Here are the best temples in Kyoto, with travel tips and more, according to LIVE JAPAN, a top-class travel website for visitors to Japan. Our ranking is based on the most popular pages viewed by foreign visitors in a given category.
For instance, Kiyomizu-dera Temple, To-ji Temple, Jingo-ji Temple and other related spots will be listed. Be sure to check them out during your visit to Kyoto!
Founded on the side of Mt. Otowa in eastern Kyoto about 1,200 years ago in 778, Kiyomizu-dera Temple has attracted countless visitors as a scared site for the goddess Kannon. The stage, which appears in the proverb ”Taking the plunge from the stage of Kiyomizu” (meaning to make a bold decision), is about 13 meters above the ground and offers a commanding view of Kyoto's cityscape. The grounds cover an area of 130,000 square meters and includes captivating spots such as Nio-mon gate (a Deva temple gate), Sai-mon gate (the west gate), a three-tiered pagoda, the main hall, Otowa-no-taki Waterfalls, and the Thousand Stone Buddhas. Many of the temple structures have been designated as National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties, conveying the beauty and magnificence of Japanese temple architecture. The temple is also celebrated as a prime viewing point for cherry blossoms and autumn leaves, and hosts special night-time viewing events during those seasons.
The three-tiered pagoda, a symbol of Kyoto
Towering 31 meters high and visible from much of Kyoto, the three-tiered shining vermilion pagoda has been designated as an Important Cultural Property. Vivid paintings of the eight founders of Shingon adorn the four walls, while images of Esoteric Buddhism, Hiten (a flying Buddhist angel playing music), and dragons decorate the ceiling and pillars.
The stage of Kiyomizu, synonymous with ”resolve” since long ago
Kiyomizu-dera Temple is most famous for its stage. In Japan, there is an expression used when people make up their mind to do something: ”Show your resolve as if taking the plunge from the stage of Kiyomizu.” This suggests the temple has been synonymous with high-rise buildings among the citizens since old times.
Otowa-no-taki Waterfalls, a sacred waterfall believed to grant your wishes
At the Otowa-no-taki Waterfalls, holy water called ”Ogon-sui (gold water)” or ”Enmei-sui (longevity water),” which is the merit of the goddess Kannon, flows in three lines, each of which believed to bring good luck in romance, academic performance and health (longevity).
Not far south of Kyoto Station is To-ji Temple, the prominent five-story pagoda you can see from the window of the Shinkansen. To-ji Temple was built in 796 to accompany the construction of Heian-kyo. Its position is just east of the Rajo-mon gate, which is regarded as the south entrance to Kyoto, to protect the Imperial Palace. Emperor Saga gave the temple to Kobo Daishi Kukai in 823 and it became the central training center of Shingon Esoteric Buddhism. Although many of the main temple buildings were burned down due to Doikki (peasant uprising) in 1486, the Toyotomi and Tokugawa families provided support to rebuild it over time. The iconic five-story pagoda that symbolizes To-ji Temple, was rebuilt and dedicated by the third Tokugawa Shogun, Iemitsu in 1644. The arrangements and scales of reconstructed buildings such as the Nandai-mon gate, Kon-do Hall, Lecture Hall, and Dining Hall are exactly as they were in the Heian period. In 1994, the temple was added to UNESCO's List of World Cultural Heritage sites as one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto.
Three-dimensional Mandala that visually depicts the teachings of Esoteric Buddhism
On the Shumi-dan (an altar for placing a principal image in Buddhist temples) in the Lecture Hall at the center of To-ji Temple, you will see 21 Buddhist statues arranged to visually represent Katsuma Mandala, generally known as a three-dimensional Mandala. Seated at the center is the principal Buddha, Dainichinyorai. The 21 statues include Nyorai (a person who has attained Buddhahood), Bosatsu (a Buddhist saint), Myo-o (the deity of fire), and Tenbu (the guardian of Buddhism who protects Nyorai and Bosatsu), made by Kobo Daishi Kukai, convey the teachings of Kukai to the present generation.
Kon-do Hall, the main hall rebuilt with contributions from Hideyori Toyotomi
The Kon-do Hall is To-ji Temple's main hall. Construction of the hall began shortly after the temple's founding and it survived until Doikki (peasant uprising) of 1486. It was rebuilt thanks to contributions from Hideyori Toyotomi in 1603. In addition to the seated statue of Yakushi Nyorai, which is the principal image of the temple, Nikko Bosatsu and Gakko Bosatsu are enshrined there. These statues have been designated as an Important Cultural Property together with Yakushi Sanzonzo (triad image of Yakushi Buddha).
The five-story pagoda, Japan's tallest wooden structure and the symbol of Kyoto
The five-story pagoda you can spot when looking south from the window of your Shinkansen is Japan's tallest wooden structure. Soaring 55 meters into the sky, it is Kyoto's primary landmark. The present pagoda is actually the fifth incarnation built in 1644 with contributions from Iemitsu Tokugawa; its four predecessors all succumbed to fire. According to tradition, it houses Busshari (the ashes of Buddha's bones) brought by Kobo Daishi Kukai from Tang (China). The first layer of the pagoda, which is usually not open to the public, contains the enshrined four statues of Nyorai that surround the central pillar, which represents Dainichinyorai, and eight statues of Bosatsu.
Jingo-ji Temple is located on the Koyasan mountainside and is an ancient temple that was a one of three “sanbi” temples. The two others are Kozan-ji Temple and Saimyo-ji Temple. Jingo-ji Temple has a long history as this is where Kukai founded the Shingon sect of Buddhism. It’s home to countless treasures including a Yakushi Nyorai statue that is a national treasure of Japan.
Following the death in 1212 of Honen Shonin, founder of Jodo sect, Chion-in Temple was built at the foot of Mt. Kacho and became known as the head temple of the Jodo sect. Mt. Kacho is one of the mountains along the ”Higashiyama Sanju-Roppo (36-mountain range)” where he spent his life. Although a mausoleum for Honen was destroyed in 1227 by monks from Enryaku-ji Temple on Mt. Hiei, Honen's disciple Seikambo Genchi erected the temple structure of Chion-in Temple in 1234 and naming Honen Shonin as its founder. The temple was bestowed the name ”Kachozan Chion-kyo-in Otani-dera Temple” by Emperor Shijo, and in the Edo period the temple grounds were expanded under the protection of Ieyasu Tokugawa. The current magnificent monastery was constructed during the reign era of the third shogun, Iemitsu. Some of the temple buildings have been designated as National Treasures, including the Miei-do Hall that enshrines the statue of Honen Shonin as the principal image, Amida-do Hall that enshrines the statue of Amida Nyorai, and Japan's largest wooden gate, San-mon gate.
Japan's largest gate—San-mon towers over the entrance of grounds donated by Hidetada Tokugawa
San-mon gate, built in 1621 on orders from the second Tokugawa Shogun, Hidetada, is famous as Japan's largest wooden gate. The huge gate measures 24 m high and 50 m wide, and as many as 70,000 tiles cover its roof. The tablet with the word ”Mt. Kacho” displayed in the center of the upper level is larger than two tatami mats (176 x 176 cm), emphasizing the gate's enormous scale. Its upper level contains a Buddhist hall surrounded by walls with richly colorful paintings, where the crowned statue of Shakamuni-butsu and statues of the Sixteen Arhats are enshrined.
Seishi-do Hall—the birthplace of Nenbutsu, enveloped in silence
The Seishi-do Hall is tucked away in a remote and quiet corner of the broad grounds. This place is believed to be the first thatched hut built by Honen Shonin and thus can be considered as the original ground of the Chion-in Temple. The current Seishi-do Hall, reconstructed in 1530 during the Muromachi period, is the oldest surviving building in the temple complex.
Japan's largest bell tower—famous for Joya no kane, or the bells of New Year's Eve
Cast in 1636, the large bell measures 3.3 meters tall, 2.8 meters across, and weighs about 70 tons. The bell is rung on two occasions every year: Gyoki-daie, which is held on the anniversary of Honen Shonin's death in April; and Joya no kane, which takes place on New Year's Eve. Joya no kane is broadcast on television every year and has become a charming feature of New Year's Eve in Kyoto.
Established by the 59th Emperor Uda in 888, Ninna-ji Temple was also called ”Omuro gosho” because the emperor built priests' living quarters called ”omuro” after he entered the priesthood. Until the Meiji Restoration, the temple served as the head of Monzeki Temples whose head priest was a member of the Imperial Family. The temple suffered serious damage from fire during the Onin War, but was rebuilt 160 years later in the Edo period thanks to the help of the third Tokugawa Shogun, Iemitsu. The current five-story pagoda and Nio-mon gate have remained unchanged since the reconstruction. If you're visiting in spring, don't miss the temple's late-blooming, short-statured cherry trees called ”Omuro-zakura.” Planted during the Edo period, these famous trees are music to the eyes. The temple joined the register of UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1994 as one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto.
The late blooming Omuro-zakura showcases the end of spring in Kyoto
Planted in the northwest area of the Chu-mon gate, Omuro-zakura create a tasteful atmosphere unchanged since the Edo period. This late-blooming cherry tree is also known for its low height. The scenery combining the five-story pagoda with blooming Omuro-zakura is just exquisite, making it an official national site of scenic beauty and earning it a place among the 100 best sakura viewing points in Japan.
Priceless temple treasures revealed twice a year at Reihokan
Reihokan holds many temple treasures, including the statue of Amida Sanzon, the principal image in the temple at the time of its founding. The exhibits cover a vast range of objects from Buddhist statues to sculptures, paintings to crafts to books and more. With its 12 National Treasures (88 items), 47 Important Cultural Properties (1,678 items), and ancient documents, the number of items in the collection exceeds 100,000. Pieces from the collection, including National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties, are displayed during special-themed exhibitions held twice a year in spring and autumn.
Visit temples enshrining Kobo Daishi in Omuro’s Eighty-eight Sacred Places
On Mt. Joju, situated in the northwest part of the grounds, you can experience a pilgrimage called ”Omuro's Eighty-eight Sacred Places” that re-creates Shikoku's Eighty-eight Sacred Places in miniature. The three-kilometer mountain trail is lined with temples that enshrine the spirit of Kobo Daishi. It takes two hours to visit all these temples, called fudasho (temples where amulets are collected), and fulfillment of the wishes you prayed for at all the temples brings one the same benefits as those when one completes the pilgrimage around Shikoku's Eighty-eight Sacred Places. From May to November, you can collect stamp impressions along the ”Ninna-ji Temple and Mt. Joju Eighty-eight Walk” for a fee.
Create unforgettable memories at Ninna-ji Temple
In the grounds of Ninna-ji Temple is shukubo, a temple lodging for visitors and pilgrims. Staying at the shukubo gives you the opportunity to enter the temple's main pavilion and join the morning gongyo (devotional exercises) in the Kon-do Hall—experiences not available to the general public. What's more, you can enjoy a quiet stroll through the temple grounds (except for some facilities) after the morning gongyo before sightseers arrive. Meals are the time to sample the delicious Kyo kaiseki (Kyoto's traditional local cuisine), where you'll enjoy seasonal ingredients at dinner and shojin cuisine (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine) at breakfast.
Originally a villa belonging to the Tokudaiji Family, the land was handed to Katsumoto Hosokawa (deputy of the Shogun during the Muromachi Period) in 1450. He established Ryoan-ji Temple as a Zen temple belonging to the Myoshin-ji School of the Rinzai Sect and invited Giten Gensho from Myoshin-ji Temple to be its founder. The karesansui (dry landscape) of Hojo Garden within the temple is a world-famous rock garden. Although the original temple was destroyed during the Onin War, Katsumoto's son, Masamoto Hosokawa, saw to its reconstruction in 1499. It is said that the rock garden was created at this time, but its precise date of origin and designer are unknown. The intent behind the design is likewise shrouded in mystery, and the ambiguity has added to the temple's popularity. The rock garden is designated by the government as a Historic Site and Special Place of Scenic Beauty and was also registered as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO as one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto in 1994.
・The rock garden that captivated Queen Elizabeth
The traditional rock garden is a rectangular space of 248 square meters, with 15 rocks of varying sizes laid out among raked white pebbles. The rock formations are known by different names, such as ”Tiger Cubs Crossing the Water” and ”Shichi-Go-San (7-5-3) Arrangement.” Queen Elizabeth spoke highly of the stone garden after viewing it during her official state visit to Japan in 1975, which propelled Ryoan-ji Temple to fame across the world.
・Stroll through the pond garden to view different seasonal flowers that breathe nature into the temple grounds
Ryoan-ji Temple is most well-known for its rock garden, but the south side of the temple complex offers a big garden for visitors to stroll through, surrounding a large, reflective pond that was once famous for its mandarin ducks. Seasonal flowers brighten the garden, offering visitors an opportunity to enjoy the beauty of nature. It stands in striking contrast to the austere simplicity of the rock garden, and the existence of these two different styles of gardens further enhances the appeal of Ryoan-ji Temple.
・The tsukubai (washbasin) from Mitsukuni Tokugawa that tells one to be satisfied with what one has
The tsukubai washbasin placed in front of Zorokuan Tea House is said to be a contribution from Mitsukuni Tokugawa, who was head of the Mito Domain. The center of the basin is square and the kanji characters on the surrounding four sides read ”ware tada taru wo shiru (I know only satisfaction).” It illustrates a well-known Zen teaching that says, ”Those who are satisfied with what they have are rich in spirit, even if they are materially poor. In contrast, those who know no satisfaction remain poor no matter how rich they are.” It reflects the essence of Buddhism and is also an integral part of the tea ceremony mentality. The washbasin found behind the Hojo building is a replica and the real tsukubai is not available for public viewing.
Tenryu-ji Temple was built in 1339 under the directions of Takauji Ashikaga in honor of Emperor Go-Daigo, who had just passed away. It is the top-ranking temple among the major Zen Temples of Kyoto known as the Gozan (Tenryu-ji, Nanzen-ji, Shokoku-ji, Kennin-ji, Tofuku-ji, and Manju-ji). The strolling pond garden, Sogenchi Teien (Sogen Pond Garden), was designed by Muso Kokushi (also known as Muso Soseki), who was the first head priest of the temple. It was the first garden in Japan to be designated as a Historic Site and Special Place of Scenic Beauty. Visitors can enjoy beautiful views throughout the seasons, including cherry blossoms in spring, changing leaf colors in fall, and snowscapes in winter, all against the backdrop of Arashiyama. Since it was constructed, the temple has been victim to eight fires, and the structures seen today were rebuilt during the Meiji Period. It was designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1994 as one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto.
・The Cloud Dragon Painting on the ceiling of Hatto Dharma Hall appears to be staring straight at visitors wherever they are standing
Hatto Dharma Hall was destroyed by fire in 1864 during the Kinmon Incident, and the Ungo-an Zendo (Senbutsujo) meditation hall, built in the late Edo Period, was relocated during the Meiji Period. The temple's principal image, Shakyamuni Buddha and his two chief bodhisattva disciples, are enshrined within the Hatto, which is one of the buildings that make up the Shichido Garan (ideal layout of a Zen Buddhist temple compound). A Cloud Dragon Painting was drawn on the ceiling by Meiji artist Shonen Suzuki, but this was replaced in 1997 with the current Cloud Dragon Painting drawn in the happo nirami style, which means the dragon appears to be staring straight at the viewers no matter where they are standing. The new painting was created by Matazo Kayama as part of large-scale renovations conducted on the 650th death anniversary of Tenryu-ji's founder, Muso Kokushi.
・A painting of Bodhidharma, founder of Zen Buddhism, can be found inside the Kuri (Temple Living Quarters)
The Kuri was built in 1899 and is one of the Shichido Garan structures. It was designed to act as a kitchen and temple office. In the entrance hall is a large screen with a painting of Bodhidharma, created by the previous chief abbot of Tenryu-ji Temple, Seiko Hirata. The painting has now become a symbol of the temple.
・While enjoying the view of the garden, sit down for Shojin Ryori (vegetarian meal) that was awarded Bib Gourmand status in ”MICHELIN GUIDE Kyoto Osaka + Tottori 2019”
Within the temple precinct is a restaurant called ”Shigetsu” where visitors can enjoy Shojin Ryori. This traditional Buddhist meal does not use any animal-derived ingredients and offers dishes that use various vegetarian ingredients depending on the season. Enjoy the view of the garden and try the Shojin Ryori that was awarded the Bib Gourmand status in ”MICHELIN GUIDE Kyoto Osaka + Tottori 2019.” Reservations required.
Kenninji Temple belongs to the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism and was founded by the man credited with bringing Zen and tea to Japan from Song China, Yousai. It is Kyoto’s oldest Zen temple, said to be the location where tea drinking originated in Japan. The lecture hall features a painting created by Junsaku Koizumi titled “Twin Dragons”. “The Wind and Thunder Gods”, created by the famous Sotatsu Tawaraya, has been entrusted to the Kyoto National Museum, however a replica is available for viewing.
Honno-ji is the head temple of the Honmon school for the Hokke sect of Buddhism. Since it was first established, the temple has been rebuilt seven times over due to wars and fires. A mausoleum exists here that is the resting place of Nobunaga Oda after he committed suicide during the Honnoji Incident. Many of the temple treasures are on display at the Daihouden temple museum.
After Emperor Hanazono (the 95th Emperor of Japan) shaved his head and became a monk, he converted his own villa, the Hanazono Rikyu, into a Zen temple and changed its name to Myoshin-ji Temple in 1337. The temple covers an area of 330,000 square meters inside which the Shichidogaran (seven major structures in the temple compound), such as the San-mon gate, Butsuden (Buddha hall) and Hatto (lecture hall), align in a north-south direction surrounded by 46 sub-temples to create a ”temple town.” The citizens of Kyoto affectionally call the temple ”Nishi no Gosho (West Imperial Palace).” This temple is recognized as the head temple of about 3,400 temples belonging to the Myoshin-ji Temple school among approximately 6,000 Rinzai sect temples throughout Japan.
Dragon staring all directions from the ceiling
If you look up to the ceiling in the Hatto, built to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the death of Kanzan Egen in 1656, you'll spot a picture of a heavenly dragon in the clouds. It took the painter Tanyu Kano eight years to complete the artwork. The dragon is called ”Happo Nirami no Ryu (Dragon that stares all directions)” because the dragon mysteriously seems to be staring back at you no matter which direction you look at it from.
Japan's oldest temple bell, which enchanted Kenko Yoshida
The temple bell in the Hatto is known as the ”Ojikicho Bell (bell of the Ojiki mode, or one of the six main modes of gagaku)” and has been designated as a National Treasure. Previously housed in the Jo Kongo-in Temple that was later abolished, the bell is Japan's oldest temple bell with an inscription that indicates its age. Kenko Yoshida's Tsurezure-gusa (a collection of essays written in the early 1330s) mentions it: ”The tone of the bell should be of the Ojiki mode. […] The tone of the bell in Jo Kongo-in Temple is of the Ojiki mode, too.”
See a masterpiece of early Suiboku-ga ”Hyonenzu” at a sub-temple with a wonderful garden
Taizo-in Temple, one of the sub-temples at Myoshin-ji Temple, holds the Shihon Bokuga Tansai Hyonenzu by Josetsu. This is a masterpiece of early Suiboku-ga (india-ink paintings) and has been designated as a National Treasure. Hyonenzu is a painting that renders a koan (analects about Zen) on how to hold down a slippery catfish with a slick gourd. The original has been deposited at the Kyoto National Museum; the one on display at the temple is a reproduction. This sub-temple is also famous for its beautiful garden and weeping cherry blossom trees.
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