The Most Beautiful Buddhist Sites In Kyoto, Japan

Stone and Sand Garden at Ryoanji | © Stephanie D'Alu/WikiCommons
Stone and Sand Garden at Ryoanji | © Stephanie D'Alu/WikiCommons
Photo of Gigi Chung
9 February 2017

Kyoto is the Buddhism hub of Japan. Buddhist teachings and scriptures were only available to court nobles and the elite after its introduction in A.D. 538. It was not until the Kamakura period (A.D. 1192-1333) when Buddhism became the religion of the masses. Buddhist temples have since served as education centers, hospitals, orphanages and places of worship. With over 1600 temples, Kyoto has long been the sacred destination for Buddhism pilgrimage. Here are five of the most beautiful temples in the area.

Cherry Blossoms at Toji | © Robert Young/WikiCommons

Buddhist practices include daily meditation, chanting mantras or scriptures, adopting a vegetarian diet and lighting incense as offerings. While the most devoted still adhere to these routines, most Japanese see Buddhist practices as part of the culture rather than a religion. In daily life of modern-day Japan, saying ‘itadakimasu‘ before a meal literally means thanking and accepting the food. This custom came from saying grace in Buddhist practice. Bathing or cleansing before bed or entering temples signifies purification. Setsubun, the arrival of spring, is celebrated with throwing beans to ward off devils in temples. Zen Buddhism has a big influence on Japanese art forms including tea ceremony, calligraphy, swordsmanship, floral arrangements and landscape designs. When in Kyoto, pay a visit to these five notable Buddhist sites to experience their history.

Toji 東寺

This temple was founded in A.D. 796 by Emperor Kammu after relocating the capitol from Nara to Kyoto. Kukai, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, was appointed the Superior of Toji by Emperor Saga in A.D. 823. This UNESCO site has the most recognizable five-tiered pagoda on the temple ground. The Kodo (lecture hall) is regarded as the most important building in the complex. It represents Kukai’s visualization of mandala with the central image of Dainichi Nyorai. Toji remains a popular spot for cherry blossoms. A memorial service and flea market take place on the 21st of each month. This is to commemorate Kukai, known posthumously as Kobo Daishi, going into eternal meditation.

Toji, 374, Kujocho, Minami-Ku, Kyoto, Kyoto, Japan

Sanjusangendo 三十三間堂

This temple of 33 halls is also known as Renge-O-In or Lotus King Temple. Emperor Go-Shirakawa ordered its construction in 1164, and as with most wooden buildings in Kyoto, Sanjusangendo experienced numerous fires and was rebuilt multiple times. Despite its misfortune, Sanjusangendo houses an incredible collection of 1,000 golden statues of Kannon, the Deity of Mercy, with 28 followers lined up behind. The main statue is seated on a lotus blossom, a symbol of purity and beauty in Buddhism. This statue has 20 pairs of arms, and each pair saves 25 different worlds. Hence, she can save 1,000 worlds. The magnificent statue was created by Tankei, a famous sculptor of the Kamakura period. Hikizome Matsuri, an archery event, takes place in the open area on January 15th of each year. Archers in colorful costumes shoot arrows in a squatting position. This event is now regarded as a traditional ceremony rather than a competition.

Sanjusangendo, 657, Sanjusangendomawari, Higashiyama-Ku, Kyoto, Kyoto, Japan

Garden View At Shisendo | © Gigi Chung

Shisendo 詩仙堂

This hermitage was named after the 36 Chinese classical poets and founded by Ishikawa Josen. A former attendant and warrior of Shogan Tokugawa Ieyasu, he decided to settle alone in Kyoto after his mother’s death in 1641. Kano Tanyu painted the portraits of the poets in the study, and the famous garden is known for blooming azaleas, wisterias and fall colors. It became a Soto Zen sect temple after Ishikawa’s death. It is also known as Jozanji and is a subtemple of Eiheiji. Zazen meditation experience takes place twice a month at this temple. The two 45-minute sessions are held in the main hall with a gong signaling the beginning and end of practice. This temple also organizes Buddhism-themed field trips.

Shisendo, 27, Ichijojimonguchicho, Sakyo-Ku, Kyoto, Kyoto, Japan

Ryoanji 龍安寺

Registered as a UNESCO site in 1994, Ryoanji is a subtemple of Myoshinji. It was originally an estate of Hosokawa Katsumoto, a deputy of the shogun, and eventually became a temple after his death in 1473. Ryoanji has a world-famous stone and sand zen garden. White sand is raked into wave patterns – it symbolizes the ocean. Beyond the moss garden lies a replica of a stone water basin. Also known as tsukubai, this basin was used for washing hands before attending a tea ceremony. Engraved on top of the basin is the zen phrase ‘Ware tada taru o shiru‘ – it means ‘I know only to be content,’ an essential element in zen philosophy.

Ryoanji, 13, Ryoanjigoryonoshitacho, Ukyo-Ku, Kyoto, Kyoto, Japan

Kiyiomizudera 清水寺

It started with a vision by Enchin, a priest from Nara. He envisioned a temple built on top of a clear water fountain, Otowa no taki, in the Higashiyama area. Enchin had a statue of Kannon built and housed in a temple later known as Kiyomizudera. The 11-headed, 1000-armed Kannon, the Deity of Mercy, is kept from public view. It is put on display every 33 years, symbolizing the 33 incarnations of Kannon. The next public viewing will be in 2033. The wooden platform at the main hall was built for religious dance ceremonies for the deities. Today, Kiyomizudera is a popular UNESCO site for fall foliage and cherry blossoms.

Kiyiomizudera, 1-294 Kiyomizu, Higashiyama-Ku, Kyoto, Kyoto, Japan