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Kyoto’s must-see temples & shrines

  • Kyoto, Kansai, Japan

  • Bucket List Experience

Last updated: 05 April, 2024

You are born Shinto (Japan’s indigenous religion) but die Buddhist – or so one Japanese saying goes. While most Japanese wouldn’t call themselves religious nor profess to have a faith, the traditions of both Buddhism, which came to Japan in the 6th century, and Shintoism, run deep in Japan.

Newborns are celebrated with a visit to a shrine for Shinto rites, death sees Buddhist ceremonies. Marriage could be a solemn Shinto affair or even a white wedding, with an English teacher moonlighting as a fake priest.

The most common religious encounter for travellers is a visit to a temple or shrine – Kyoto alone has a combined total of almost 2,000, Japan roughly 150,000 in all. The main difference between the two? Temples are Buddhist, shrines Shinto, and the latter are distinguishable by their often-red torii gateways.

Who to go with: tour operators

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Fushimi Inari Shrine

  • Kyoto, Kansai, Japan

  • Bucket List Experience

Shrine entrance external view

Experience

One of Japan’s most sacred shrines, Fushimi Inari’s thousands of torii gateways also make it one of the country’s most Instagrammable sights.

Adult price 2

Good for age: 13+

Ginkakuji Temple

  • Kyoto, Kansai, Japan

Temple in day among trees

Experience

Originally built as a shogun’s retirement villa in 1482, the ‘Silver Pavilion’ is a rare 15th-century Zen temple and garden that blend beautifully into the natural surroundings. Walk around the circular route.

Good for age: 18+

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Kenninji Temple

  • Kyoto, Kansai, Japan

Sunrise on tempe between trees

Experience

Established in 1202, this temple at the southern end of Hanami-koji has traditional Zen gardens and incredible ceiling murals of dragons (added in 2002). It claims to be the oldest temple in Kyoto.

Good for age: 18+

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Kinkakuji Temple

  • Kyoto, Kansai, Japan

  • Bucket List Experience

Temple surrounded by trees

Experience

The stunning, gilded temple of Kinkakuji, casting its golden reflection onto an islet-studded pond, is the iconic Kyoto image. A UNESCO World Heritage site.

Good for age: 8+

Ryoanji Temple

  • Kyoto, Kansai, Japan

Spring cherry blossom seen from temple

Experience

Translating as The Temple of the Dragon at Peace, this Zen temple’s cryptically designed rock garden is considered one of the finest surviving examples of ‘dry landscape’ Japanese Zen temple garden design featuring distinctive larger rock formations arranged amidst a sweep of smooth pebbles. A UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Adult price 3

Good for age: 13+

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Saihoji Temple

  • Kyoto, Kansai, Japan

Trees in garden clearing

Experience

A Buddhist Zen temple and UNESCO World Heritage Site best known for its unusual, atmospheric moss garden that circles a symbolically-shaped golden pond. Just getting in is an experience – you’re given a written sutra to copy it out onto another piece of paper to ensure you are pure enough to enter!

Good for age: 13+

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Tofukuji Temple Gardens

  • Kyoto, Kansai, Japan

Temple rooftops over autumnal trees

Experience

Founded in 1236, this large Zen temple (one of the so-called five great Zen temples of Kyoto) is famed for the spectacular autumn colours of its trees, viewed from the Tsutenkyo Bridge. Less-known are its four small gardens built around the temple’s main hall, that are a study in Japanese landscaping.

Good for age: 18+

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Kiyomizu-dera Temple

  • Kyoto, Kansai, Japan

Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Experience

Founded in the late 700s, this World Heritage temple in the Higashiyama area is best known for its five-story pagoda and main hall, the latter of which features a photogenic veranda jutting out over a maple-covered hillside.

Adult price 3

Good for age: 13+

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Tenryu-ji Temple

  • Kyoto, Kansai, Japan

Japanese house by lake

Experience

This temple near the famous bamboo grove in Arashiyama is worth admission for its 700-year-old Zen garden. Although built around a central pond, it’s also a classic example of a garden that employs shakkei (borrowed scenery), with the surrounding mountains adding depth to each scenic point.

Adult price 3

Good for age: 13+

Website >

Yasaka Shrine

  • Kyoto, Kansai, Japan

Yasaka Shrine

Experience

The shrine that protects the Gion geisha district is one of Kyoto’s most distinctive sights. Entered through a roofed gateway painted a vivid vermillion, its grounds include a striking dance stage – used for performances during festivals – that’s adorned with several hundred lanterns lit each evening.

Good for age: 13+

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Logistics

Price: Free
Minimum age: Any
Age suitable: 13+
When: All year around

Destination guides

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Destination guides including or relevant to this experience

Kyoto

  • Kansai, Japan

Geisha woman with white face paint

Destination guide

Ancient temples and shrines, sublime cuisine, manicured gardens, colourful geishas and living history in spades – Kyoto is traditional Japan at its best.