Which temples to visit in Kyoto? A list of some favourites

With Kyoto’s 1600 Buddhist temples, and 400 Shinto shrines to choose from, the choice of where to visit seemed overwhelming. After some research, we narrowed our visit down to just a few standouts.

Kinkaku-ji

Sketch of Kinkaku-ji reflecting in the still water of a lake
Reflection of Kinkaku-ji in the still lake

Small, but certainly not lacking in opulence was Kinkaju-ji, the temple on the water, painted entirely in brilliant gold. A second Kinkaku-ji danced and shimmyied in the lake, whilst a rich forest landscape framed the scene. It was perfectly beautiful.

Beyond the temple were small, manicured trees and gardens, and orange moss-covered rocks congregating at the lapping waters. As one of Japan’s most famous sights, and to prevent the tourist presence being too obtrusive, a set walking path only covers half the grounds.

Like many famous temples in Japan which succumbed to fire over the centuries, Kinkaku-ji also has a history of misfortune; in this case, deliberate arson by a wayward monk in the 20th century.

Higashi Honganji and Nishi Honganji

Silhouette of a lantern and reflective floor at a Kyoto temple
The polished wooden temple floor

Near Kyoto station are two major temple complexes, Higashi Honganji and Nishi Honganji. We explored Higashi Honganji, and were immediately overwhelmed by the size of its two mammoth main temples, Goeido Hall and Amidado Hall.

Two main temples stood side by side, presiding over a gathering of smaller structures. As we walked across the expansive gravel courtyard and up the stone steps, we admired the colossal constructions in front of us, with mighty wooden pillars standing in the dark wood terrace, leading up to grand, sweeping flaired roofs.

A replica sled and informative plaque told the story of the dangerous conditions that workers endured to build these temples 400 years ago; mighty logs were felled, and transported along mountain roads down to Kyoto, taking many lives along the way in winter conditions and in logging accidents.

Inside the temple, tatami mats spread out to fill a grand open hall, with an altar decorated in gold latticework. The temples were brutally simple in their grand scale and simplistic gold-and-wood colours – and yet, sitting cross-legged on the mats, listening to the monks’ prayers, there was a palpable delicacy and tranquility to be felt.

Kiyomizu-dera

In Kyoto city, we were noticing lots of geishas on the subway. We decided to see where they were all going. At Gion station, we disembarked, to find more and more kimonos wandering around.

We figured out quickly that they were tourist kimonos, for hire in the area (which ones are real geishas and which are tourists? TIP: look for a selfie stick). Up the hill they shuffled on slippered feet, converging on a narrow shopping avenue packed with people and charming wooden shops filled, with souvenirs.

sketch of kiyomizu dera temple in kyoto
Kiyomizu-dera, with a distant view of Kyoto

At the top of the hill, the street intersected another, and there we found Kiyomizu-dera, one of Kyoto’s most celebrated temple complexes. As the warming golden hour rays transmutated into a blue, dusky sky, we wandered around the temples.

Tall, vermillion structures with flaired, tiled roofs, some low and squat, others multi-tiered, popping up like square mushrooms. More temples can be found deeper in the complex (for the price of an entrance ticket), but it was late, and a hot bowl of ramen sounded good on this winter evening.

Manga museum

OK, this one isn’t a traditional temple. But it still draws passionate crowds of Manga fans in great numbers.

Sketch of a manga character inside Kyoto's mange museum
The manga museum in Kyoto

It was a manga Mecca. The entrance was filled with shelves upon shelves of foreign-language manga, guarded by a great phoenix statue. Deeper into the labyrinth was the Japanese manga, and reading areas galore; locals curled up on soft chairs or sprawled out in cushion-lined depressions in the floor.

A large library room had shelves as high as the ceiling, and the wooden floor creaked underfoot as we admired thousands of classic manga series, and read informative posters describing life as a famous animator.

As total newcomers, it was amazing to discover this gigantic world of manga fandom. We discovered an exhibition of freebie gifts and toys given out with comics, some even dating back pre-war, and a room honouring the artists, with plaster casts of their hand holding a pencil.

Have you visited Kyoto? What was your favourite temple or sight? Let me know in the comments!

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