Ever dreamed of wandering through quiet temple courtyards filled with cherry blossoms or standing in awe before an enormous vermillion shrine gate? If so, then visiting some of the best Kyoto shrines and temples should be at the top of your travel list! I mean, this spot is simply the hallmark of what makes Japan incredibly unique against other Asian countries.
As someone who spent a year backpacking in Japan, I’m asked almost daily for recommendations on the best shrines and temples to visit. And honestly, with over 80,000 options, it can be downright overwhelming for first-timers. Well, let me make it easy for you – I’ve narrowed it down to my top 5 favorites across this historic city.
Whether you want to contemplate with koi fish swirling beneath a pagoda, hike up a hillside staircase lined with vermillion torii gates, or just sit in quiet awe of ancient cedar trees and zen gardens, you’ll gain insight into an unforgettable temple and shrine experience in Kyoto from this Japan travel insider’s perspective. Oh, and we’ll cover some useful phrases in the Japanese language too!
Let’s dive in!
Table of Contents
Kyoto Shrines And Temples
Location: 605-0811 Kyoto, Higashiyama Ward, Japan
Looking to Zen out away from the crowds after temple hopping in Kyoto? Well, let me steer you toward one of the city’s best-kept secrets – Kennin-ji Temple. As the oldest Zen temple in town, founded way back in 1202, it offers a blissfully tranquil escape.
The first time I visited the temple grounds, it kinda felt like I was Kagome for a ‘lil while – instead of traveling through the Bone-Eater’s Well, I simply passed under the faded wooden gate. Just like that, it was as if I took a step back in time to old Kyoto. The towering timber architecture, temple buildings, and secluded gardens impart a magical lost-in-time feel.
But it’s not just about quiet contemplation here – Kennin-ji delivers truly stunning interiors and artwork too! Gazing up at the masterful ink painting of twin dragons sweeping through golden clouds on the ceiling of the Dharma Hall takes your breath away. You’ll also find whimsical dragon fusuma sliding doors and a 17th-century folding screen depicting wind and thunder gods protecting Japan.
Kinkakuji Temple (The Golden Pavilion)
Location: 1 Kinkakujicho, Kita, Kyoto, 603-8361, Japan
Originally built in 1397 as a retirement pad for shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, Kinkakuji is one of the grandest temples in the country that mixes three distinct architectural layouts into one elegant structure. This Zen Buddhist temple evolved into a historic monument but still remains an active place of worship today. Its formal name, Rokuonji, literally means “Deer Garden Temple”.
The top two floors of Kinkakuji dazzle as gold-lacquered shine against the landscape. Can you imagine peacefully gazing at those gilded reflections in the water back in Yoshimitsu’s era? Now the gold-embellished temple is an iconic Kyoto landmark that draws tourists instead of retired warlords!
Location: 294 Kiyomizu 1-chome, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 605-0862, Japan
This beloved Buddhist shrine’s iconic 13-meter-high wooden platform juts you right into its maple and sakura treetop views. Perhaps this isn’t your first rodeo with this temple since it has been recognized as one of Japan’s UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Founded in 780 CE and built without a single nail, Kiyomizu-Dera invites you to immerse yourself in Kyoto’s rich spiritual history. Its name translates to “Pure Water Temple,” named after the waterfall nourishing its grounds. Make a wish by sipping the waterfall’s luck-bringing waters with a wooden ladle. The orange gates and detailed architecture look like it’s straight out of a vintage postcard. No filter required!
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Location: 68 Fukakusa Yabunouchicho, Fushimi Ward, Kyoto
No trip to the Kyoto area is complete without a visit to the mesmerizing Fushimi Inari Shrine. This iconic Shinto site, founded in 711, boasts thousands of vibrant orange torii gates flanking the pathways up sacred Mount Inari. Businesses sponsor these gates to bring financial prosperity and trade success. Talk about getting extra blessed on your hike!
It takes around 2 hours to summit Fushimi Inari’s mountain trails, passing under the seemingly endless tunnels of orange. Make sure to stop along the way to admire the traditional architecture, take epic photos, and soak up the peaceful atmosphere. Keep an eye out for cute fox guardians, too – they symbolize the shrine’s harvest god, Inari.
Location: Nishi Ten-o-cho, Okazaki, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto 606-8341, Japan
This spectacular 1895 Meiji-era shrine was built as a partial replica of the former Imperial Palace. Beyond its colossal torii gates, Heian Shrine dazzles with intricate architecture lovingly lacquered in red and green hues. Make sure to stroll through its sprawling 30,000 square meter landscape gardens too. Divided into four cultivated sections, the grounds erupt in a sea of 300 blushing sakura trees come springtime.
Originally part of Kyoto’s 1100th anniversary celebrations, Heian Shrine still honors the city’s status as a cultural icon today. Don’t miss the spectacular procession at the annual Jidai Matsuri festival held here on October 22nd. You’ll get an authentic glimpse of Heiankyo’s historic grandeur and artistic legacy for free!
Ginkakuji Temple (The Silver Pavilion)
Location: 2 Ginkakujicho, Sakyo, Kyoto, 606-8402, Japan
The lavish Golden Pavilion grabs all the attention, but don’t overlook its elegant cousin, the Silver Pavilion (Ginkakuji Temple)! Built in 1482 as a shogun’s humble hideaway, this Zen temple may lack golden dazzle, but still captivates crowds in northern Kyoto.
Unlike the flashy golden temple, the Silver Pavilion embraces subtle charms and natural beauty instead. Moss-covered grounds host raked zen gardens, towering pines, and intimate walking paths past traditional tea houses. Its name comes from plans to cover the structure in silver as intricately as the nearby Golden Pavilion – if only wars hadn’t halted construction!
Location: 625 Gionmachi Kitagawa, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Japan
At the heart of Kyoto’s Gion geisha district, the striking vermillion Yasaka Shrine brings good fortune to all who visit. Dating back to 656, this beautiful open-air shrine is one of Kyoto’s most famous. Originally part of a magnificent temple complex, only Yasaka’s signature five-story pagoda remains intact after wars and fires.
As Kyoto’s central shrine, Yasaka honors Shinto deities representing prosperity and protection from disasters. Locals and tourists alike flock to pay respects through purification rituals like ringing the gong or lighting incense at the main hall. Don’t forget to write a special prayer on paper to tie to the wish-granting tree!
Come June, Yasaka Shrine explodes into Kyoto’s liveliest festival for the summer solstice. The month-long Gion Matsuri celebrates with colorful parades, market stalls and wheeled floats carting treasures of the gods. Witness over a thousand years of history and culture on display!
Tips When Visiting Kyoto Temples And Shrines
Properly visiting the serene temples and shrines of Kyoto is an art form in itself. As you enter these sacred spaces, first find the font and purify yourself by washing your hands and rinsing your mouth. This cleanses you before going deeper inside.
Next, locate the main hall and bow deeply two times when passing through the gates or doorway as a sign of respect. Some temples have one large bell you can strike as you silently make a wish. Ringing the bell is believed to send prayers directly to the gods.
When you are ready to make an offering, gently toss a coin into the large wooden collection box using just one hand. Then bow twice more while gently clapping to awaken and honor the resident spirits. Maintain a soft voice so as not to disturb the solemn mood within temple halls.
Use these handy Japanese phrases when praying:
- “Onegai shimasu” (お願いします) – said with a bow to request the shrine deity for favor
- “Arigatou gozaimashita”(ありがとうございました) – thank you after placing coin offering
- “Omamori onegai shimasu” (お守りお願いします) – requesting a special amulet
- “Shashin o totte mo ii deshou ka?” (写真を撮ってもいいでしょうか) – ask if photos are allowed
- “Onegai site kudasai” (お願いして下さい) – polite inquiry phrase for anything
Ready To Visit Zen Temples?
As you’ve discovered, Kyoto offers no shortage of magnificent temples and shrines to immerse yourself in traditional Japanese culture. From the Golden Pavilion’s glittering overlooks to Fushimi Inari’s tunnel of vermillion torii gates, each iconic site invites meditation on the profound beauty surrounding you.
And now armed with insider etiquette on cleansing rituals, coin offerings, and praying phrases, you can thoughtfully engage in these serene wonders. Whether asking for divine blessings or simply soaking up centuries of history, mindfully participating enhances connections during your visits.
Want to explore more Japanese language and customs for deeper travel experiences?
Download the innovative Ling app! Ling provides bite-sized lessons and quizzes so you can master key phrases on the go. Unlock a world beyond surface sights by comprehending conversations, signs, and nuances wherever you wander in Japan. With the Ling app in your pocket, you hold the key to unlocking cultural insight to last longer than any trip.