A beginner’s guide to the temples and shrines of Kyoto
For around 1,000 years, Kyoto was the capital of Japan and the centre of power and influence within the country.
The city’s treasures have survived countless wars and fires — it was even spared the devastation of air raids during World War II, due to its recognised historic value.
Here’s a quick round-up of some of the best temples and shrines that can be found in Kyoto.
Known as the Golden Pavilion, this a Zen temple in the north of the city. It’s an impressive structure, overlooking a large, peaceful pond. What makes this temple striking is that the top two floors of the main pavilion building are completely covered in gold leaf.
The temple has been destroyed and rebuilt a number of times — most recently in 1950, when it was set on fire by a monk. The present structure was rebuilt in 1955.
Kinkakuji’s garden design means that it’s a relatively static view — there’s no major change in the garden through the different seasons, however it’s a bit of a treat to see the pavilion in winter when it’s occasionally dusted with a light covering of snow.
The Golden Pavilion is a popular point of interest for visitors to Kyoto, and it gets busy with bus-loads of tourists. The local advice is to get there before the temple opens. At nine o’clock in the morning, the monks will ring the morning bell and open the gates to the public — if you’re quick, you’ll get a chance to appreciate the beauty of the temple before being jostled along by the impatient crowds.
This is the Silver Pavilion. Ginkakuji is also a Zen temple, and was built to echo the Golden Pavilion on the other side of town.
The Silver Pavilion is not actually silver — there doesn’t seem to be any real consensus on where the name came from — although the grounds do include a dry sand garden known as the Sea of Silver Sand.
The grounds of Ginkakuji are beautiful, with clever use of water and a moss garden, as well as affording impressive views out across the city of Kyoto.
Ryōan-ji temple has the most exquisite Zen garden. The temple dates back to the 11th century, and the karesansui — dry landscape — rock garden is believed to have been constructed in the late 15th century.
Ryōan-ji’s Zen garden is a delicately balanced combination of stones and white gravel, carefully raked each day by the resident monks.
There are various theories on what the garden is meant to symbolise, but the most common understanding is that the garden is simply a composition, the function of which is to facilitate meditation — the cornerstone of a zen lifestyle.
Fushimi Inari is a Shinto shrine in the south of the city. Dating from around 800AD, it’s famous for its thousands of bright red — or more specifically vermilion — torii gates. The gates are erected so closely together that they create tunnels along the network of trails on Mount Inari.
Inari is the Shinto god of rice, and Inari’s messengers are a fox-like creature — so there are a lot of fox statues throughout the temple.
The hike to the mountain’s summit and back takes about two hours.
Kiyomizudera translates as Pure Water Temple. Established in 780AD, Kiyomizudera is one of Japan’s most celebrated Buddhist temples.
Constructed on an impressive wooden stage high on a hillside, the temple is also surrounded by cherry and maple trees. This combination of planting means that it’s spectacular in both Spring and Autumn.
Evening illuminations throughout the Spring and Autumn seasons are popular and worth seeing.
The temple is approached along the steep and busy lanes of the Higashiyama district — lots of shops and street-food stalls which have been catering to the pilgrims and tourists for centuries.