With 17 Unesco World Heritage Sites spread around the city, an incredibly rich history and a unique atmosphere, the former capital of Japan Kyoto still remains today the spiritual and cultural centre of the archipelago. It’s such a delight to walk in the tiny lanes of the old town, sit on a bench next to the Philosopher’s Walk or enjoy the peace of its many gardens. It would also take a lifetime to visit its more than 1600 temples, but here’s a selection of 9 of them that should be part of your to-do list if you’re travelling to Kyoto, the heart of Japan.
📷 For more pictures have a look at my gallery about Kyoto.
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The brightest: Kinkaku-ji
Let’s start this list with probably the most stunning of all the temples of Kyoto: Kinkaku-ji, literally “Temple of the Golden Pavilion”. Part of the Unesco World Heritage List, this fantastic temple is also one of the most popular attractions of the city so try to get there as early as possible to avoid the biggest crowds. But even if you’re not on your own, as soon as you’ll be staring at the perfect reflection of the golden roof in the quiet pond and its little islands you’ll forget about the hundreds of tourists around you.
The gardens of this Zen Buddhist temple are also truly beautiful and you can see some really big Koi carps in the pond.
The quietest: Myoshin-ji
Myoshin-ji is actually a complex of not less than 47 temples! This huge area is completely forgotten by tourists, and if you’re looking for a quiet place after the crowds of Kinkaku-ji, this is where you should head to. There’s so much to see that the best way to explore Myoshin-ji is to get lost between the temples, in the little lanes where you might bump into a monk or stop in a garden to meditate.
The most beautiful gardens: Ryôan-ji
Close to Kinkaku-ji and Myoshin-ji in the north of Kyoto, Ryôan-ji (“Temple of the Dragon at Peace”) is also part of the Unesco World Heritage List. It is mostly famous for its fabulous zen garden: a rectangle of white gravel perfectly raked by monks in which you can find 15 stones placed in 5 different groups, in such a way that it’s impossible to see all of them at the same time. The impression of peace left by this place is unique.
With a lovely pond, the statue of a Buddha and beautiful trees the rest of the gardens are also gorgeous, especially during spring when the cherry blossoms are blooming.
Make sure to stop at the little restaurant in the middle of the park; I went there, ordered an orange juice (the cheapest item on the menu) and enjoyed an unbelievable moment of quietness and relaxation, where silence was only disrupted by birdsong. If you want to know what the word “zen” really means, you have to visit Ryôan-ji!
The biggest roof: Higashi Hongan-ji
It’s hard to miss this impressive building, just a 10-minute walk from the train station. The wooden roof is supposed to be the largest in the world! See also the beautiful fountain in the courtyard decorated by the sculpture of a scary dragon.
The tallest pagoda: Toji temple
Also close to the train station, the Toji temple is another Unesco World Heritage Site of Kyoto. It’s easy to find it: search for the five-story pagoda, the tallest of Japan with its 57m. Have a look also at the cute tortoises in the pond.
The best view over Kyoto: Kiyomizu-dera
If you want to visit Kiyomizu-dera (yet another Unesco World Heritage Site), try to do it in the late afternoon: with its situation up on a hill in the east of Kyoto, it’s a perfect place to enjoy sunset. Unfortunately, when I was there during spring 2018, the temple was under restoration but it was still worth visiting for the great view over the city and also for the first picture below, my personal favourite of Japan.
Combine the visit of the temple with a stroll in the lanes of Gion below, and if possible with the Philosopher’s Walk a little bit further north; it’s in these historic parts of Kyoto that you’ll see the highest rate of women wearing traditional kimonos… and maybe even geishas if you’re lucky.
The biggest one: Fushimi-Inari
You might already have seen pictures of this very famous shrine: it is well known for its 30,000 red torii, forming a 4-kilometer long corridor through the forest. Unless you go very early in the morning, the first part after the entrance is usually heaving with people but the higher you climb between the torii, the less crowded it will get and you might be lucky enough to take pictures like the ones below between two groups of tourists. The torii symbolize the transition from mundane to sacred, and the inscriptions on them are only on one side: the one turned to the spiritual world. They’re aimed for the spirits and not supposed to be read by mortals.
You might be surprised by the number of statues of foxes in Fushimi-Inari. The reason is simple: in the cult of the god Inari, foxes are seen as messengers and often have a key in their mouth, as you’ll see on many statues.
The most picturesque: Daigo-ji
Because of its location to the south-east of Kyoto, quite far from the centre, there aren’t so many tourists coming to this temple. A huge mistake, because with its zen garden, its five-story pagoda, and its omnipresent nature, it’s one of the most beautiful ones of the city. A few pictures might be better than words so have a look by yourselves!
The most secret: Gokonomiya Shrine
You won’t read anything about this shrine in any tour guide about Japan; I only ended up there because of a lack of preparation. I booked my accommodation in Kyoto at the last minute and everything close to the centre was already full, so I had to fall back on something further away. I found a guest house south of the city, and between the dormitory and the closest railway station (Momoyama) I walked past the gates of this shrine and decided to visit it.
Let’s be honest, it’s not the most amazing temple of Kyoto; but with the bright colours of its woodcarvings and some very ancient paintings it’s not devoid of interest. One sure thing: you won’t find any other tourists over here!
This list could have included so many other temples, like Kamigamo Shrine, Ginkaku-ji (Temple of the Silver Pavilion), Nanni-ji, Kozan-ji or Tenryu-ji… and that’s only to mention some of the others Unesco World Heritage Sites ok Kyoto! Do you have a personal favourite between all these temples? Share it in the comments!
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