Kyoto is the temple and shrine capital of Japan. With over 2000 sites, you'll find yourself immersed in thousands of years of history just waiting for you to explore.
With so many historical sites it’s hard to decide which sites are a must see while you’re visiting Kyoto. So the Japlanning team have voted, debated and even came close to fisty cuffs to bring you Japlanning.com’s top 5 temples and shrines that you have to check out while in Kyoto.
If any of them make your list, be sure to jot down the directions to the sites, so you can make your own tour like we did here.
Heian-jingu Shrine is one of the newer shrines in Kyoto, dating back to just 1895. Heian was built on the occasion of the 1100th anniversary of Kyoto being founded as the nation’s capital (Heian-jingu is the former name of Kyoto). When it was opened, it was dedicated to the spirits of the first and last emperors of Japan who reigned from Kyoto.
The site is not hard to miss; the road leading to the Shrine has a giant orange Tori gate over the entire roadway. The entrance to the grounds is large and spacious, with a white rock ground, and a scattering of sakura trees, because of this, the shrine is especially beautiful during the sakura season in March and April. The main building of the shrine resembles parts of the original Imperial Palace from the Heian-jingu period, however on a much more modest scale.
Probably our favorite part of the grounds, and what made it in our top five, is actually just behind the main buildings. The shrine's gardens are spectacular! It contains a variety of plants from across Japan, many little traditional buildings, ponds and lakes; it’s a beautiful example of a Japanese garden, and even has stepping stones to walk across some of the ponds. A main feature of the gardens is a large Japanese covered bridge with ornate wood work that is a must see, and even a good place to stop and rest as you take in the beautiful surroundings.
The gardens are also covered with weeping sakura trees which bloom a little later than most of the other sakura trees. It’s considered one of the best places to view sakura during the season’s end in late April.
The shrine serves as a site of the Jidai Festival on October 22, the anniversary of the foundation of Kyoto. The festival’s parade starts at the Kyoto Imperial Palace and ends at the Heian-jingu Shrine.
The best way to get to Heian-jingu Shrine is from Kyoto station on the 100 Raku Bus (Red).
Fushimi Inari is the most important of several thousands of shrines dedicated to Inari, the Shinto God of rice.
What we love about this shrine is it's Tori gates! These famous gates which are usually at the entrance of every Shinto shrine are a symbol of Japan recognised the world over, and we're pretty sure this place has the most Tori gates in one area in the world. Fushimi has sprawling paths throughout the grounds that go on for kilometers through the woodlands, and the paths are covered in Tori gates forming a tunnel, they are simply beautiful.
The gates are donations from individuals and corporations to the Shrine, and have their details engraved on the columns of the gates in Japanese. Many of the trails lead to smaller shrines and lakes, even to the top of the mountain where the Shrine sits, with amazing views of Kyoto.
Another cool feature of this shrine is its use of statues of foxes throughout it. These mischievous looking foxes are at the gates, stairways to the shrine, and scattered throughout the pathways too. The foxes are said to be the messengers of the Inari shrine, so they are prominent throughout it.
Wandering around the grounds, and hiking up many of the Tori paths can leave you spending several hours at this shrine. Watching the sun pierce through the leaves and changing the colour of the environment every few minutes, it’s a great site to visit in the late afternoon. The shrine workers are scattered around the grounds at many of the worship sites, and at the few temple stalls. Have a chat with them and get some amazing inside knowledge on this historic shrine.
It’s one of the more popular shrines; however with its vast sprawling grounds, it never feels crowded.
To get to Fushimi Inari, it’s best to take the Nara JR Rail line from Kyoto Station to JR Inari Station. Travel time is approximately 5 minutes, and JR Inari is the second stop from Kyoto Station.
You may have seen this temple as one of the pre installed wallpapers on all Mac computers for the last several years. The golden pavilion has a history spanning back to the 1300’s, and is one of the most popular temples in Japan today.
The Kinkakuji complex is a must see whilst in Kyoto to take in it's beautiful gardens and witness this marvelous Golden Pavilion for yourself. The pavilion incorporates three styles of architecture: shinden, samurai, and zen, one on each floor. This temple is a photographers dream; you will see many people wandering around for hours, holding giant DSLR cameras, taking hundreds of shots of these majestic surroundings.
The site gardens are a great example of Japanese Muromachi period garden design. The winding trails through the gardens pass many statues and buildings, as well as other little shrines and waterfalls. If you follow the path through the gardens, it will take you down to the Sekkatei Tea House, which was added to the Golden Pavilion in the Edo period, it sits just before you exit the paid area of the temple.
Also part of the complex is Fudo Hall, a small hall which contains a statue of the protector of Buddhism, Fudo Myoo.
To get to Kinkakuji, take either the 101 Raku (Green) or the 102 Raku (Yellow) Bus from Kyoto station. Travel time from Kyoto station is approximately 30 minutes, and the bus will announce the stop in English before it arrives.
Kiyomizudera is one of the most famous temples in Japan. Founded in 780AD, it’s situated in the woodland hills east of Kyoto. The name literally means “pure waters”, which makes sense as it was built on the site of the Otowa waterfall.
The most famous part of the temple grounds is the wooden terrace which comes out from the main hall, twelve metres above the hillside below. With some of the best views of Kyoto available, and the valley below is filled with maple and cherry trees, making it a popular viewing site during sakura season, when the area explodes with colour. Looking out from the terrace, you can see the famous three-story Koyasu pagoda, which is situated on the other side of the temple grounds.
Beyond the main hall and terrace there is the Jishu shrine, which is dedicated to the god of love and matchmaking. A lovely feature of the shrine is out the front, where two stones sit 18 metres apart. It is said that successfully finding your way from one stone to the other with your eyes closed brings you good luck in finding true love.
At the base of the main hall is the waterfall, which is separated into three small streams. Visitors to the shrine use cups that are on long poles to drink from each stream. Each stream is said to have their own benefits, such as longevity in life, success at school and a good love life. It’s also said that drinking from all three is considered bad luck as it’s seen as selfish. The large temple grounds have many buildings and shrines, which are considered to give luck and happiness to many aspects of life. The Koyasu pagoda, at the opposite end to the main hall is believed to bring simple and safe childbirth to those who visit it.
To get to the temple, you need to walk up some long and steep laneways which are filled with little shops and restaurants which have a lively atmosphere, and an old feel that blends well with the temple. It’s a great place to take some time to look through the local arts and crafts and to grab some traditional Japanese gifts on sale. Make sure you taste some of the local delicacies on offer as well.
If visiting in March, the area around the temple and laneways have special illumination events in the evenings which cannot be missed.
To get to Kiyomizudera Temple, jump on the 100 Raku (Red) bus at Kyoto station. Travel time from Kyoto Station is approximately 20 minutes, and the bus will announce the stop in English before it arrives.
Ginkakuji is a little different than it’s counterpart, the Golden Pavilion. The Silver Pavilion is not actually covered in silver (aww!), however, this beautiful Zen temple along the Higashiyama Mountains is beautiful and one of the finest examples of Zen gardens in the world.
The grounds were built originally as a retirement villa for a Shogun in 1482; however after his death in 1490, it was converted into a Zen temple.
On the temple grounds there is the Silver Pavilion building, a few temple buildings and the amazing Zen garden consisting of a moss garden and a dry sand garden (You know those little desk sand gardens you can buy? It’s like a giant one of them). The grounds have a circular walking path that lets you see all the buildings and the Zen garden. The silver pavilion is two stories tall, and is built using two different architecture styles, and it contains a statue of the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kannon.
After passing the pavilion you will see the impressive dry sand garden, which is known as the “Sea of Silver Sand”. With intricate patterns raked into the sand, it’s a soothing experience to lose yourself in the winding ways of the sand.
The moss garden, which is just past the silver sands, features islands and ponds with Japanese bridges, and various plants and small streams. The path through the garden climbs up a hill behind the complex, where you will get a lovely view of the entire grounds and Kyoto beyond.
The best way to get to the Ginkakuji Temple is to take the 100 Raku (Red) bus from Kyoto Station. Travel time from Kyoto Station is approximately 30 minutes, and the bus will announce the stop in English before it arrives.
So it’s not a Shrine or Temple, but we see it as a historic building that is a must see!
Nijo Castle was originally built in 1626 (yeah they mean old here!). The castle survived WWII, and has paintings inside that date back to 1700's. Once you enter the grounds, you will pass the castle walls which are surrounded by a moat filled with koi fish.
You follow a set tour path, and the coolest thing has to be the floor. I know what you’re thinking, “the floor? There is hundreds of years around you, and the floor is the best?” Let us finish and you will understand! The wooden floor was designed back in 1626, and as you walk on it, it makes the sound of a nightingale bird. This is by design, and it's original purpose was to alert the Shogun of intruders in the night.
The sound is beautiful, and at first, we thought it was an audio trick, but after several trials of moving on them at different speeds and suddenly stopping, we realised that this is 100% real! Who wouldn't want these floors in their house?
Once you tour through the majestic building, seeing all the amazing silk screen painted walls, which are older than most countries, you end up outside and start the tour of the equally amazing castle gardens. Everyone has an picture of a Japanese garden from countless movies in their minds - here you can see it for real! With sprawling paths, innate rock work, beautiful plants and an amazing pond, this garden will be what you picture when you hear "Japanese gardens" next time. The maintenance is impeccable; in fact we even saw a gardener sweeping up pine needles on one of the immaculate lawns.
A tour of the castle and grounds can take anywhere from 1-hour to 3-hours, depending on how much you want to stop and admire the surroundings.
The best way to get to Nijo Castle is to take the 101 Raku (Green) Bus from Kyoto Station. Travel time from Kyoto Station is approximately 10 minutes, and Nijo Castle is the first tourist stop.
Kyoto is a must visit while in Japan! With its rich history and amazing architecture, this beautiful city is easy to get lost in and explore for days.
What's your favourite historic site in Kyoto?
Tell us in the comments below!