Shrines, Gardens, and Dragons: A Guide to Kyoto’s Temples

A traditional wooden building at Nanzenji Temple is surrounded by blooming cherry blossoms and lush greenery. Visitors are seen walking and taking photos around the temple grounds under a partly cloudy sky. The scene captures the essence of Japanese architecture and the beauty of the cherry blossom season.
Nanzen-ji temple. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

Deciding how to make the most of your time in Kyoto can be a challenge, especially when it comes to choosing which of the many temples to visit.  Be it forest shrines, monumental Buddha halls, or quiet Zen gardens, there are a plethora of options.  

To help you cut through the noise, I have put together this list of my favorite Kyoto temples.  These recommendations are based on my own experience travelling in and around Kyoto over the last decade, exploring every subtemple and out of the way shrine I could reach. 

The first ten recommendations are what I consider the “must sees.”  This portion of the list is meant to provide a place to start for anyone making their first trip to Kyoto.  In crafting this list, I have sought to include a good variety of temples, taking into account the sect/religion it belongs to as well the historical importance. The next 15 are for anyone making an extended (week+) trip or their second or third visit to the city.

One word of caution, temples in Kyoto are often sporadically closed for extended periods.  Renovations, repairs, important ceremonies, etc. can all lead to unexpected closures.  This is especially true of the sub-temples noted below.  

Despite having visited many, many temples in Kyoto (far more than are included in this list), there are several I still haven’t gone to simply because they have always been shut when I happened to visit.  If this happens to you, don’t be discouraged!  There is still a tremendous amount to see. 

Top 10 – Kyoto’s Must See Temples

First time in Kyoto?  Then start here, with my top ten recommendations.

1. Tofuku-Ji

A framed view of Tofukuji Temple's main hall seen through the wooden beams connecting to the covered bridge.  The scene captures the temple's traditional architecture surrounded by lush, green foliage, creating a peaceful and contemplative atmosphere.
Tofuku-ji temple viewed from wooden walkway. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

Topping my list of temples to visit is the spectacular Rinzai Zen temple, Tofuku-Ji.  Founded in 1236, Tofuku-ji was designed to evoke the grandeur of the great Buddhist temples of Nara (the imperial capital before Kyoto).

Tofuku-ji is best known for the stroll garden that runs along the slopes of a small gorge on the northern edge of the temple grounds.  This garden is best viewed from the covered wooden bridge that connects the main temple to the Founder’s Hall.  From here, one can enjoy great views of Tofuku-ji’s famed 2,000 maple trees.  During the fall foliage season, these trees transform into a fiery blur of orange, yellow, and red, making this garden the most popular in the city.  

A view of the traditional wooden buildings at Tofukuji Temple, partially obscured by lush trees with early spring foliage. The detailed architecture and sloping roofs stand out against a backdrop of a cloudy sky, creating a harmonious blend of natural and man-made beauty.
Tofuku-ji temple from Tsutenkyo bridge. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

Tofuku-ji is also well known for the Hasso gardens that surround the Abbot’s quarters.  These dry gardens were designed by the famed landscape architect Shigemori Mirei in 1939.  They incorporate cubist-inspired themes alongside traditional Buddhist motifs, offering a modernist twist to conventional Zen garden design.

Aside from the gardens, be sure also to walk around the other major halls of the temple. These are mostly closed to tourists, but still worth admiring for their traditional exteriors and large scale.  

As you stroll around the temple, be sure to take special note of Tofuku-Ji’s monumental Sanmon gate, which dates back to 1425.  This is the oldest (and largest) gate of any Zen temple in Japan, having survived the regular fires that struck Tofuku-ji’s other buildings over the centuries. The gate is so treasured that in 1969, it was fully dismantled and refurbished – a process that took nine years to complete.

A serene Japanese Zen garden at Tofukuji Temple, featuring meticulously raked gravel patterns around several stone pillars, bordered by neatly trimmed shrubs and trees, with traditional wooden buildings in the background. The calm, well-maintained garden exudes a sense of tranquility and harmony.
Shigemori garden at Tofuku-ji temple. The positioning of the pillars matches the Big Dipper constellation. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

Visiting Information: Tofuku-ji is open from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm most days, with slightly longer hours during the fall foliage season and shorter hours during winter.  A combined ticket to visit the Hasso garden and cross the Tsutenkyo bridge costs 1,000 yen for adults and 500 yen for children.   The price rises to 1,500 yen for adults and 600 yen for children during the autumn foliage season.  

For the most up to date visiting info, see:  https://tofukuji.jp/guide/

2. Ginkaku-Ji

A scenic view of the Ginkakuji Temple, or Silver Pavilion, beautifully reflected in the calm pond surrounded by lush greenery and rocks. The traditional wooden architecture and the tranquil setting under a clear blue sky create a serene and picturesque landscape.
Ginkaku-ji temple. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

Ginkaku-Ji, better known as the Temple of the Silver Pavilion, is a magical place.  Originally part of the retirement estate of the former shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, Ginkaku-ji was converted to a Zen temple following Yoshimasa’s death in 1490. 

The name – silver pavilion – refers to the rustic, white-washed structure near the entrance to the garden.  It has long been suggested that Yoshimasa intended to cover the pavilion in silver foil but could not find the funds to pay for it.  More recent scholarship, however, suggests the term is likely a reference to Yoshimasa’s moon-viewing parties, during which the pavilion would be bathed in silver light.

Ginkaku-Ji’s exquisite garden has multiple sections.  Entering, one first encounters a dry garden.  This garden borders the temple’s main structures and serves as a contemplative foreground to the lush greenery that unfolds behind.  Within this garden is a painstakingly crafted conical mound of gravel (known as the moon-viewing platform), which is regularly deconstructed and rebuilt.  

A close-up view of the Ginkakuji Temple, or Silver Pavilion, highlighting its traditional wooden architecture surrounded by lush greenery. In the foreground, a meticulously maintained sand garden with a distinctive cone-shaped sand mound adds to the serene and reflective atmosphere.
The Silver Pavilion at Ginkaku-ji temple. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

Beyond the dry garden is a small pond, around which sits a variety of trees, rocks, and moss.  The large ornamental rocks placed around the garden were given to Yoshima by regional lords as tribute.  So valued were they, that the retired shogun is said to have chosen the placement of each stone himself.

Moving away from the temple, the garden rises onto the adjacent hill, which you can climb for spectacular views of the grounds and city beyond.  

An elevated view of the Ginkakuji Temple, also known as the Silver Pavilion, nestled amidst lush green trees. The traditional wooden structure stands out with its distinct roof and serene surroundings.
The Silver Pavillion at Ginkaku-ji temple viewed from the upper garden. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

After leaving the temple, walk down the hill back toward the city where you will find the beginning of the Philosopher’s Path – a scenic trail running along one of Kyoto’s many canals.  This path will take you to the doorstep of Nanzen-Ji, discussed below.

Visiting Information:  Ginkaku-ji is open from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm December through February and 8:30 am to 5:00 pm other months.  Tickets to enter the garden are 500 yen for adults and 300 yen for children.  

For the most up to date information, see:  https://www.shokoku-ji.jp/en/ginkakuji/access/  

3. Kiyomizu-dera

A view of Kiyomizu-dera Temple featuring its iconic pagoda, surrounded by blooming cherry blossoms. The temple overlooks the city of Kyoto, providing a picturesque contrast between the traditional wooden architecture and the modern urban landscape in the background.
Kiyomizu-dera temple. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

Kiyomizu-dera was founded in 778 AD, predating the establishment of Kyoto as Japan’s imperial capital.  

The temple principally honors the bodhisattva Kannon, known as Guanyin in Chinese and Avalokiteśvara in Sanskrit.  Directly translated, the name means “perceiver of sound,” a reference to Kannon’s ability to intercede on behalf of those who pray to her.

Kiyomizu-dera is best known for the spectacular views afforded from the main hall’s veranda, which juts out over a steep cliff side.  The dramatic drop from the veranda gave rise to the Japanese idiom “to jump off the stage of Kiyomizu,” which is loosely equivalent to “take the plunge” in English. 

A panoramic view of Kiyomizu-dera Temple, perched on a hillside surrounded by lush greenery with the cityscape of Kyoto in the background. The wooden temple structure extends over a large veranda, offering breathtaking vistas to visitors under a cloudy sky.
The main hall and “stage” of Kiyomizu-dera temple. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

Legend has it that anyone who jumped off the veranda and survived would have their wish granted.  Don’t think about trying it today, though.  Jumping from the veranda was formally prohibited in 1872 – the exceptionally high likelihood of death or life-altering injury proving an insufficient deterrent.

When visiting Kiyomizu-dera, be sure to make a stop at the Otowa no taki waterfall, which lies directly below the main hall.  It was these waters that inspired the temple’s name, which translates to “pure water.”  

Visiting Information:  Kiyomizu-dera is generally open from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm, though sometimes remains open for special viewings.  Tickets to the temple cost 400 yen.

For the most up-to-date information, see:  https://www.kiyomizudera.or.jp/en

4. Chion-in

A vibrant view of Chion-in Temple adorned with colorful fabric banners, surrounded by lush greenery and blooming cherry blossoms. The traditional wooden structure stands prominently with the cityscape and distant mountains visible in the background, blending historical architecture with natural and urban scenery.
Chion-in temple. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

Founded in 1234, Chion-in traces its origins to the famed monk Honen, who pioneered the core practices of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism and established a meditation hermitage on the present site of the temple.  

Though always an important temple, Chion-in’s fame received a major boost in 1603, when it was adopted by Tokugawa Ieyasu (the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate) as his family’s primary place of worship.  

Chion-in has one of the most picturesque entrances of any temple in Kyoto.  One enters directly through the temple’s monumental Sanmon gate, from which hangs large purple banners displaying the Tokugawa crest.  Surrounding it are bright evergreens and cherry blossom trees, the branches of which contrast sharply with the dark wood of the gate.  

The grand entrance of Chion-in Temple, decorated with colorful fabric banners and flanked by blooming cherry blossom trees. The large stone steps leading up to the temple are dusted with fallen petals, enhancing the festive and serene atmosphere under a cloudy sky.
The Sanmon gate at Chion-in temple. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

Through the gate is a broad stone staircase lined with trees reaching in from either side. At the top, the ground opens onto a broad flat area.  This is where most of the temple’s main buildings are located, including the monumental main hall.  Sermons go on in the main hall throughout the day and visitors are enthusiastically invited to join and listen (though note that there is no translation available).  

Other than the main hall, most of the buildings are not open to visitors.  You can, however, still wander around the temple’s vast grounds, including back onto the belfry and founder’s shrine.    

A tranquil pathway at Chion-in Temple lined with blooming cherry blossom trees and traditional Japanese lanterns. The scene showcases the temple's wooden architecture on the left, with a cobblestone path leading through the serene, landscaped garden.
Entrance to Chion-in temple. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

The temple boasts two gardens, the Yuzen’en Garden near the Sanmon gate and the Hojo Garden behind the main hall.  The Yuzen’en Garden is small and elegant, designed in the rustic style of a tea garden.  The Hojo garden, which is generally open to the public, has always been closed when I happened to visit, but is reported to be equally pleasant.

Visiting Information: Chion-in is open from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm every day.  Most of the grounds can be freely explored.  The gardens, however, require the purchase of a ticket.  A combined ticket for both gardens costs 500 yen for adults and 250 yen for children.

For the most up to date information, see: https://www.chion-in.or.jp/en/guide

5. Tenryu-Ji

A view of Tenryuji Temple's traditional wooden buildings with their ornate tiled roofs, set against a backdrop of lush green hills. The foreground features a small Zen rock garden, adding to the peaceful and contemplative atmosphere of the temple grounds.
Tenryu-ji temple. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

Tenryu-Ji was founded in 1339 by the first Ashikaga shogun, Ashikaga Takauji.  Built over a former imperial villa, Takauji is said to have had the site converted to a Zen temple to appease the spirit of his recently defeated foe, Emperor Go-Daigo.  Since its founding, Tenryu-ji has been ranked as one Kyoto’s leading Zen temples, below only Nanzen-ji in the official patronage system.

Tenryu-ji is best known for the spectacular Sogenchi Garden, which (unlike other Zen temples around the city) retains its founding abbot’s original design.  

As with other stroll gardens of the period, Sogenchi contains a large pond at its center.  Paths meander behind it, leading to an upper garden and around shrines, pavilions, and covered walkways.  Looming over the cultivated landscape is Mt. Arashiyama, which – when viewed from the Abbot’s quarters – appears to blend seamlessly into the garden; an effect known as “borrowed scenery.”

A tranquil pond at Tenryuji Temple surrounded by lush greenery and rocky banks, reflecting the vibrant colors of the trees and the clear sky above. The serene water body is set against a backdrop of rolling hills, creating a peaceful and picturesque landscape.
Sogenchi garden at Tenryu-ji temple. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

Sogenchi offers something for every season.  In the spring, it blooms with cherry blossoms and azaleas.  In the summer, it displays lotus flowers – a Buddhist symbol of enlightenment.  And in the autumn, the garden becomes a riot of color when the leaves start to change.

After visiting the garden, be sure to also check out Tenryu-ji’s Lecture Hall, most famous for the massive cloud dragon painting on its ceiling.  This painting is a modern addition.  Completed in 1997 by Matazo Kayama, the work was commissioned to commemorate the temple’s 650th anniversary. 

A picturesque scene at Tenryuji Temple garden featuring a tranquil stream bordered by lush greenery and blooming white and pink flowers. The winding pathway alongside the stream invites visitors to explore the serene natural beauty under the canopy of tall trees.
Flowers bloom in Sogenchi garden at Tenryu-ji temple. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

Visiting Information:  Tenryu-ji is open from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm.  To see the gardens and the abbot’s quarters costs 800 yen for adults and 600 yen for children.  To view the cloud dragon painting in the lecture hall costs 500 yen.

For the latest information, see:  https://www.tenryuji.com/en

6. Kinkaku-ji

A stunning view of Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion, reflecting in the serene pond that surrounds it. The gold-leaf covered structure stands out against a backdrop of lush greenery and rolling hills, creating a captivating and tranquil scene.
Kinkaku-ji temple. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

Kinkaku-ji, or the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, is like something out of a poem.  Established in 1408, Kinkaku-ji was formerly part of the estate of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu.  As with Ginkaku-ji, it was converted to a Zen temple following the shogun’s death.  

The temple’s namesake pavilion has three levels.  The bottom is modeled on a traditional Heian-era villa, complete with veranda and a fishing dock in the back.  The upper two levels, covered in gold leaf, are more traditionally Zen in their design.  They are religious in function, containing paintings and sculptures as well as an altar to Kannon.  On top of the structure is a Chinese-style bronze phoenix.

A distant view of Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion, surrounded by lush green trees and nestled against a backdrop of rolling hills. The gold-leaf covered structure glimmers under the soft light, creating a serene and majestic scene.
Top floor of Kinkaku-ji temple. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

The pavilion is set against one of Kyoto’s most elegant stroll gardens.  At its center is a pond, on which one can admire the reflection of the golden pavilion and surrounding scenery.  Around the pond are an abundance of Rikushu pines and other evergreens set amidst interspersed rocky outcrops.  Further back is the borrowed scenery of Mt. Kinugasa.  

The beauty of Kinkaku-ji lies in the contrast between the refined simplicity of the traditional Zen garden and the radiant golden pavilion.  Even in a city of temples, this artful pairing makes Kinkau-ji a truly unique place to visit. 

Visiting Information:  Kinkaku-ji is open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm every day.  The entrance fee is 500 yen for adults and 300 for children.  

For the must up to date information, see: https://www.shokoku-ji.jp/en/kinkakuji/access

7. Shimogamo-jinja

A charming scene at Shimogamo Shrine featuring a bright red torii gate and a red bridge crossing over a small stream, surrounded by blooming cherry blossom trees. The traditional wooden buildings and lush greenery add to the picturesque and serene atmosphere under a clear blue sky.
Shimogamo-Jinja. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

A Shinto shrine and UNESCO world heritage site, Shimogamo-jinja is said to date back to the 7th century, making it one of the oldest shrines in Japan.  Nestled between the Kamo and Takano rivers in northern Kyoto, the shrine is dedicated to the Shinto sun god and his daughter.

Shimogamo-jinja is unlike any of the temples discussed so far.  As a Shinto shrine, its grounds forego the cultivated gardens of the Buddhist temples noted above, instead embracing the forests and natural beauty around it.  

A view of the entrance to Shimogamo Shrine, featuring a bright red gate framed by tall, lush trees. The wide gravel pathway leads visitors through the serene, shaded approach towards the historic shrine buildings, creating a tranquil and inviting scene.
Entrance to Shimogamo-Jinja. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

Inside the shrine, people meander around the various bright orange altars, making offerings to auspicious spirits.  Running through the middle is a small stream with a picturesque arched bridge running over it.  

Leading up to the shrine from the south is an extended open pathway through a primeval forest.  Some of the trees in this area are said to be 600 years old – pre-dating Columbus’s voyages to the Americas.  This adds to the mysterious feel of the shrine, giving a sense of some unknown magic just beneath the surface.

Visiting information:  There is no charge to enter the Shimagamo-jinja, which is open from 6:30 am to 5:00 pm every day.  

For the most up to date information, see: http://www.shimogamo-jinja.or.jp/english/

8. Nanzen-Ji

A traditional wooden building at Nanzenji Temple is surrounded by blooming cherry blossoms and lush greenery. Visitors are seen walking and taking photos around the temple grounds under a partly cloudy sky. The scene captures the essence of Japanese architecture and the beauty of the cherry blossom season.
Nanzen-ji temple. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

Founded in 1291, Nanzen-Ji has long been the most influential Zen temple in Kyoto and for most of its history stood at the apex of the official patronage system.  

As with other Zen temples, Nanzen-Ji was formed from part of the estate of the retired Emperor Kameyama, who was inspired to donate the land after a group of monks from Tofuku-Ji exorcised a pack of ghosts that had been haunting the area.  

A red brick aqueduct with a series of large arches stands prominently in the foreground at Nanzenji Temple. The structure is surrounded by tall trees and dappled sunlight, with a few visitors walking along the gravel pathway underneath the arches. The scene combines historical architecture with natural beauty.
Aqueduct at Nanzen-ji temple. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

There is an abundance of things to see at Nanzen-ji.  Most notable are the Abbot’s quarters, which are beautifully decorated with a range of colorful screen paintings.

Also notable is the lecture hall, which if you peak inside, you can just able to make out the sacred dragon painting on the roof (most visitors miss this).

Another notable site at Nanzen-ji is the iconic aqueduct, which runs straight along the temple’s southern edge.  The aqueduct, which was built in Meiji times, is said to be one of the first western innovations to be introduced to Kyoto.  Now worn with age, the aqueduct blends harmoniously into the surrounding scenery.

Also worth seeing is the famous Sanmon gate, which you can climb for great views over the temple and city.

Visiting Information:  Nanzen-ji is open from 8:40 am to 5:00 pm most of the year.  Between December and February, the temple closes at 4:30.  Tickets to visit the Abbot’s quarters cost 600 yen for adults and 400 yen for children.  To climb to the top of the Sanmon gate also costs 600 yen for adults and 400 for children.

For the most up to date visiting information, see: https://nanzenji.or.jp

9. Ryoan-ji

Visitors sit and contemplate at the famous rock garden of Ryoanji Temple, featuring carefully raked gravel and strategically placed stones. The minimalist design of the Zen garden is framed by a low earthen wall, with trees and blooming cherry blossoms in the background, creating a serene and reflective atmosphere.
Ryoan-ji temple. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

Ryoan-ji, a subtemple of Myoshin-ji, was established in 1450 by Hosokawa Katsumoto, one of the dueling warlords who wreaked havoc in and around Kyoto during the incredibly destructive Onin War.

Ryoan-ji is best known for its dry garden – the most famous in Kyoto and probably the world.  The garden boasts 15 stones in total separated by an expanse of raked gravel.  Like an abstract expressionist painting, viewers have suggested a variety of different interpretations behind the seemingly random placement of stones. These range from tigers crossing a stream, to a mythical archipelago, to esoteric systems of numerology.  Whatever the meaning, for connoisseurs of dry garden design, this is the apex.  

A serene pond at Ryoanji Temple, surrounded by lush greenery and blooming cherry blossom trees. The tranquil water reflects the vibrant colors of the foliage and the soft hues of the sky, creating a peaceful and picturesque landscape.
Garden at Ryoan-ji temple. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

Aside from the famous rock garden, the temple also boasts a beautiful stroll garden.  Built around the Kyoyochi pond, the garden boasts long walkways, rows of cherry-blossom trees, and an island with a shrine to the mythical Japanese muse, Benten.  As one strolls around the pond, strategically placed breaks in the tree line offer expansive views over the water and the mountain forests behind.

Visiting Information:  Ryoan-ji is open from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm between March and November and 8:30 am to 4:30 pm December through February.  Entrance fee is 600 yen for adults, 500 for high school students, and 300 yen for younger children.  

For the most up to date information, see: http://www.ryoanji.jp/smph/eng/

10. Shoren-in

A serene view from inside Shoren-in Temple, showcasing a traditional tatami room with large open windows that frame the lush, green garden outside. The tranquil garden features meticulously maintained plants, rocks, and a peaceful pond, creating a harmonious blend of indoor and outdoor spaces.
Shoren-in temple. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

Rounding out my top 10 is Shoren-in, the entrance to which is only about 200 meters up the street from Chion-in.  

Shoren-in was built by the retired Emperor Toba in the 12th century.  A strong believer in Tendai Buddhism, Toba wanted his son to study under the great master Gyogin, who was then the head priest of Enryaku-ji (the leading Tendai temple).  Enryaku-ji lies to the north of Kyoto, a bit beyond the city’s periphery.  To make the arrangement more convenient, Toba had Shoren-in built to provide a centrally located space where his son could receive instruction.

After Gyogin’s death, Shoren-in continued to function as a sub-temple of Enryaku-ji before eventually gaining its independence.  Later, it was designated a Monzeki temple, which meant only members of the imperial family could serve as its head priest.

The interior of Shoren-in Temple featuring a polished wooden floor, traditional tatami mats, and an ornate altar adorned with gold and religious artifacts. The serene and meticulously maintained space reflects the temple's tranquil and sacred atmosphere.
Shrine at Shoren-in temple. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

Today, Shoren-in is a treasure trove of shrines, artifacts, and gardens.  Many of its halls contain beautifully painted screens.  The most elaborate feature peacocks, cranes, and other birds.  The temple also holds a number of intricate altars, some containing an array of haunting deities.

Most of the halls open onto the temple’s serene garden.  Visitors can stroll through the garden at leisure and climb to an overlook near the back.

When visiting, keep an eye out for the temple’s famous camphor trees, which line the outside of its walls.  The oldest is the towering 800-year-old tree at the entrance, but there are three other aged trees just outside.

Visiting Information:  Shoren-in is open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.  The entrance fee is 600 yen for adults, 400 yen for high school students, and 200 yen for younger children.  

For the latest visiting information, see:  http://www.shorenin.com/english/index.html

Other Notable Temples in Kyoto

I’m not going to lie; it was a challenge deciding which temples to put in the top 10.  Truth be told, there are a number of other temples I would happily recommend to friends and family not included in the list above. 

So let me expand on that list here with a further 15 temples.  In making these recommendations, I principally have in mind those making their second trip to Kyoto and/or are planning to stay for an extended period.

One point in favor of many of the temples below – several receive only a fraction of the visitors of those above.

11. Fushimi Inari-Taisha

A captivating perspective of the iconic red torii gate tunnel at Fushimi Inari Shrine, stretching endlessly along the stone pathway. The vivid orange gates, adorned with black inscriptions, create a mesmerizing and symbolic passage through the sacred site.
Torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

Let me start with the one glaring omission from the list above – Fushimi Inari, currently Kyoto’s most popular tourist attraction.  With its four kilometers of paths threading through an endless succession of bright orange gates, Fushimi Inari is as stunning as it is unique.  Add to that the sublime forests the paths run through and it’s not hard to understand why it draws a crowd.

Nevertheless, I struggle to recommend a stop here.  Fushimi Inari has become a poster child for overtourism.  A seemingly endless stream of buses unload visitors from very early in the morning until late in the day.  Most visitors seek only a selfie beneath the long rows of the shrine’s iconic gates and to get it, some will (boorishly) block large crowds from passing.  While the crowds do thin out the further up the mountain you go, you are unlikely to have any portion entirely to yourself.  

Is it worth checking out?  Definitely.  But if this is your first visit to Kyoto and you only have a limited amount of time, I would consider passing on this one, especially as a visit can easily take a couple of hours.

Visiting Information:  Fushimi Inari is free to visit and open from dawn to dusk.

12. Enko-Ji

A serene Japanese rock garden at Enko-ji Temple, featuring meticulously raked gravel patterns, strategically placed rocks, and manicured shrubs. The traditional temple buildings and lush forested hills in the background add to the peaceful ambiance.
Enko-ji temple. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

Enko-Ji is an amazing temple and I seriously considered including it as one of the featured ten above. Founded in 1601, this Zen temple lies just a bit north of Ginkaku-ji.  Its chief attraction is the Running Dragon Garden, which through strategic stone placement evokes a dragon peaking above a sea of clouds.  Small panels inserted into the ground add texture to the garden, creating an illusion of swirls, as if stirred by the giant just beneath.  The temple also has a nice stroll garden, which includes a small pond, bamboo grove, and an upper garden which offers amazing views over the city beyond.

Visiting Information:  Enko-ji is open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.  Cost to enter is 600 yen for adults and 300 yen for children.  

For the latest information, see:  http://www.enkouji.jp/en/visit/

13. Touji-In

A traditional Japanese garden at Touji-in Temple, featuring a tranquil pond surrounded by neatly pruned shrubs and rocks. The garden is set against the backdrop of a classic wooden temple building with a tiled roof, creating a harmonious and serene atmosphere.
Tough-in temple. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

Touji-in is a hidden gem.  Not far from Ryoan-ji and Kinkaku-ji, this Zen temple has one of the most vibrant stroll gardens in the city.  Built around two ponds (one shaped like the Chinese character for heart and the other like a lotus flower) the garden pours out with a dense assortment of shrubs, evergreens, and ornamental rocks.  Lacking the crowds of other temples, the halls of Touji-in have a more peaceful feel, perfect for sitting in contemplation of its carefully cultivated landscape.

Visiting Information:  Touji-in is open from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm everyday.  Tickets are 600 yen for adults and 300 yen for children.  

For the most up to date information, see:  https://toujiin.jp/admission.html

14. Ninna-Ji

A scenic view of Ninna-ji Temple, showcasing its lush garden with a reflective pond, various green trees, and meticulously placed rocks. In the background, the traditional temple buildings and a multi-tiered pagoda rise above the foliage, blending seamlessly with the natural surroundings.
Ninna-ji temple. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

Part of Japan’s historically important Shingon Sect, the grounds of Ninna-ji are vast.  Notable sites around the temple include the monumental Nio-Mon gate at the entrance, the picturesque Gojuno-to pagoda, and a sizeable cherry tree orchard.  When visiting, be sure to stop by the  “Goten,” which features its own impressive stroll garden, elaborately painted screens, and a hall transported from the former imperial palace.

Visiting Information:  The temple is open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm March to November and from 9:00 to 4:30 pm from December to February.  Tickets to enter the Goten are 800 yen.  Tickets to the temple cost 500 yen during cherry blossom season.  Entry is free for children.

For the latest information, see:  https://ninnaji.jp/en/ 

15. Taizo-in

A beautiful Japanese garden at Taizō-in Temple, featuring a tranquil pond surrounded by lush greenery and blooming cherry blossoms. The garden includes a charming thatched-roof pavilion, meticulously arranged shrubs, and a serene stream flowing through the landscape, creating a picturesque and peaceful scene.
Taizo-in temple. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

A subtemple of Myoshin-ji, Taizo-in boasts one of the most popular gardens in Kyoto.  At the entrance is the temple’s highly regarded dry garden, said to have been designed by famed artist Kano Motonobu.  This elegant garden is split into two, one with dark sand and the other with light.  At the center of this yin-yang pairing is a weeping cherry tree, glorious when in bloom.  Once past this section, the garden takes on a rustic quality, with the path winding around trees and hedges down a gently sloping hill.  At the bottom, the view opens to reveal a stream which flows next to the gently undulating landscape, beautifully embodying the wabi-sabi (rustic and refined) aesthetic cultivated in Zen garden design.

Visiting Information:  Taizo-In opens from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.  The cost to enter is 600 yen for adults and 300 yen for children.  

For the most up-to-date information, see: http://www.taizoin.com/en/ 

16. Zuiho-in

A peaceful rock garden at Zuiho-in Temple, showcasing carefully raked gravel patterns with strategically placed rocks. The wooden veranda of the temple building offers a shaded view of the minimalist garden, surrounded by a traditional wall and lush greenery, creating a serene and meditative space.
Zuiho-in temple. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

A small subtemple of Daitoku-ji, Zuiho-in is best known for its dynamic dry gardens.  

The largest is the Garden of Solitary Meditation, which features a stone grouping representing Mt. Horai.  This grouping is surrounded by an expanse of raked gravel, meticulously sculpted in the shape of ripples that appear to be emanating and reflecting off the larger stones.  The clarity of the gravel lines suggests both turbulence and restraint.  

The second of Zuiho-in’s dry gardens is intriguing for altogether different reasons.  In its seemingly randomly placed stones is the barest suggestion of a cross.  This was incorporated into the garden after the temple’s founder converted from Zen to Catholicism.  The cross was deliberately hidden to avoid arousing suspicion – a prudent move given the violent persecution of Christians that occurred in the decades following the garden’s creation.

Visiting Information:  Zuiho-In opens from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.  The cost to enter is 400 yen. 

17. Kennin-ji

View from the Abbot's quarters at Kennin-ji Temple, featuring a traditional wooden gate framed by meticulously pruned pine trees and a serene rock garden. The main temple building with its elegant tiled roof rises in the background, creating a harmonious and majestic scene.
Kennin-ji temple. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

Kennin-Ji has the distinction of being Kyoto’s oldest Zen temple.  Located in the heart of Gion, the temple features an understated dry garden, neat khaki-colored walls, and its famed tea bushes (said to have been brought from China by the temple’s founder, Myoan Eisay in the 12th century).  When visiting, be sure to check out the famed painting of the Wind and Thunder Gods by 17th century master Tawaraya Sotatsu and the twin dragon painting on the ceiling of the lecture hall completed in 2002 by Junsaku Koizumi.    

Visiting information:  Kennin-ji is open from 10:00 am to 4:30 pm most months.  During the winter, it closes at 4:00 pm.  Tickets to see the gardens, lecture hall, and abbot’s quarters cost 800 yen for adults and 500 yen for children.  

For the most up to date information, see:  https://www.kenninji.jp/access/

18. Kodai-Ji

A detailed view of Kodai-ji Temple, showcasing its traditional wooden architecture with intricately curved roofs. The temple is surrounded by lush greenery and features a wooden walkway, blending seamlessly with the natural landscape, creating a tranquil and historic ambiance.
Kodai-ji temple. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

A subtemple of Kennin-Ji, Kodai-Ji is best known as the retreat of the widow of famed warlord and national unifier Toyotomi Hideyoshi.  Featuring an elegant stroll garden, dry landscape, a bamboo grove, and rustic thatched huts, the neatly kept temple is one of the most visited sites in the city.  It is especially popular during cherry blossom season, when a large weeping cherry tree blooms gloriously over the immaculately raked dry garden.

Visiting Information:  Kodai-Ji is open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm every day.  Entry is 600 yen for adults and 250 yen for children.  Ticket lines can be long.  If also visiting Entoku-In, you can purchase a combined ticket there for 900 yen, allowing you to skip the line at Kodai-Ji.  

For the most up to date information, see:  https://www.kodaiji.com/admission.html

19. Entoku-In

An interior view of Entoku-in Temple, featuring tatami mats and sliding shoji doors that open to a picturesque garden. The garden outside is filled with lush greenery, moss-covered rocks, and meticulously arranged trees, creating a serene and contemplative atmosphere.
Entoku-in temple. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

Another sub-temple of Kennin-Ji, Entoku-In attracts nowhere near the crowds of Kodai-ji (despite being right next to it).  Though smaller than Kodai-Ji, Entoku-In is very much its equal in charm.  It features a dramatic dry garden, said to have been designed by the famed 17th century master Kobori Enshu.  It is also known for its artwork, featuring pieces by both modern and old masters.  

Visiting Information:  Entoku-In is open between 10:00 am and 5:00 pm.  Cost to enter is 500 yen for adults and 200 yen for children.  If visiting Kodai-ji, consider purchasing the 900 yen combined ticket (the ticket line at Kodai-ji can get very long).  

For the most up to date visiting information, see: https://www.kodaiji.com/entoku-in/e_haikan.html

20. Heian-Jingu

A scenic view of Heian-jingu Shrine, featuring its iconic covered wooden bridge extending over a serene pond. The reflection of the bridge and lush greenery in the still water, along with the traditional architecture of the shrine buildings in the background, creates a tranquil and picturesque setting.
Heian-Jingu. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

Ever wonder what Kyoto was like hundreds of years ago?  When it was still the imperial capital of Japan?  You can get a taste of it at Heian-Jingu, a Shinto shrine modelled on the old imperial palace.  Built in 1895 to celebrate the city’s 1,100th anniversary, the shrine’s broad halls and spacious square are a nod to the city’s storied past.  

Heian-Jingu’s chief attraction is the vast gardens which surround it.  Covering 30,000 square meters, the gardens were designed by famed landscape architect Ogawa Jihei VII.  Each of the gardens is modelled after a different period in Japanese history – beginning with the Heian period and running all the way up to the Edo.  The garden is especially attractive during the cherry blossom season, when its red weeping cherry trees come fully into bloom.

Visiting Information:  Heian-Jingu is open from 6:00 am to 5:00 pm November to February and from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm in other months.  The cost to visit the gardens is 600 yen.  

For the latest visiting information, see:  http://www.heianjingu.or.jp

21. To-Ji

A stunning night view of To-ji Temple, featuring its illuminated pagoda rising above the beautifully lit cherry blossoms and lush trees. The reflections in the pond below add to the enchanting atmosphere, creating a magical and serene scene.
To-Ji temple. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

To-Ji, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was established in 796 AD.  Just south of Kyoto Station, this Shingon temple was built to guard the southern approach to the Imperial Palace.  To-ji is best known for its iconic wooden pagoda, which rises from behind the temple’s elegant stroll garden.  Also notable is the temple’s lecture hall, which houses over 20 unique Buddha images arranged in a statuary mandala.  

If you are looking for something unique, try visiting To-Ji at night, when bright lights illuminate the pagoda and surround garden.  To-Ji’s night-time illumination is especially popular during the cherry blossom season, when its grounds explode with pink and white flowers.

Visiting Information:  Outside of the night-time illuminations, To-ji is open between 8:30 am and 4:00 pm throughout the year, with slightly longer hours during the spring and summer.  It costs 800 yen to access the full site, 700 yen for high school students, and 500 yen for younger children.  

For the most up to date info, see:  https://toji.or.jp/en/location/index.html

22. Nishi Hongan-Ji

A view of Nishi Hongan-ji Temple, showcasing a long wooden corridor adorned with ornate golden lanterns hanging from the ceiling. The corridor opens up to a view of the temple's traditional architecture, creating a sense of elegance and historical reverence.
Nishi Hongan-ji temple. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

The massive temple of Nishi Hongan-Ji dates to 1591.  A Pure Land temple, Nishi Hongan-Ji retains many of its original buildings.  Of particular interest is the colorful Karamon gate, which was built for the castle of Toyotomi Hideyoshi but was later moved here to adorn the temple.  Other important sites include the massive Amida Hall and Founder’s Hall, both of which feature intricate altars and beautiful screen paintings.

Visiting Information:  Nishi Hongan-ji is open from 5:30 am to 5:00 pm.  There is no charge to enter.  

For the most up-to-date information, see:  https://www.hongwanji.kyoto

23. Tenju-an

A lush garden at Tenjuan Temple, featuring a tranquil stream surrounded by moss-covered rocks and a variety of well-manicured shrubs and trees. The traditional wooden temple building blends seamlessly with the dense forested backdrop, creating a serene and harmonious atmosphere.
Tenju-an temple. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

A sub-temple of Nanzen-Ji, Tenju-an offers another incredible stroll garden.  At the entrance is a traditional dry garden, cut through with a mossy path punctuated with angular stones.  From here, you pass through a rustic gate, where an undulating forest landscape unfolds around a central pond.  The spiritual energy of the garden is palpable, an oasis of calm amidst the crowds passing outside towards Nanzen-Ji.   

Visiting Information:  Tenju An is open from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm.  Cost to enter is 500 yen.

24. Konchi-In

A serene scene at Konchi-in Temple, featuring a minimalist rock garden with carefully raked gravel and strategically placed stones. The traditional temple building is surrounded by lush greenery and a backdrop of forested hills, creating a peaceful and contemplative atmosphere.
Konchi-in temple. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

Konchi-In is another incredible sub-temple of Nanzen-Ji and could easily be in the top-10 above.  The temple offers everything one could want from a Zen temple.  Upon entering, one strolls around a rustic pond with bright green moss pushing in on either side of the path.  Once past the pond, you approach an elegant shrine to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate.  Frome here, one reaches the temple’s primary attraction, its famed dry garden.  This garden features a gravel landscape which pushes away from the temple towards a small hill replete with ornamental rocks and shrubbery.  It is a wonderful composition and a worthy addition to any visit to Nanzen-ji.  

Visiting Information:  Konchi-In is open from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm most months.  From December to February, it closes at 4:30 pm.  Cost to enter is 500 yen.

25. Eikando Zenrin-Ji

A picturesque view of Eikan-dō Zenrin-ji Temple, featuring a serene pond with a small bridge surrounded by vibrant trees and foliage. The traditional temple buildings are nestled among lush greenery and forested hills, creating a tranquil and scenic landscape under a clear blue sky.
Eikando Zenrin-ji temple. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

Just south of Ginkaku-Ji, at the beginning of the Philosopher’s Path, is the atmospheric Eikando.  Founded in 853 AD as a Shingon temple, Eikando was later converted to Pure Land.  At the base of the temple is a small pond, around which one is treated to beautiful views of the temple’s main halls and the mountain behind it.  Covered walkways connect almost all of the main buildings of the temple, many of which hold notable works of art and Buddha images.  After seeing the main buildings, climb to the pagoda overlooking the temple for the best view in all of Kyoto.

Visiting information:  Eikando is open from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm.  Cost to enter is 600 yen for adults and 400 yen for children.  

For the most up to date information, see:  http://www.eikando.or.jp/English/haikan_e.html