The temples and shrines of Kyoto

Byodo-in Temple in Uji, Kyoto.

The capital of Japan for over 1,000 years, a place with around 2000 temples and shrines, the birthplace of the geisha, host of the Gion Matsuri, the most famous festival of Japan as well as the Aoi Matsuri and the Jidai Matsuri, and a city that narrowly escaped mass destruction by the atomic bomb in 1945. Kyoto is undoubtably a place filled with exciting history. The Kanjis for Kyoto: ‘京都’ literally translate to old capital, but despite its age Kyoto is one of the best preserved cities in Japan.

There is so much to say about Kyoto, but I thought today I would focus on the city’s temples and shrines. As mentioned above around 2000 religious places can be found in Kyoto. Buddhism and Shintoism are the two main religions in Japan and roughly 80% of the cities temples are Buddhist with 20% being Shinto shrines. The abundance of these specifically in Kyoto is surely due to its status as ancient capital, but the fact that so many are still intact today is largely thanks to the fact that Kyoto did not suffer large scale destruction during the Second World War. While Kyoto had been on the American atomic bomb list, it was removed to preserve the cultural heritage of the city.

Kinkakuji Temple

Just as a clarification: temples are usually Buddhist, while shrines are part of Shinto worship. Both Buddhism and Shintoism are practiced actively in Japan, so temples and shrines are frequented not only by tourist, but first and foremost by worshippers. Great efforts are made to care for the temples and shrines as cultural and religious heritage of the country.

The centuries that Kyoto was the imperial center of the country resulted in it becoming a cultural and religious center as well as the center of government. Though the capital and with it the imperial government was moved to Tokyo as part of the Meji restoration in the 19th century, Kyoto has retained its traditional, culturally rich and historic character. The old imperial palace can be visited, a relic of the city’s past.

Ginkakuji Temple hidden behind trees.

Amongst the most famous temples in Kyoto are Kiyomizu-dera, Kinkaku-ji, Ginkaku-ji and Ryoan-ji. Amongst the most famous shrines in Kyoto are Yasaka shrine, Heian shrine, Shimogamo-jinja and Fushimi Inari Taisha.  Shrines are usually easily distinguishable from temples by the large usually vermillion coloured torii gates, and a general abundance of orange and red colours. Temples are usually wooden and adorned with wood carvings and curved roofs.

When you first come to Kyoto you will most likely come across Yasaka Shrine first, as it is the biggest shrine in Kyoto and located quite centrally. You will also most likely want to visit Kinkakuji or ‘the golden temple’ famous because of  its gold plated facade.

Yasaka Shrine

There are so many temples and shrines in Kyoto that you will not be able to visit them all. Depending on whether you want to visit a big or a small temple, a popular shrine or one that is less well known, there is plenty to choose from. Personally, I like Yasaka Shrine because of its location and the fact that it is always lively and busy (I was even lucky enough to catch a Shinto wedding ceremony being held there), Ryoan-ji temple for its calm and serene ambience and Ginkakuji for its lovely garden and grounds.