and the outstanding gardens will make your day!
Must-see temples and shrines in central / eastern Kyoto
4. Higashi Honganji
Very close to Kyoto Station, within a just 10 minutes’ walk, you will find another must-see construction. It is the temple complex of Higashi Honganji (from 1604), the eastern temple, which is today still a very popular Buddhist temple belonging to the common Jodo Shinshu sect of Pure Land Buddhism. It is one of the largest wooden structures in the world. The adjacent temple is Nishi Honganji, the western temple.
The Pure Land sect was founded by a monk, Shinran (1173–1263), who taught ‘Praise to Amida Buddha’ and asked people to repeat those words. After his death a Honganji temple was established and eventually, much later, it was moved to Kyoto at the present location of the Higashi Honganji temple complex.
With time the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu got afraid that the sect would get too powerful. Therefore he commanded that the temple grounds were split between the two temples Higashi Honganji and the Nishi Honganji (which was the first temple from 1591).
The construction of the large temple required hoisting and moving heavy wooden beams. To provide a rope strong enough for that, female devotees gave their hair to use for braiding such a solid rope. You can see this rope for yourself – since it is still on display inside the temple!
Several devastating fires have throughout the years ravaged. As a result the temples have several times undergone complete restoration.
5. Sanjusangendo Temple
The Buddhist temple Sanjusangendo in eastern Kyoto was founded in 1164 on the orders of Emperor Goshirakawa. Its official name is Rengeo-in meaning ‘Hall of the Lotus King’. The name Sanjusangendo means the hall with thirty three spaces between the columns, referring to the long main hall of the temple.
Sanjusangendo is famed for its 1001 golden statues of Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. The temple hall itself is the longest wooden structure not only in Kyoto – but in entire Japan – measuring 120 metres! Not surprisingly, the temple is a National Treasure of Japan.
Inside the temple hall your attention is immediately caught by a large wooden statue surrounded by 500 smaller Kannon on each side – divided into 10 rows. You will likely feel quite overwhelmed by this impressive sight. Moreover, a Kannon is equipped with 11 heads and 1000 arms! You may notice that the statues only have 42 actual arms each. By subtracting two (ordinary arms) and multiplying by the 25 planes of existence, according to Buddhist belief, you arrive at the 1000 arms!
Inside the temple there are also 28 guardian statues protecting the Kannon statues. They represent values such as beauty, wisdom, justice, strength and charity.
The original Sanjusangendo was destroyed by a fire in 1249 – but meticulously rebuilt afterwards – and has additionally undergone several restorations since then.
6. Kiyomizudera Temple
Famous for its large wooden stage overlooking the landscape, the scenically located Kiyomizudera temple is one of the most remarkable, ancient constructions in Kyoto, founded by the Hosso Sect. It was originally regarded as a branch temple of the Kofukuji Temple in Nara.
The main draw is the wooden stage made without use of one single nail. It is supported by 168 pillars.
From the viewing platform you have a panoramic view of the cherry and maple trees right below – and of Kyoto city. Today, it is a very popular place to visit whether you are a group of friends dressing up in kimonos for the day, a group of school boys on an excursion, a family on an outing or a foreign visitor coming to experience one of the traditional must-see temples in Kyoto.
The roots of the Buddhist temple go back to 780 when a temple construction was initiated on the sloping hills in eastern Kyoto, in the Higashiyama area. A Buddhist monk, Enchin, had a vision of a spring and followed the river to the mountain falls. At this location the temple was founded and named after the pure water (Kiyomizudera). Still today you can try a drink of the pristine mountain water using the ladles provided at the source.
However, the original temple disappeared in a fire long ago, and so did other temple constructions following in the years to come. The present Kiyomizudera Temple is believed to be the result of restorations completed in 1633 by the third shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu.
Another interesting construction at Kiyomizudera is the three storey, 31-metre high pagoda, which is among the tallest in Japan, also being restored in 1633.
You can reach Kiyomizudera Temple ascending the slopes via the vivid and charming, traditional shopping streets Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka from the north.
In 1994 the temple was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
7. Yasaka Shrine
Originally named the Gion Shrine, the Yasaka Shrine lies all beautiful at the Gion district in Kyoto (the Gion district actually took name after the Gion Shrine!). The shrine itself was renamed at the time of the Meiji Restoration when the Shinto shrines were separated from the Buddhist Temples by law, and since 1986 it has therefore been known as the Yasaka Shrine.
The vermilion-lacquered entrance gate is a true landmark of Kyoto and very popular among visitors for a photo or two!
The shrine is a site dedicated to multiple deities, the god of storms and sea from the Japanese mythology, Susano-o-no-Mikoto, and his wife, Inadahime-no-Mikoto. At the main sanctuary you notify as a worshipper the gods of your arrival by pulling the cord to ring a gigantic bell hanging above – then you bow twice, clap twice and pray at the altar.
The history of the shrine goes back to year 656 when the construction of the shrine began. During the years it got famous all over Japan and satellite shrines rose everywhere in the country (today around 3,000 satellite shrines exist!). The present buildings at Yasaka Shrine are from 1654, built on the order of the shogun Tokugawa Ietsuna.
The Yasaka Shrine is highly reputed for its many traditions still playing out around the shrine. There is a small probability that you will be in Kyoto during the Gion matsuri festival or one of the numerous other annual events and rituals at Yasaka Shrine, dispersed over the year. You can experience both maiko and geiko dance, a boat voyage through the street, a fire of sawdust to light the torches, portable shrines, card game dedication and much more – depending on the time of the year you visit.
Also for the Japanese New Year a festival is held at the shrine with thousands of participants, and of course the place is also a popular location for hanami (traditional cherry blossom viewing) in spring where colourful lanterns decorate the stage.
Must-see temples and shrines in northern Kyoto
8. Heian Shrine
Built for the 1100th anniversary of Kyoto’s foundation, the Heian Shrine, also known as Heian Jingu, is one of the relatively new shrines in Kyoto only dating back to 1895. It coincided with the Industrial Exhibition Fair event the very same year. Part of the shrine is a replica of the original Imperial Palace made in a 5/8 scale.
The shrine has besides the typical style of the Heian Period (794-1185) notably architectural traits of Chinese character and influence. It was designed by the historian and architect Itō Chūta (1867–1954) and dedicated to the 50th Emperor of Japan, Emperor Kanmu. Also the last emperor in Kyoto, before the capital changed in favour of Tokyo, Emperor Komei, has been enshrined in the Heian Shrine.
The shrine has a very ‘new’ look. The main sanctuary burned down as late as in 1976, but was rebuilt shortly, which explains that it today absolutely shines.
Already when approaching, you will see a gigantic orange torii gate showing the way to the entrance of the Heian Shrine. It measures 24.4 metres (80 feet) and is today the largest torii in Kyoto. When walking through it, you will certainly notice how impressive it is! Not surprisingly, it has therefore become a city landmark.
The Heian Shrine has three buildings: Gaihaiden (the Front Shrine), the Inner Sanctuary and the Main Sanctuary. Anyone can visit the first one. The second one is open to the public for certain occasions, whereas the Main Sanctuary only can be accessed by the priests of the Heian Shrine. In the middle of the shrine buildings there is a spacious open court, and at the sides and to the rear of the shrine, you will find the spectacular shrine gardens with ponds, flowers, birds, cherry trees and the famous Dragon Stepping Stones. The Shinen Garden (the Garden of the Gods) is very popular.
9. Nanzenji Temple
The Nanzenji Temple in eastern Kyoto is considered one of the most significant Zen temples in Japan and one of the five great Zen temples in Kyoto. It is the head temple of one of the schools within the Rinzai sect. A dozen of sub-temples surround the main temple on the spacious temple grounds at the hilly Higashiyama area. Today, Buddhist vegetarian cuisine is even served in some of these sub-temples!
The temple dates back to the 13th century, when Emperor Kameyama constructed a retirement villa at this location. Years later, it was turned into an elegant Zen temple. Unfortunately, the original buildings were all destroyed during several fires and the Onin War in 1467. Nevertheless, the temple was every time rebuilt, and today it is still one of the magnificent must-see temples in Kyoto.
The impressive Sanmon entrance gate dates back to 1628 and was constructed in the Tokugawa era to honour the fallen soldiers during the siege of Osaka Castle. Hojo is Nanzenji’s great hall and it is also famous for its fine rock garden where the rocks are believed to be swimming tigers.
Moreover, an astonishing aqueduct from the Meiji Period (1868-1912) built in authentic Roman style can be explored right on the temple grounds.
From Nanzenji Temple you easily reach the southern end of the Philosopher’s Path leading picturesquely to Ginkakuji Temple further to the north.
10. Ginkakuji Temple
Another temple you must see in Kyoto is Ginkakuji Temple or Higashiyama Jishoji – the Silver Pavilion. It is located in the eastern part of Kyoto at the Higashiyama mountains. You may want to walk by the breathtaking Philosopher’s Path (especially during cherry blossoms) to arrive at Ginkakuji Temple.
The shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa built the temple in 1482 with inspiration from his grandfather’s retirement pavilion, Kinkakuji – the Golden Pavilion, in northwestern Kyoto. The Pavilion has – despite its name – never been silver-covered.
Ashikaga Yoshimasa wanted just like his grandfather a retirement pavilion in Kyoto. After his death the pavilion was turned into a Zen temple and a centre for finer culture like flower arrangement, tea ceremonies, theatre and garden architecture with both a moss and pond garden as well as the famous sand garden (Sea of Silver Sand). Here, you cannot miss the huge, spectacular sand cone named the Moon Viewing Platform.
The Silver Pavilion has two storeys with each their architectural style. As a main feature it contains the Kannon Hall with a statue of Kannon (the Buddhist goddess of mercy).
Unlike many other temples and shrines in Kyoto, the Silver Pavilion has pretty uniquely survived both fires and earthquakes.
There are two other remarkable temple buildings on the Ginkakuji temple grounds, the main hall (Hondo) with paintings on its sliding doors, and the Togudo which has a tatami mat room believed to be the oldest of its kind (Shoin architecture).
Must-see temples and shrines in southern Kyoto
11. Fushimi Inari Shrine
Another of the magnificent Shinto shrines you absolutely must see is the ancient Fushimi Inari Shrine which is also the most significant Shinto shrine in entire Kyoto. It is famed for its 10,000 vermillion torii gates winding up the sacred Mount Inari.
The oldest parts of the Fushimi Inari Shrine date back to year 711, which was even before Kyoto became Japan’s capital.
You enter through the Romon Gate from 1589 before arriving at the shrine main hall. One of the things you will notice is the presence of foxes across the shrine grounds. Foxes have in the Shinto religion significant religious importance as messengers of the Shinto god Inari who is the god of rice, agriculture, fertility and business.
At the rear you will find the Senbon Torii (meaning thousands of torii gates) which are two neighbouring, parallel rows of torii gates curving up the mountainside.
The torii trail up the mountains is very popular to hike both among Japanese and foreign tourists. The orange gates stand densely all the way up and make up an intriguing tunnel. On each torii gate you will see an inscription showing the donator’s name which can be both individuals and companies who strive for good luck. Moreover, on the way to the summit there is a viewpoint where you can get a fabulous view of Kyoto and the surrounding mountains.
The full hike to the summit takes 2-3 hours (located at an altitude of 233 m / 764 ft), but you can also just do the first part of it, where the torii gates stand more densely along the trail than further up.
There is easy access by train to the Fushimi Inari Shrine from Kyoto Station since it is only a few minutes by train.
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Do you want to plan a 3-day itinerary / roundtrip from Tokyo to Kyoto? Then you can find inspiration here: Tokyo to Kyoto by Train: Ultimate 3-day Itinerary
You can find other must-see places and useful, practical information for your trip in Japan in our guide Facts about Tokyo – Travel Guide.
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Featured image article, attribution: Michelle Maria