Kyoto is home to more than 1,600 temples and some 500 Shinto shrines. Many of the city’s best and notable gardens can be found within the temple grounds. Look on the Internet and you will find countless lists compiling the ‘best’ temples to visit when in Kyoto.
During our brief stay in Kyoto, we visited a handful of the temples and shrines. We chose these places for various reasons including musical and literary influences. The temples below make up less than one per cent of what you can find in Kyoto. I am not referring to these temples as the “best” or “must-see” places in Kyoto as I am not an expert on the former Japanese imperial city. Rather, these are places that I visited and appreciated.
Kodai-ji + Entoku-in
Kodai-ji 高台寺 was established in 1606 to commemorate Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of Japan’s unifiers. His widow, Nene, had commissioned the majestic Zen temple after his death. Nearby Kodai-ji’s opulent buildings and magnificent gardens is the relatively modest Entoku-in temple 圓徳院.
We visited these temples as they were near the guesthouse where we were staying. The main hall at Kodai-ji was originally covered in gold leaf and lacquer. However a fire destroyed it in 1912 and it was rebuilt in a more modest fashion. Most visitors to Kodai-ji bypass the small Entoku-in sub-temple which was Nene’s home during her latter years.
I prefer the intimacy and quiet elegance of Entoku-in to Kodai-ji’s grandeur. Walking along the winding corridors past exquisite fusuma (painted panels), it was easy to imagine that I was in a gentlewoman’s home.
I particularly appreciated the peaceful atmosphere at the two gardens in Entoku-in. Both are in the karesansui (枯山水, literally translated as “dry mountain water”) style in which stones and sand depict landscapes of rivers and mountains.
Known as the Temple of the Peaceful Dragon, Ryoan-ji 龍安寺 was converted from an aristocrat’s villa into a Zen temple in 1450. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is best known for its rock garden. Yet no one knows who designed the garden nor its intended meaning.
Avant-garde composer John Cage was inspired by the garden at Ryoan-ji to create the eponymous instrumental compositions and a series of drawings, “Where R=Ryoanji”. The music was what motivated AB to visit Ryoan-ji in spite of its fame.
Fortunately, it was not crowded when we arrived at lunch time. As we sat next to the garden, AB listened to a recording of “Ryoanji”. I attempted to sketch to fill the time and distract myself from the continuous closing of camera shutters around me.
The flat garden style at Ryoan-ji is most accurately described as “hiraniwa,” a type of karesansui garden. A hiraniwa garden is bordered on three sides as it is meant to be seen from a single vantage. In addition to the gravel and stone, a hiraniwa garden can also feature trees and shrubs to create a depth of space.
At Ryoan-ji, the 15 rocks are clustered on patches of moss over a slightly tilted terrain. They are curiously positioned such that at least one rock is always hidden from the viewer.
Sennyu-ji + Imakumano Kanno-ji
Sennyu-ji was a mortuary temple for the former imperial court and several emperors and empresses were buried here. In spite of this and its proximity to Kyoto’s busy city centre, Sennyu-ji seldom comes up as a place to visit. Which makes it a great option for travellers who prefer places that are off the beaten track in Kyoto. It is also an excellent place for nature lovers because of its lush and hilly surrounds.
I wanted to visit Sennyu-ji 泉涌寺 because of Sei Shonagon. She is the author of The Pillow Book, a delightful compilation of musings and observations of Japanese court life in the eleventh century. A former lady-in-waiting, she is said to have retired to this temple after her empress fell from power during the Heian period.
The Buddhist temple is hidden in a forest in Kyoto’s eastern mountains. After walking for more than half an hour from our hotel, we followed a winding road up the mountain passing through a quiet residential area.
We didn’t know the exact location of the temple except that it was somewhere above us. After what felt like a mini hike, we came to a red bridge leading into a dense forest. I thought we had arrived at Sennyu-ji until I read the Kanji characters on the bridge: “今熊野”.
It turned out that we were at another temple, Imakumano Kanno-ji 今熊野観音寺 – which we later found out was a subtemple to Sennyu-ji. We crossed the bridge anyway. The surrounding vegetation was relatively unkempt compared to those at the other temples that we visited, which I found refreshing and charming. There was no one else around. It felt otherworldly as we strolled through the quiet graveyard where the moss-covered tombstones seemed to be encircling us. The main temple featured a statue of Kobo Daishi, the founder of the Shingon school of Japanese Buddhism.
We ventured onward for Sennyu-ji temple before the sun set. Alas, when we finally found it, preparations were underway for an event and we could not enter the main compound and its halls. Instead we wandered around the area and peeked into the area from an elevated vantage point.
Founded in 1339, Tenryu-ji 天龍寺 is one of Kyoto’s five great Zen temples. The shakkei-style garden – which incorporates the temple’s surrounding mountainous landscape – has not changed in 700 years.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site was the only temple we visited in Arashiyama. Even though it is the largest temple in Arashiyama and one of the most prominent, Tenryu-ji did not feel crowded and it was pleasant to walk around.
Surrounded by temples
We stayed at Kyoto Yoshimizu inn which is nestled in the woods at the top of the Maruyama park. With more than 2,000 temples and shrines in the city, it was not surprising that there were at least 20 temples and shrines within walking distance from the hotel. The nearest was the Yasaka Shrine 八坂神社, which is the major shrine of the Gion geisha district.
To avoid the crowds, we steered clear of famous places such as Kiyomizu-dera and Fushimi Inari Shrine. We happened to walk by the former and there was a sea of tourists at the entrance. Selfie sticks were abound as were foreign visitors in rental kimonos. I am sure that Kiyomizu-dera and the view from it would be impressive but we would not have enjoyed weaving our way through the crowd.
If you are looking for specific recommendations on iconic temples to visit in Kyoto, I would recommend the excellent InsiderKyoto.com online guide which provides insightful information on just about everywhere in the city. Ultimately, there are so many temples and shrines in Kyoto that you probably would not see all of them even if you were to stay in the city for a year!