Top 16 Must-See Temples and Shrines in Kyoto
A guide to Kyoto's 16 best temples and shrines! In a city bursting with options, our Kyoto temple and shrine guide can offer you some much-needed direction.
With over 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, Kyoto is saturated with holy sites of all shapes, sizes and denominations. The very mention of Kyoto elicits thoughts of zen calm and sacrosanct architecture among most of the Japanese population and foreigners in the know alike. Reigning as the capital city for over a thousand years, there was plenty of time for these temples and shrines to pop up, as well as for the rest of the city to blossom into the haven of traditionalism and authenticity it remains today.
A visit to Kyoto necessarily involves taking in some of the city’s temples and shrines, however, unless you’ve got a spare year or so, experiencing them all may be a challenge to say the least. That’s where we come in. To save thankless laborious research we’ve put together a comprehensive guide to the 16 best temples and shrines in Kyoto. Thank us later.
For more on Kyoto, check our guide: Things to Do in Kyoto – A Definitive Guide
Kyoto Temples and Shrines Overview
Kyoto boasts more World Heritage Sites per square mile than any other city in the world. This fact tells you a lot about the urban landscape of Kyoto. It is, to put it lightly, dripping in religious architecture. As the seat of power and the centre of Japan’s religious and cultural life for generations, the city formed a distinctive character all of its own. What’s more, unlike many other comparible locations, the ravages of time, war and neglect have had a minimal impact on Kyoto. Meaning, ultimately, it is one of the best preserved historical sites in the world. The fact that it is also a living and breathing city makes this even more remarkable.
The religions of Shinto and Buddhism are the inspiration behind the temples and shrines, with, generally, shrines being of Shinto origin and temples of Buddhist. There is an old Japanese saying: “The Japanese are born Shinto and die Buddhist” – the two religions enjoy a symbiosis of sorts. Many Japanese people will observe the rites and partake in festivals of the both and give them equal respect. Sectarianism is at a minimum in their relationship. Yet, when touring shrines and temples it is interesting to note the subtle differences between the two.
Top 16 Kyoto Temples and Shrines
So, here it is, our rundown of Kyoto’s top 16 temples and shrines. Find below a brief overview of each, but click the links for full and comprehensive information pages for each.
1) Chion-in Temple
Chion-in Temple is a large complex of breathtaking architecture, gardens and curiosities well worth dedicating some time to while in Kyoto. Built as the head temple for the Jodo Sect of Buddhism, Chion-in Temple in Kyoto’s popular Higashiyama district is a joy at any time of the year.
For more information, check out our comprehensive Chion-in Temple guide.
Address: 400 Rinkachō, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
Access: Higashiyama Station or Keage Station
2) Daitokuji Temple
Whatever the weather, wandering around Daitokuji Temple is an enchanting experience for any visitor. This huge complex is the largest in Kyoto, a warren of 24 sub-temples and gardens which, to appreciate them to their fullest, should have hours or even days dedicated to them.
For more information, check out our comprehensive Daitokuji Temple guide.
Access: From Kitaoji Station take Kyoto City bus 12, 101, 102, 204 or 206, and alight at Daitokuji-Mae bus stop.
Eikan-do or Eikan-do Zenrin-ji is the head temple of the Seizan variation of Japan’s Jodo-shu (Pure Land) Buddhist sect. This temple was founded by Shinsho, a pupil of the famous Buddhist monk and philosopher, Kukai. Eikan-do Zenrin-ji is a wonderfully kept temple complex with a rich history in knowledge gathering and teaching.
For more information, check out our comprehensive Eikan-do Temple guide.
Access: Keage Station
4) Fushimi Inari Taisha
Famous for its climbing path of thousands of red torii gates, Fushimi Inari Taisha is a wondrous and peaceful Kyoto shrine. It is dedicated to Inari, the god of rice, prosperity, business and harvests. The shrine takes its name from its location in the Fushimi district of Kyoto city.
For more information, check out our comprehensive Fushimi Inari Taisha guide.
Access: Fushi Inari Station
Though nowhere near silver, Ginkaku-ji is famously called the Temple of the Silver Pavilion and is home to some truly wonderful landscapes and a unique atmosphere. Ginkaku-ji is part of the Rinzai Zen variation of Buddhism and located in Sakyo, Kyoto, also home to its frequently visited counterpart, Kinkaku-ji, or the Temple of the Golden Pavilion.
Address: 2 Ginkakujicho, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto
Access: Ginkaku-ji-Mae Bus Stop
6) Heian Shrine
Heian Shrine stands proud and vibrant in the midst of its older predecessors in Higashiyama. Enjoy a modern piece of history, built with all the care for detail it deserves. Ranked by the Association of Shinto Shrines as one of the top institutions in the country (Beppyou Jinja rank).
For more information, check out our comprehensive Heian Shrine guide.
Access: Jingu-Marutamachi Station
7) Honen-in Temple
Honen-in is a great little temple with scenic surroundings and an artsy ethos. Walking north from Nanzen-ji on what is known as the ‘Philosopher’s Walk’ you will be rewarded with beautiful cherry blossoms in spring and a great atmosphere at any other time of the year. Then arrive at the small, tranquil Honen-in Temple resting at the base of Mount Nyoigadake, complete with its very own peaceful koi pond and traditional raked Buddhist sand garden.
For more information, check out our comprehensive Honen-in Temple guide.
Access: Honen-in-cho Bus Stop
8) Kinkakuji Temple
Buried by snow in winter or shimmering in the heat of summer, Kinkakuji is the most symbolic of Kyoto’s temples. The reflection of this golden temple on the “mirror lake” is one of the city’s enduring images and one that tourists never forget. The zen atmosphere, beautiful buildings, and lush nature make this one of Kyoto’s most popular spots.
For more information, check out our comprehensive Kinkakuji Temple guide.
Access: Kinkakujimichi bus stop
9) Kiyomizu Dera
Located in eastern Kyoto, Kiyomizu-Dera literally means “pure water” due to its situation on the site of a natural waterfall. A wonderful temple, Kiyomizu-Dera is one that should not be forgotten, being as it is one of the crowning glories of Japanese temple architecture and design.
For more information, check out our comprehensive Kiyomizu Dera guide.
Access: Kiyomizu-Gojo Station
Myoshin-ji is a fascinating accumulation of temples and buildings of the Rinzai Zen Buddhist faith. The vast grounds the temples are situated within in the northern part of Kyoto and are easily accessible by public transport and a visit to the temple site allows visitors to experience many different styles of temple architecture and discover some unique Kyoto culture.
For more information, check out our comprehensive Myoshin-ji guide.
Access: Myoshin-ji Station
Nanzen-ji is a Zen Buddhist temple built by Emperor Kameyama in 1291 on the site previously home to his palace. Today, the temple is also the headquarters of the Nanzen-ji branch of Rinzai Zen. Nanzen-ji is designated as a national Historic Site and the Hojo gardens an official Place of Scenic Beauty.
For more information, check out our comprehensive Nanzen-ji guide.
Access: Keage Station
Ryoan-ji is an associated temple of Myoshin-ji and a beautiful example of Buddhist stone garden artistry. Ryoan-ji has gained fame for its particularly beautiful stone garden – kare-sansui (lit. ‘dry landscape’) – made up of intricate gravel mosaics and stone formations.
For more information, check out our comprehensive Ryoan-ji guide.
Access: Ryoan-ji Station
13) Shimogamo & Kamigamo Jinja
Shimogamo and Kamigamo Jinja are twin shrines in Kyoto city’s Sakyo ward. Combined, they are commonly called Kamo Jinja or the Kamo Shrines and are some of the oldest Shinto shrines in all of Japan. They are named after the district in Kyoto they stand in – Shimogamo. The two shrines serve to protect Kyoto from evil spirits and other malign influences.
For more information, check out our comprehensive Shimogamo & Kamigamo Jinja guide.
Access: Demachiyanagi Station
Nestled in the Higashiyama mountains, Tenryu-ji is surrounded by numerous other temples and shrines as well as wonderful nature. Tenryu-ji, or Tenryu Shiseizen-ji, is the head of the Buddhist Tenryu variation of Rinzai Zen, one of the oldest branches of Buddhism. Tenryu-ji was registered as a Historic Monument of Ancient Kyoto in the UNESCO World Heritage list of 1994.
For more information, check out our comprehensive Tenryu-ji guide.
Access: Torokko Arashiyama Station
15) Tofukuji Temple
A major site for Zen Buddhism, Tofukuji Temple in Kyoto is a delightfully traditional and picturesque temple, especially in the autumn, when the Momiji leaves are at their most entrancing. Read on for an in-depth look at the temple, its grounds and what you can expect from a visit.
For more information, check out our comprehensive Tofukiji Temple guide.
Access: Tofukuji Station
16) Yasaka Shrine
Famous for being one of Kyoto’s largest shrines, Yasaka Shrine is a gorgeously peaceful corner of the city. This is at odds, however, with the god enshrined here: Susanoo, the god of the sea and storms. Located near the popular district of Gion, it is a welcome cultural, historic and calming addition to any Kyoto itinerary.
For more information, check out our comprehensive Yasaka Shrine guide.
Access: Gion-Shijo Station