Kyoto: the city of a thousand temples

I have no clue if anyone says this about Kyoto but after 3 days I can confirm that we’ve passed by hundreds of temples and we didn’t even visit half of Kyoto districts. 6 temples really stood out and these are the ones I’ll talk about below. There are surely many more worth your time, but we didn’t want to race through each temple and miss their unique atmosphere and scenery.

It’s a bit unclear to us what is a buddhist temple vs a shinto shrine in Kyoto. While in Tokyo the difference between the two was very clear, here in Kyoto we see shinto signs on buddhist temples and vice versa.

When Japanese people are born, they are registered at the shinto shrine, and when they die they get a buddhist funeral, so I guess it doesn’t really matter – actually it matters a lot, but I just don’t understand how it works exactly. Gomen nasai!

Chion-In

This temple is impressive for many reasons. Its entrance building first, and the size of its main building, which unfortunately was under renovation when we visited. The temple also features two gardens, and while the first one is really beautiful and elaborate, the second one is pretty pointless. The temple visit is free and you will only need to pay for the gardens.

What I really liked here is that the temple is pretty much alive with several ceremonies going on in parallel, including one where foreigners were welcome. A nice introduction toJōdo Shū, the Pure Land Sect’s Japanese form of buddhism. Also don’t miss the gigantic bell on the right side of the park, it’s the biggest I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen my share of temples in Asia.

Kyomizudera-Ji

This temple is completely different from Chion-in. It is composed of mostly red-orangey buildings and a large pagoda from which you overlook the whole city. The view is fantastic, especially at sunset, just before the temple closes.

I’ve never seen such a concentration of dressed up Japanese people, there were dozens of them taking pictures amidst the cherry trees. The grounds around the temple are planted with these, which apart from the beauty of the buildings itself explains the crowds. I read that it’s the most visited temple in Kyoto, but don’t be afraid of the crowds, be there when it opens and when it closes and it’s quite ok. Don’t expect to be alone though at hanami season 🙂

Fushimi Inari Taisha

Fushimi Inari, named after the God of Rice Inari, is one of those places you know from the tourist guides. Still, a visit to Fushimi Inari shrine is a must when in Kyoto, as it’s not just a hypnotic and strange sight, but also a nice health walk along a mountain path, up and down again.

You realize the importance of Fushimi Inari when you understand that each tori has been paid for by devout Japanese people or companies. It also hosts many tombs. Kitsune the fox who serves as messenger for the Gods is omnipresent at Fushimi Inari. You can play with the kids at spotting all the fox representations, they’ll be busy for a couple of hours at least :-).

We didn’t walk all the way up the mountain because Fushimi was our first stop on our last day in Kyoto and we knew we had a whole day of biking ahead of us… Yes, we got cold feet! But you always need a good excuse to come back to a place you liked, so this is our excuse.

Kinkaku-Ji

It started raining when we wanted to visit the Golden pavilion so we didn’t get the chance to see it, because three other temples had caught our attention too much before that. One of them was the Silver pavilion and especially its zen garden full of moss and elaborate sand sculptures.

You cannot visit the building itself, so will have more time to enjoy the garden. See for yourself:

Ryoan-Ji

There is probably no point in presenting Ryoan-Ji. If you have seen pictures of Japan, or have visited Japan, it’s quite probably you already know what Ryoan-Ji looks like, or to be more precise, what its dry zen garden looks like.

It is famous because of the way it is designed: the 15 rocks represent islands which symbolize Japan, but at the same time it also represents nature without using a single tree or grass. From wherever you look at the garden, you will never see more than 14 rocks at a time, one always remains hidden.

While I really liked this intellectual exercise, I found that the experience of looking at the dry garden, with all the noisy tourists around us, was not up to my expectations. It is also too mineral for me, I like it better when there is moss or at least some vegetation.

Ninna-Ji

I kept the best for the end, so if you are still around, this temple might come as a surprise to you. It’s not in all tourist guides and has been recommended to us by a Japanese friend who loves Kyoto.

Do pay for the entrance to visit the parts inside, they are interesting and give you access to a wonderful zen garden. At one point the terrace gives way to a pool and a small waterfall, and if you sit down in this precise spot, you will feel a warm energy. It’s a great spot to meditate. We were surrounded by people respectful of the place, mostly older people, and also painters. The pond and surroundings are in the shape of a 3-dimensional infinity-shaped loop, which means the energy keeps on circulating in the landscape. I could have stayed there for hours…

If you’ve had enough of temples, do try the old streets of Kyoto or take a train to close-by Saga-Arashiyama  where you will experience nature away from the busy city life.

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