With 17 Unesco World Heritage Sites spread around the city, a very rich history and a unique atmosphere, the former capital of Japan Kyoto still remains today the spiritual and cultural centre of the archipelago. It was such a delight for me 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. But more than anything else, I loved exploring its fabulous temples! There are more than 1600 in total and it would take a lifetime to visit them all, 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.
The brightest: Kinkaku-ji
This is the first temple I visited when I arrived in Kyoto, and it’s also probably the most stunning of the city. Kinkaku-ji means “temple of the Golden Pavilion”, and I don’t think I could ever forget the idyllic sight of its golden roof reflecting on the surface of a quiet pond, sprinkled with little islands. I felt like I had suddenly travelled back in time! Only problem, it is also one of the most popular attractions of Kyoto so I was far of being on my own… It’s better to come early in the morning to avoid the crowds!
The gardens of this Zen Buddhist temple located in the north of Kyoto are also truly beautiful, with some really big Koi carps in the pond.
The most beautiful gardens: Ryôan-ji
But the gardens of Kinkaku-ji can’t compete with the ones from its neighbour Ryôan-ji (there’s about 20 minutes on foot between them), the “temple of the Dragon at Peace”, also part of the Unesco World Heritage List. I did a long walk inside its vast park, immersing myself in the serenity of the nature, personified by a beautiful statue of Buddha in the middle of the vegetation. It’s also the part of Kyoto that I preferred to enjoy the unmissable sight of cherry blossoms.
I also particularly liked the fabulous zen garden of Ryôan-ji: 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.
I ended my visit of Ryôan-ji with a break in the little restaurant inside the gardens. I wasn’t hungry at all and I only ordered an orange juice, but it was an unforgettable moment of quietness and relaxation, where silence was only disrupted by birdsong. An ideal occasion to give free rein to my thoughts!
The quietest: Myoshin-ji
Also located in the north of Kyoto, Myoshin-ji is actually a complex of not less than 47 temples! This huge area is completely forgotten by tourists, and I found it quite randomly after visiting Kinkaku-ji and Ryôan-ji. I really enjoyed getting lost in the maze of its narrow lanes, admiring the architecture of the temples, without seeing anyone else apart from a few monks.
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! I also found the dragon decorating the fountain in the courtyard very impressive, and almost foreboding!
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: I only had to search for the five-story pagoda, the tallest of Japan with its 57m. Have a look also at the cute tortoises in the nearby pond.
The best view over Kyoto: Kiyomizu-dera
It’s better to visit the temple of Kiyomizu-dera (yet another Unesco World Heritage Site) 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 picture to the left below, my personal favourite from all the pictures I took in Japan.
The visit of the temple can be easily combined with a strool in the lanes of the old district of Gion below, then along the beautiful Philosopher’s Walk a little bit further north. It’s in these historical suburbs of Kyoto that I saw the most women wearing the traditional kimono, and I was amazed by their elegance.
The biggest one: Fushimi-Inari
Another wonderful memory from my trip to Kyoto… 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. The first part close to the entrance was again heaving with people, but the deeper I got inside the forest, the less visitors they were, until I found myself almost on my own on some sections.
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. There are also numerous statues of foxes in Fushimi-Inari: in the cult of the god Inari, they are seen as messengers and are often represented with a key in their mouth.
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. It was at least one of my favourites, and probably the temple where I took the most pictures!
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 with its tall torii 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: unless they are lost just like I was, 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! If you know the different temples of Kyoto, don’t hesitate to tell me which one is your favourite in the comments!