Kyoto is one of Japan’s most important religious hubs. With over one and a half thousand temples and shrines, 16 of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, it can be difficult choosing which temples to visit. Here, we make a list of the best off-the-beaten tracks temples in Japan’s most picturesque and historic city.
Tofuku-ji Temple (東福寺)
Tofuku-ji is one of the largest temples in Kyoto, and one of the most important temples in the Zen sect of Buddhism. This temple was first built in the 13th century, and throughout the centuries additions and renovations have been made to the temple buildings and grounds, so that it is now a mix of styles from Imperial Japan’s eras. Each of the gardens in the temple has a distinct style, from striking rock gardens to picturesque ponds to lush greenery. The temple is especially famous for its autumn foliage, when the maple leaves turn red and orange.
Opening hours: 9am – 4:30pm (Apr – Oct), 8:30am – 4:30pm (Nov – early Dec), 9am – 4pm (early Dec – Mar)
Watch out for: The view from the Tsutenkyo Bridge, especially during fall foliage season
Address: 15-778 Hommachi, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto 605-0981, +81 75-561-0087
Opening hours: 6am – 4pm
Watch out for: The atmospheric moss garden
Kurama-dera Temple (鞍馬寺)
To truly step away from the hubbub of the city, you might want to take a trek into the lush woodlands of Kitayama, the mountain north of Kyoto city. Hidden in the mountains is the village of Kurama, which is famous for its natural onsen (hot springs), and the Kurama-dera temple. Seated on a mountain slope, this temple seems part of the natural scenery, giving it a sense of spirituality lacking in many of the more touristy shrines. You can hike up to the temple from the town, while admiring the beauty of Japan’s native forests and the striking changes they make with the seasons.
Opening hours: 9am – 4:30pm
Watch out for: The breathtaking view from the temple
Address: 1074 Kuramahonmachi Sakyoku, Kyoto 601-1111, +81 75-741-2003
Tenryu-ji Temple (天龍寺)
If you are planning a trip to Arashiyama, the mountains to the west of Kyoto, be sure to make time to visit Tenryu-ji. The first of Japan’s five most important Zen temples, Tenryu-ji is one of the most picturesque in Japan, displaying shakkei – literally translated to “borrowed scenery”, which means that the natural landscape interacts with the landscaped features of the garden for maximum pleasure in viewing. The pond and waterways of the garden are bordered by the natural forests of Arashiyama, showing off nature’s natural changes, from pale pink sakura blossoms, to thick green foliage, to fiery autumn colours.
Opening hours: 8:30am – 5:30pm (21st Mar – 20th Oct), 8:30am – 5pm (21st Oct – 20 Mar)
Watch out for: The famous bamboo grove just outside the temple
Address: 68 Saga Tenryuji Susukinobabacho, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto 616-8385, +81 758811235
Shoren-in Temple (青蓮院)
If you’re a big fan of gardens and landscaping, you have to visit Shoren-in. This is one of the best temples for walking around, meditation, or simply to calm down from the hectic rush of Kyoto’s more touristy spots. Despite its small size, compared to many of the more famous temples, this Tendai Buddhist temple is beautifully arranged and features bamboo groves, a wide grassy field, and meandering brooks. Located at the bottom of the Higashiyama mountains, Shoren-in was first constructed as a place of residence for the son of a Japanese Emepror, and over time, the imperial resident evolved into a temple.
Opening hours: 9am – 5pm, 6pm – 10pm (nights with light shows in spring and autumn)
Watch out for: Tea ceremonies at a secluded tea house on the grounds
Address: 69-1 Awataguchi Sanjobocho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto 605-0035, +81-075-561-2345
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