If you cannot find a temple or shrine that you’re impressed by in Kyoto then you really shouldn’t have bothered leaving home. They are everywhere and range from big, small, picturesque, elegant, quirky, popular, hidden, empty, overgrown, well manicured and the downright touristy. Some you have to pay to get into, some you can walk the gardens for free but will have to pay to enter the buildings, some are completely free (with buildings wither open or closed to the public).
I spent my first day in Kyoto just wandering the hills of Higashiyama and skipping between temples and shrines. As an atheist I admire them for their architecture and aesthetic more than any religion or spiritual reasons, however you cannot help but feel the calm and Zen vibrations that some of these place emit.
There are some biggies that every tourist bus will take you to and every guide book will tell you are a ‘must see’. Let’s quickly knock them out of the way first in this article, before we delve into some of my personal favorites in Temple Hopping in Kyoto: Hidden Gems and Escaping the Crowds. Keen in mind that I was travelling on a budget, so did not pay to enter all of these places. I have mentioned where you need to pay and what you can see for free under each temple or shrine.
This is the temple set off the side of a hill that would have seem featured in a lot of photos of Kyoto. There are magical views across the city from here and the structure is really impressive. You can access views of the temple for free and take great photos of it set infront of the city views. If you want to walk inside the temple and out onto the main deck it will costs you 300 yen. The temple is open from 6am – 6pm and if you want to enjoy the place with any sense of calm, I would highly suggest being there before 9am. The walk up the hill will take you a while so be sure to leave your hotel or hostel early. Google maps the best way to walk up the maze if streets that lead up the hill.
You can talk the gardens of Kiyomizudera temple for free and all these photos were taken from free spaces. The only section you have to pay to enter is the main hall (pictured below with people standing on the balcony). The fee is 300 yen and the hall is open from 6am – 6pm daily.
This is closeby to Kiyomizudera and also best to visit before 9am to avoid mass (like MASS) amounts of people. It’s not as high up the hill you may want to break up the walk to Higashiyama with a stop here first. This impressive shrine pops out of the mountainside with its bright gates and impending size.
Both Higashiyama temple and Yasaka Shrine are very pretty to see, but you won’t want to linger too long. There are many more places to see, most of which have much more soul and luscious surroundings than these two very touristy destinations.
Whilst the structure of Yasaka Shrine is impressive by itself, even more impressive is the view of it as you ascend the hills to the main gate (pictured above). The gate is a brilliant red that contrasts amazingly with the greenery of the Kyoto hills and acts as a great guiding point to get yourself up to this popular Shrine.
Yasaka Shrine, like all shrines (or at least all the ones I saw), is free to enter and poke around.
Now you will want to put aside a bit of time to spend here. The temple building and gates themselves are impressive but the garden steals the show here. Surrounding the temple is an old bridge that is just stunning and is well set into the scenery now. There is an official manicured garden that you can pay to enter however my tip is to skip that and head up the hill to somewhere that took my breath away. It is not part of the primary temple here so I have written about this somewhat secret spot in the article ‘Temple Hopping in Kyoto: Hidden Gems and Escaping the Crowds‘.
However, before you skip up the hill to one of my favorite places in all of Kyoto, make sure that you take the time to explore Nanzenji temple and it’s gardens in the slow, meandering and admiring manner of which they deserve. Nanzenji is one of the most important zen temples, as it’s main building acts as one of the schools for the Rinzai sect of Japanese Zen Buddhism. The temple was originally built as an emperor’s retirement villa in the mid 13th century, however was shortly after transformed into a temple. All of the original buildings were destroyed in a series of civil wars from 1333-1573, and all of the current buildings are more modern reconstructions of what was destroyed.
This is not uncommon in Japan. Much of the country has been war-ravaged and most of what is standing now has been rebuilt several times. The Sanmon Gate (pictured above) is the first structure you will see at Nanzenji and was built in 1628. For 500 yen you can climb up to the gate’s balcony and take in the view over Kyoto. To be honest you can do this for free in many other places in the hills, but if the architecture of the building strokes you then this maybe worth the spend.
Now, about that strange bridge that passes through the grounds. It is actually an old aqueduct that once helped to move water and goods between Kyoto and a neighbouring prefecture. There are a number of sub temples that can be explored on the grounds and you can easily spend a lot of time and money just at this one temple.
I coupled a trip to Nanzenji and the secret shrine above it with a walk along the ‘path of philosophy’ which leads you to Ginkakuji temple. Most of Nanzenji temple is free to enter and poke around, you will just need to pay an entrance fee if you want to wander the manicured garden behind the temple grounds (300 yen), climb the entrance gate (500 yen) or enter into the Konchi-in temple or Tenjuan temples (400 yen each). All these entrance fees can can add up quickly!
This was the only temple I paid an entry fee for and to be honest, I’m not sure it was worth it. I don’t agree with the idea of paying to see something that was built as an offering to a god, or a place or prayer or religious importance. I understand that these temples require a lot of upkeep, I just can’t get my head around the idea of paying to pray (optional donations are a different matter entirely). But, I had come all this way so I thought I sould pay to see the inside of at least one temple. Maybe I picked the wrong one. Ginkakuji temple is very pretty and the gardens impressive, however I’ll spent the whole time ducking and diving for cover from old Japanese women singing their umbrellas (used as parasols in the summer sun) around the narrow track.
Full confession, I only paid the entrance fee for Ginkakuji temple because I thought I was at Kinkakuji temple! So I was disappointed on more than one front. Though once I figured out where I was I set off to enjoy the gardens. What I could see from the entrance way looked great and I was excited to see what else this little temple had in store for me.
However within 15mins I had looped back to where I started from, and had been taken via the gift shop. The track was very busy and being lead through the gift shop at the end left a bad taste in my mouth also. I actually found the smaller temples and shrines along the Path of Philosophy much more interesting than this temple. As well as the little treasure of Okazaki Shrine that I stumbled upon on my way here. That being said if you’re on a limited time schedule and want to see a nice traditional Japanese garden, this is a good example of one. I do think that you can see nicer gardens for free in Tokyo though.
Entrance into the Ginkakuji temple grounds was 500 yen and you can access it from 8:30am to 5pm everyday to take selfies like this one.
Fushimi Inari shrine
Tourists who only have a day or two in Kyoto will see Kiyomizudera Temple and Fushimi Inari Shrine. This place is packed full of people, at all hours!! I walked here from my hostel downtown but I noticed that most tourists take the bus or train. The walk is only an hour from the happening city centre of Kyoto and you pass by some lovely smaller temples along the way (including Tofukuji Temple and my person favorite Imakumano-Kannonji Temple) as well as being some beautiful streetscapes and views.
As you enter Fushimi Inari, you will see the Romon Gate at the entrance. Take your time to explore this area, pick up a map from the info desk before making your way towards the main attraction; the tori gates. While I was at the info desk talking with the helpful English speaking employees, I was also eavesdropping on a tour group who had walked in behind me. They were a group of about 25 people and were given 20 minutes to explore the tori gates and surrounding gardens of Fushimi Inari before having to meet back at the entrance and depart for their next temple. This is common according to the info desk. Most people take a photo of the entrance gate, then rush to the tori gates at the back and walk along the first section of gates before looping back to the entrance and departing the shrine.
If you are short on time then this is fine, however be prepared to have your photos filled with other tourists and be almost carried off your feet in the wave of other people’s rush to see everything in 20 mins.
If you have more time and are after a deeper experience than just what you need for Instagram, than please… I beg of you, walk up the hill. It was one of my favorite walks in Kyoto and I want for you all to share in that. For more about the Fushimi Inari walk head to Hidden Gems and Escaping the Crowds.
All around the shrine you will see statues of foxes wearing an assortment of bibs. The fox is considered to be Inari’s messenger and is of extreme importance to the shrine.
Fushimi Inari Taisha is one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Kyoto and said to be the most important of all the thousands of shrines that have been errected to honour Inari (the Shinto god of rice). Fushimi Inari was founded in 711AD, however most of the tori gates are new and need constant replacing due to rot and damage. The inscriptions that you see on the gates are not prayers or offerings, as you might assume, they are thanks to the people and businesses who have donated money for the refurbishment and constant maintenance of these tori gates. The entrance gate was donated in 1589 by the somewhat unpopular leader Toyotomi Hideyoshi and acts as a nice filter for the masses of people visiting this shrine, ensuring they slow down before crushing each other in the tori gates.
Fushimi Inari if free to visit and is open 24 hours a day. i would recommend getting there early!
This is one place I did not visit. To reach Kinkakuji temple you have to jump on a bus, or be a really, really (like SUPER) keen walker. The walk from Khaosan Threatre Hostel to Kinkakuji is 6.5kms each way, and not through the most interesting streets either. There are four different bus lines that will get you here, so just ask as your hostel or hotel which is closest to you.
Whilst I did want to see the stunning golden temple, I didn’t want to attend a place where I was locked in with a million other tourists and unable to escape! With many of the temples in the eastern hills of Kyoto, you can escape the crowds, however I had heard that with Kinkakuki, much like Ginkakuji, you are confined to one walking track and a small space. A stunning space, but a small space. I was a little sick of the crowds by this point but if you’re stamina for being among large groups of people is higher than mine, then you should head out to Kinkakuji temple. I hear it will blow your mind!
Kinkakuji temple is open from 9am to 5pm and costs 400 yen to enter.