There are so many things to do in Kyoto and one of them is a visit to the temples and shrines. With over 2,000 of them, you could spend weeks and not see them all. On a second visit to Kyoto, I found how there are so many wonderful ones I had missed previously.
Depending on your Japan itinerary (I’d recommend this two-week itinerary), you’ll want a few days in Kyoto. This ancient city is rooted in the tradition and preservation of the arts. It’s a truly wonderful place to get an understanding of Japan’s culture. Many of the temples in Kyoto are world heritage sites as well as they’ve been preserved as historical sites.
I wanted to share a curated list of the best Kyoto temples and shrines to help you plan your visit. You may not want to see all of these but you’ll get a sense of the top ones to see. Ready to explore?
Here’s a guide to the best Kyoto temples and shrines.
Getting to Kyoto
Getting to Kyoto is incredibly easy by train from other major cities like Tokyo and Osaka. To access the city, book a train to Kyoto Station. If you plan to spend an extended time in Japan using the trains, I’d recommend getting the Japan Rail Pass also known as the JR Rail Pass prior to arrival in Japan.
Getting around in Kyoto can be easily done by the local metro or bus, or Uber or taxi. For more information on Japan travel, read this full guide.
For a full Kyoto travel guide to help plan your itinerary, head here.
The Best Kyoto Temples and Shrines
Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine
This 1300 years-old Inari shrine is dedicated to the God of bountiful crops. Often famed for the red (but more orange) torii gates that line the path, Fushimi Inari Taisha or Fushimi Inari Shrine is one of the most beautiful in the city. Located in the southern part of Kyoto, the Shinto shrine is runs trails all the way up the mountain. The wooded forest is a peaceful place to go for a morning walk and I’d encourage going past the main gates.
Past the main grounds, is the hiking trail that is covered in the vermillion gates, and worth an exploration. Donated by individuals and companies, each gate has an inscription of the donor. To have a gate here is quite an honor as each one starts at 400,000 yen. It’s also the headquarters to over 30,000 Inari shrines across Japan.
You’ll find fox statues throughout Fushimi Inari which is thought to be Inari’s messenger as well. If you do the hike to the summit, it could take onwards of three hours, so be sure to allocate time if you plan to do the whole trek. If not, about an hour or so is needed to get to the main path. This one is near the Inari train station as well and easy to access.
Opening hours: always | Admission: free
The Golden Pavilion or Kinkakuji is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most beautiful temples in Kyoto. Known as the golden temple, the temple draws a huge audience. Located in Northern Kyoto, the top two floors are covered in this gold leafing with a wooden floor below. The outside of the temple is covered in gold leaf so it reflects across the pond.
I heard someone once say that every morning they rake the bottom of the pond so that there’s a perfect reflection of the temple. The temple has a long history, first being constructed in 1408 for the shogun Asikaga Yoshimitsu. Over the years it has been destroyed and burnt down multiple times, each time being rebuilt afterward. The most recent was when it was on fire by a monk, so the structure you see today was actually reconstructed in 1955.
When you’re visiting the temple, one highlight is trying out the golden ice cream, or soft serve topped with golden flakes. Well worth the price!
Opening hours: 9 am-5 pm | Admission: 400 JPY for adults, 300 JPY for children
In the heart of the Higashiyama District, this Zen Buddhist temple sites perched up above it. The gardens here are incredibly impressive and a great spot to catch the cherry blossoms in season. Established in 1606, the temple is part of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism.
The interiors and exteriors are lavish and stunning. You can enter the main hall that sits amidst the gardens. From a rock garden to a tsukiyama style garden, the Kōdaiji Temple has a wide range here. One highlight is making the walk up the hill and passing back through a small bamboo grove. This was such a surprise to find!
Be sure to take a walk around the zen gardens here or even enjoy tea in the tea house.
Opening hours: 9 am-5 pm | Admission: 600 JPY for adults
It’s certainly one of the most visited temples in all of Kyoto and worth being on the itinerary. A local travel guide would be helpful here just to be able to explore the depths of this temple. It sits upon Mt. Otowa with views over the city of Kyoto. With over 1200 years of history, visitors come to pay respects to “Kannon” near the main hall. This deity is of mercy and compassion and brings in a large number of visitors for this reason.
Known for the wooden terrace that jets out over the mountain, the spring months are covered in cherry blossoms. The temple name translates to “Pure Water” which is why it’s a celebrated temple. The Otowa Waterfall runs through the temple and you’ll see visitors passing by the pool to drink from it. The main hall has been under construction for renovation since 2017 but will be fully done here by March 2020.
A Kyoto walking tour with this temple included would be another way to visit with a guide as well. Be sure to visit the Yasaka shrine nearby as well.
Opening hours: 6 am-5:30 pm | Admission: 300 JPY for adults, 200 JPY for children
One of the less-visited temples in Kyoto is this lush temple on the outskirts. It’s a personal favorite for going somewhere quiet and off the beaten path. The moss-covered gate makes for a beautiful entrance to the gardens, where you can wander around in complete quietness.
During the year, the small storehouse often showcases free art exhibits that change frequently. The mossy gardens and ponds are idyllic and often feel a world’s away.
It’s open most of the day and well worth a visit in the afternoon.
Opening hours: 6 am-4 pm | Admission: free
In the heart of the Gion District, is the guardian deity of the geisha quarter, the Yasaka Shrine or Gion Shrine. Its promise is protection from evil, business success, and pushing away disease. Founded 1350 years ago, its popularity and fame bring in visitors from all over Japan.
During the Gion Festival in the month of July, it’s the shrine at the center of it. This festival is one of the famous in all of Japan as its history dates back for thousands of years.
Opening hours: all day | Admission: free
One of the most prime locations for cherry blossoms and autumn colors, this zen temple is a must-visit during those times. At the base of the Higashiyama mountains, it is home to important artifacts. First built by the Emperor Kameyama as his retirement villa, it was converted into a zen temple later.
The temple was first created in 1291 during the Kamakura period and was built as a temple of prayer. It’s a National Historic Site and the temple grounds are home to cultural properties. Throughout the temple, you’ll find many sights to not miss. One that is often surprising is a large brick aqueduct that was built in the Meiji period. It was used back then as a way to transfer water from Lake Biwa to Kyoto.
Another incredible site is in the sub-temple of Tenjuan which is open to all. Outside of the main hall and gate, is two noteworthy gardens. The first is a rock garden and the other, a pond garden. The fall colors here are very vibrant and worth a visit in season.
It’s also very popular for the views over Kyoto from the top of the gate.
Opening hours: 9 am-4:30 pm | Admission: 500 JPY for adults, 300 JPY for children
Home to National Treasures and Cultural Properties, this is one of my favorite temples in Kyoto. Though it is one temple, it’s home to 25 smaller temples and a rock garden that is truly beautiful. Founded in 1236, the temple is part of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism.
You can catch fall colors here in the season as well. I love sitting outside on the back terrace of the Hojo that overlooks the rock garden. One other important fact about Tofuku-ji temple is that it’s home to the oldest sanmon gate in Japan and the oldest zen meditation hall.
It’s good to note that though the temple is free to enter, there are paid areas. The paid areas include the Tsutenkyo Bridge, Kaisando Hall, and the Hojo.
Opening hours: 9 am-4 pm | Admission: free
Previously a school that was changed into a temple, is one of the most beautiful temples to view fall foliage in northern Kyoto. Founded in 1601, it was originally created by the shogun, Tokugawa leyasu — famous for bringing about the Edo Period.
You’ll find beautiful gardens throughout the courtyard, that have ponds and plenty of foliage.
The lines can be a bit crazy but well worth to see the wonderful colors.
Opening hours: 9 am-5 pm | Admission: 500 JPY for adults, 300 JPY for children
Constructed during the Meiji period, the Heian Shrine is home to a large, 30,000 square meter garden. Built in 1895, this “newer” shrine is a representation of the architecture of Chodoin central government building. It was originally built on the 1100th anniversary of the capital’s foundation in Kyoto.
There are cherry blossom trees that are in the shrine which visitors flock to in the season. As you pass through the large torii gates, you can pay to access the main garden behind the main building.
Opening hours: 6 am-5 pm | Admission: free
Walking Tours in Kyoto
As Kyoto can be overwhelming in size and things to do, one great way to explore the city is by walking tour. Many of these tours will stop by the main temples on the list (check before booking) and give you valuable insight into each of them. It’s a wonderful way to have a guide and see the sights.
Here are a few to consider: