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.
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).
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.
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”.
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.
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.