No one really knows how many temples are exactly in Kyoto, but most estimates lie between 1600 and 2000. Even a very strict sample of the biggest and the most famous counts a few dozen, so it is quite difficult (and pointless) to try visiting all of them within one trip.
So here’s my list. Each temple here has its own specialty which differs it from the others. I ranked them by my subjective impressions after visit =)
6. Thousand Buddha statues temple
The said statues are actually the only reason to visit this otherwise boring building. You find them all inside this long hall:
Each of them is unique: they differ by face, clothes, and items which they are holding in their hands.
There is quite a crowd inside. Thankfully, taking pictures is not allowed, so the thousand statues are not hidden behind thousand smartphones.
5. Fushimi Inari Shrine: many people and many torii gates
Well… Every guidebook places Fushimi Inari Shrine to the very top of Kyoto’s list of sights. This has its consequences, which is the reason I only put it into fifth place.
Normally you would walk up the mountain through this tunnel of huge red torii gates. From time to time the tunnel is interrupted by “shrines” – large groups of altars buried under piles of smaller copies of the gates.
The altars felt very disorganized, not harmonious like other Japanese temples and holy places.
At some point the red tunnel suddenly opens up to a pretty panorama of Kyoto.
In general, the whole place would be quite nice if not for the crowds. You can try to avoid them by arriving here with sunrise since the shrine is open all round the clock.
Another way would be to realize that most of the tourists only climb to the panorama point, but the gates continue to the very summit of Mount Inari. The tunnel becomes less dense here, but it’s much more pleasant when you don’t have to fight your way through the queue.
Many guides like to mention that Fushimi Inari is a full-fleshed 3 hour hike. In reality it is possible to reach the summit and come back within 1.5 hours, including a little detour to avoid the crowds. Regular sneakers are ok on the entire “trail” so I packed my hiking shoes for nothing once again 😀
4. Blissfully empty Honganji temples
Honganji is the name of two Buddhist temples right in the center of Kyoto, five minutes away from the main train station.
The feeling here is the complete opposite of Fushimi Inari. Only a few lonely visitors are roaming around the huge square in front of the temples.
There is not much special about them, but the convenient location and the emptiness are definitely worth a short visit.
3. The Golden Pavilion
One more “must-do” from the travel guides. So you already know what’s coming, right?
The pavilion is surrounded by a garden of divine beauty. Sadly, it’s hard to be in zen and fully experience this place when you are pushed around by the impatient tourists =( The sunrise trick would also not work because the entrance here is limited to certain opening hours.
But even despite all that, the temple is just magical. You won’t be able to hold back a wow when you see for the first time its golden walls on the opposite side of a pond.
2. Kiyomizu temple panorama platforms
This temple is not even spoiled by all the countless visitors thanks to its spacious multi-level platforms on the way up to the main hall.
And the best part about this place is the view of Kyoto from those very platforms.
1. Heian Shrine garden
This place is a solid TOP-1 of my personal list. The temple itself looks bright, colorful, and quite typical for Japan.
But the real treasure of this place is not the temple hall – it’s the garden around it.
I could never imagine such a magical place to exist in reality and not as a fake movie decoration.
No idea why this incredible place is not as popular as Fushimi Inari or the Golden Pavilion. Maybe we were just lucky to arrive here shortly before closing time, so we only had to share its vast landscapes with a few other people. Another bright side of coming to this garden late is that the sun is almost setting in Kyoto at that time, and the trees are simply glowing in the soft and warm light.
Cherry on the top: Kanga-an, the restaurant temple
Have you ever dined in a real Buddhist temple while admiring a Zen garden from your own private room? If not, don’t miss the opportunity in Kyoto.
Monks of the local sect are happy to treat you to their own strange cuisine. In accordance with their faith, all the food on the table is vegetarian. And the taste… it covers the entire range from “omg why so little?” to “omg where’s my sake I want to forget this”. It was an interesting experience, but I wouldn’t eat this food every day =)
The dinner must be booked in advance. You can ask your hotel to make the reservation for you, or use a website (for example, I went here).
And… if a dinner was not enough, casually ask the food-bringing monk if there’s any nice bar around to continue the evening 😉