Each of Kyoto’s Buddhist temples is a world of its own. Some are bustling places, thronged with pilgrims from all over the world. Others are lonely and mystical sanctuaries, where golden images brood silently in the darkness. Each is a nexus of the Japanese arts: from the architecture and carpentry of the halls, to the design of the gardens, to the metal work of the Buddha images, the list goes on.
When planning a tour of these temples, the best approach is to emphasize quality over quantity. Below, in addition to some helpful visiting tips and cultural background, you’ll find temples that can be visited in about two hours, so you could conceivably visit them all in a day. Two days is recommended, though, if you want to slow down and really savour these magical places.
Nanzen-ji: A temple with something for everyone
Nanzen-ji is the most rewarding temple in Kyoto. It’s the one temple that has it all: expansive maple-studded grounds that can hold masses of people without feeling crowded; a superb karesansui (Zen garden); hidden grottos in the woods nearby; and eye-smartingly beautiful halls and gates. Best of all, it’s surrounded by a collection of intimate and rarely visited subtemples: Tenju-an, Nanzen-in and Konchi-in.
Kiyomizu-dera: Alive with activity
If your image of a Buddhist temple is a quiet place where monks mediate in silence, then come to Kiyomizu-dera to have that image blown apart. A bustling mercantile place that is almost always crowded, Kiyomizu-dera may not be tranquil, but it’s a whole lot of fun. This is a great place for children because it’s such a ‘hands-on’ temple – you can shake a numbered stick out of a container to get an omikuji (fortune), you can ring a giant bell or you can drink from a sacred spring. And only steps away at Jishu-jinja (a Shinto shrine above the temple), you can close your eyes and try to walk from one stone to another to tell your romantic fortune.
Daitoku-ji: Picture perfect Zen gardens
If you seek that archetypal “only-in-Japan” experience of sitting quietly beside a perfect Zen garden, then look no further than Daitoku-ji, a complex of Zen temples in north-central Kyoto. Here, you should start at the eponymous Daitoku-ji temple, and then head to the smaller subtemples nearby for some real peace and quiet. These are home to some of Kyoto’s finest karesansui gardens. Reached by a picturesque walkway, Koto-in’s moss garden is a meditation on simplicity. Obai-in, nearby, is a pleasing warren of gardens and halls that are only open in spring and fall. Finally, the garden at Zuiho-in contains a hidden reference to the Christian cross rendered in gravel and rocks.
Kinkaku-ji: The one and only ‘Golden Pavilion’
You’ve probably already seen pictures of this place, with its impossibly bright gold-covered main hall rising over a reflecting pond. Kyoto’s famed ‘Golden Pavilion,’ properly known as Kinkaku-ji, is one of Kyoto’s most iconic sights. Needless to say, it’s almost always crowded, but this is one place that’s worth visiting in spite of the crowds. Even when you’re standing right in front of it, the main hall somehow seems like an apparition.
Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines: what’s the difference?
Temples in Japan are places of worship and meditation for the people of the country, over 90% of whom describe themselves as Buddhist. Interestingly, the overwhelming majority of Japanese also subscribe to Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion. Shinto is practiced at shrines, many of which can be found directly alongside Buddhist temples, a pleasant reminder of Japan’s flexible and open-minded attitude toward religion.
Some of Kyoto’s temples hold evening “light-ups” during the cherry blossom season (late March and early April) and fall foliage season (November). During these spectacular events, the gardens and halls become giant installation art works, illuminated by multicolour lights. Kiyomizu-dera, Chion-in and Shoren-in are all highly recommended for this. If you’re in town during these times, don’t miss an evening light up!
Temple etiquette and tips
There’s not a strict etiquette to visiting Buddhist temples. Obviously, because they are religious places, you should dress decently. Casual clothing is fine, but sleeveless shirts and cut-off shorts are not acceptable. Photography is forbidden inside the halls of some temples; usually this is indicated with a picture of a camera with an X over it. If you’d like, you can make a small offering by tossing some coins into the donation box in front of the altar. People may be praying or chanting in the halls, so try to speak quietly. Never walk anywhere in a garden except on clearly indicated pathways. Finally, because you’ll be taking off your shoes a lot when you visit a temple, slip-ons are a good idea.
Chris Rowthorn has been based in Kyoto, Japan, since 1992. He runs a private tour company (www.chrisrowthorn.com) and curates a detailed blog on Kyoto (www.insidekyoto.com).