View of Kyoto from Kiyomizu-dera

Kyoto: The City of Shrines and Temples

One thing is for sure: no visit to Kyoto would be completed with at least one visit to a Buddhist temple or a Shinto shrine. They are the main draw of Japan’s former imperial city where over 2,000 religious sites jostle with each other.

Kyoto’s temples and shrines are popular for a good reason: they are among the best-preserved religious architectures in the world. Throughout the course of history, wars, fires, and earthquakes had ravaged Japan’s former capital. Yet the city was fortunately spared from total annihilation during World War II due to its exceptional historic value. And as result, much of its pre-war heritages survived, including temples, shrines, palaces, and many other priceless edifices.

Over 2,000 religious sites jostle with each other in Kyoto.

It is no surprise that Kyoto is often referred to as Japan’s cultural capital. In total there are over 1,600 Buddhist temples and more than 400 Shinto Shrines located in and around the city. They range from UNESCO World Heritage-listed temples such as Kiyomizu-dera and Tenryu-ji to small, neighborhood religious sites. But most of the time, they are visually striking.

Nearly all structures are made of wood as the country is prone to earthquakes. And the use of stone is limited to certain areas, such as the base and outdoor decorations. Additionally, Kyoto’s temples and shrines are often incorporated in the surrounding landscapes, such as superb gardens or lush mountains. They harmonize with nature, creating masterpieces of religious architecture.

A pagoda in Central Kyoto
A shrine in Arashiyama, west of Kyoto

Differences between Temples and Shrines

In Japan, temples are the places to practice Buddhist rituals, while shrines are built to serve Shinto traditions. But to spot the differences between these two institutions is not easy, especially for first-timers. Before being separated by a royal decree in 1868, these two religions had intertwined for centuries, resulting in architectural resemblances.

The easiest way to tell these institutions apart is to check the main gate. The shrine’s entrance is marked by an unmistakably vermillion torii. Meanwhile, the entrance to a temple is characterized by a sanmon (three entrance gates). Another way to differentiate between Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines is by looking at the decorations. The prior is often ornated with Buddha statues and heavenly figures, while the latter are usually adorned with statues or relics of kami (Japanese deities).

Entrance to a temple
Entrance to a Shinto shrine

1. Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Among 1,600 odd temples in Kyoto, Kiyomizu-dera is probably the most celebrated. Founded in the early Heian period and rebuilt several times, this temple complex is best known for its wooden stage that juts out over the hill slope and overlooks a beautiful forest. The stage is attached to the main hall where houses a sacred statue of the eleven-faced, thousand-armed Kannon. Just like Itsukushima Shrine, not a single nail was used in the construction of this holy temple.

Meaning “pure water”, Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺) takes its name from a small waterfall running within the complex. The water is divided into three separate streams, with each is said to grant a certain benefit to drinkers. There is also a Shinto shrine dedicated to the deity of love and matchmaking behind the main hall.

Kiyomizu-dera – The Temple of Pure Water
View of the forest from the wooden stage
Divine water at Kiyomizu-dera

2. Tenryu-ji Temple

Ranked first among Kyoto’s five great Zen temples, Tenryu-ji (天龍寺, “Temple of the Heavenly Dragon”) is definitely worth a visit. This temple is famous for its pretty garden, featuring a central pond, waterways, marvelous rock gardens, and pine trees.

However, the focal point is the forested mountains of Arashiyama. Here, the landscape is cleverly fused into the garden design. It displays one of Japan’s finest examples of shakkei – literally translated to “borrowed scenery”.

Tenryū-ji – Temple of the Heavenly Dragon
Tenryuji Zen Garden

3. Fushimi Inari Shrine

Boasting an endless trail of vermilion torii, Fushimi Inari (伏見稲荷大社) is by far the most photographed Shinto shrine in all of Kyoto. It is the headquarter of more than 32,000 shrines devoted to Inari, the Japanese god of rice. Therefore, for the last 1300 years, people have come to this sacred place to wish for bountiful crops, as well as luck and worldly prosperity.

The guardian fox at rōmon
The torii-covered path at Fushimi Inari

4. Yasaka Jinja Shrine

No less important is Yasaka Jinja (八坂神社) in the bustling Gion district. This gaily painted shrine is dedicated to the god of the sea and storms, Susanoo, his consort Kushinadahime, and the eight offspring deities. It comprises multiple structures, including the main hall and a stage which is beautifully decorated with numerous paper lanterns.

Watching over the geisha community in Kyoto, Yasaka Jinja is considered the spiritual heart of the entertainment district. The shrine is also associated with Gion Matsuri – one of Japan’s largest festivals to ward off epidemics, taking place every July.

Yasaka Shrine in Gion District


11 thoughts on “Kyoto: The City of Shrines and Temples”

  1. They are all so beautiful and unique. The fusing of the Tenryu-ji temple with the surrounding landscape is extraordinary and I was interested to read that there is a word for it in Japanese.

    1. Brilliant, right? 🙂 I had a conversation with a Japanese garden designer. He told me it took him 4-5 years to learn the basic of all garden concepts. Even though the gardens look fairly simple, they often require meticulous planning.
      Hope you are doing well in Sydney! I am under lockdown for 2 more weeks 🙁

      1. Wow, it sounds so interesting that there is so much to learn! We have been in lockdown here since end of June and it will continue until end of Aug 🙁 Hope you stay well and occupied in lockdown there.

  2. Bama – Jakarta, Indonesia – Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.
    Bama says:

    Its ancient shrines and temples are among the reasons why Kyoto is my favorite place in Japan. I’m glad it was spared from destruction during World War II — it would have been a great loss to the world if the original plan to bomb Kyoto had been carried out.

    1. It would be a huge loss not only to Japan but also mankind. I’m also glad that the Japanese weren’t as irrational as Nazi Germans. They didn’t destroy the citys when they lost. Otherwise, Kyoto would share the same fate with Warsaw or Berlin.

      How are you doing there, Bama? Here, we are undergoing the worst outbreak ever. But after 2 months of lockdown, we finally saw some hope. Be safe and stay strong!

      1. Bama – Jakarta, Indonesia – Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.
        Bama says:

        Here in Indonesia we’re still in the middle of the second wave, and the situation hasn’t really improved. Hang on there, you too. I hope you and your loved ones stay safe and healthy during these trying times.

  3. Alison and Don – Occupation: being/living/experiencing/travelling In our sixties, with apparently no other authentic option, my husband Don and I sold our apartment and car, sold or gave away all our stuff and set off to discover the world. And ourselves. We started in Italy in 2011 and from there have travelled to Spain, India, Bali, Australia, New Zealand, SE Asia, South America, Egypt, Japan, etc. - you can see the blog archive. We travelled full-time for nearly six years, and then re-established a home in Vancouver. We now travel 2-3 months per year. We are interested in how the world works, how life works, how the creation of experience works, how the mind works. As we travel and both "choose" our course, and at the same time just let it unfold, we discover the "mechanics" of life, the astounding creativity of life, and a continual need to return to trust and presence. Opening the heart, and acceptance of what is, as it is, are keystones for us both. Interests: In no particular order: travel, photography, figure skating (as a fan), acceptance, authenticity, walking/hiking, joy, creativity, being human, adventure, presence, NOW. Same for Don except replace figure skating with Formula One motor racing.
    Alison and Don says:

    Lovely! A beautiful visit back to Kyoto. Would love to return to Japan one day.

  4. Such an informative post – Japan was the trip that I had to cancel in 2020, and it did hurt… I’ve always been fascinated by the country, and was so looking forward to visit its temples and shrines, especially in the city of Kyoto. Saved this post in my bookmarks for when I can actually travel there again 🙂

    1. I’m glad that you found the post helpful, Nic! My list is still missing some important temples, though 😛 Japan is on the top of my list when we can travel again. Hopefully next year *finger cross*

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