Disclaimer: I am pretty sure I read in a guidebook that Kyoto is the self-professed temple capital of Japan. Whether it actually has 1001 temples and shrines, I don’t know. What I do know is that a common affliction suffered by eager visitors to Kyoto is the insidious “temple burnout”, in which all temples begin to blend together into a ginormous blur (a super holy one, no doubt) and the sufferer is afflicted with utter apathy at the notion of seeing one more sacred spot. The likelihood of contracting temple burnout is greatly increased by prior exposure to Japan’s myriad temples and shrines prior to arriving in Kyoto. The only cure to temple burnout is to fastidiously avoid the temples and shrines for a few days, enjoying the city’s ample other charms, chased with a healthy dose of doing not much of anything at all.

I don’t know whether Tony & I were experiencing temple burnout when we arrived in Kyoto. Actually, I think we were experiencing a more generalized form of it‚ “travel burnout‚” given the breathless pace at which we had been speeding through Japan. The symptoms of travel burnout are similar to temple burnout except they are not limited to temples, and instead encompass pretty much any tourist-oriented activity you can think of. So, when we arrived in Kyoto and realized we had slated a whole week there, the sheer number of temples, shrines, parks and day trips gave us pause: even at the top of our game we would never be able to see them all. Kyoto is clearly a city that demands to be slowly savored, and I have no doubt that one could quite happily spend an entire year, if not an entire lifetime, exploring Kyoto and its rich cultural traditions and history.

On the grounds of Ryoanji

So, we did what any sane people would do and gave up the ghost: we realized that there was only so much we could do, even with a week in Kyoto. Rather than making ourselves miserable running around all willy-nilly trying to see all the things, we quickly decided we would much rather pick a few key things that we really wanted to see and spend time enjoying them and leave the rest to chance and whim. Crazy, I know! The rest would simply have to wait for another trip. And another trip there surely will be, because it didn’t take us very long to realize that although Kyoto seems forever overshadowed by the obvious glitz and glam of Tokyo, this was the city in Japan we would return to see again and again.

Consequently, I am sorry to report that I don’t actually have a breakdown and photos of 1000+ things for you to see in Kyoto (or do I?!? Read on to find out!). Instead, here are the temples and shrines that we deemed unmissable in Kyoto, travel burnout or no. Remember: quality not quantity!

SANJUSANGENDO

One of the colorful entry gates to the temple

Although not as popular as some of the other temples, Sanjusangendo is certainly worthy of your time. It boasts 1000 hand carved statues of the goddess of mercy, Kannon, plus one 6-foot tall statue of Kannon in the middle of the hall. (Hey what do you know! We did see 1001 sacred things in Kyoto!) Additionally, interspersed amongst the statues are the 28 Japanese deities who are believed to protect the Buddhist universe. It’s truly an awe-inspiring site to walk into the hall and see these statues stretch out in row upon row, almost as far as your eye can see. Alas, no pictures are allowed in this sacred space, but I doubt that a photograph could capture the majesty of them all regardless.

It was hard to believe that the imposing and magnificent building we shuffled through in our socked feet had been originally constructed back in the 10th century! The temple was first completed in 1164, but was largely lost to a fire (of course! This is Japan after all!) in 1249, only to be rebuilt in 1266. Approximately 120 of the statues date back to the original temple, and the remainder were commissioned in the 14th century. Whichever way you slice it, the statues and the temple are old, and walking through the hall is akin to entering a slightly higher plane.

Bad fortunes left in hopes that they will not come true

As you can imagine, any complex housing that many religious icons is not only an incredibly reverent place, but must also be ridiculously large.
The hall with all the statues stretches 120 meters (393 feet) in length, and the temple’s name was taken from the fact that there are 33 (or in Japanese: san ju san) bays between the pillars within the hall. The length of the hall is so impressive that back in the olden days, the outside walkway was the site of an archery tournament where competitors would shoot from one end of the building in order to hit a sacred cloth target pinned at the other end. The goal was to hit the target as many times as possible within a given timeframe, with the longest period lasting an entire 24 hours!

The view outside sansusangendo where the archery contest took place. Photographs inside were strictly prohibited

On our trip to Sanjusangendo, we also picked Tony up a special souvenir for our time in Japan. At many temples throughout Japan you can purchase a book called a goshuin, which is essentially like a little passport that you bring with you to shrines and temples. You can then pay a small amount (generally 300 – 500Y) to have a person at the shrine/temple notarize your book, indicating the date of your visit. These goshuin were traditionally the mark of pilgrims as the seal in the book provided proof that you had indeed visited a given temple or shrine and made an offering there. Although we are not religious, given Tony’s love of artisanal books and calligraphy, this was the perfect souvenir for him (though of course the completist in him rued all the temples and shrines we had visited prior to purchasing a goshuin). Ah well, I suppose this is as good an excuse as any to return to Japan!

KINKAKUJI

Kinkakuji. So photogenic

From one of Kyoto’s most obscure temples we move to ostensibly its most famous, kinkakuji, or in English: the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. No trip to Kyoto would be complete without a visit to this stunning site. As fans of the Yukio Mishima novel that provides a fictionalized account of the mentally disturbed monk who burned the temple to the ground in 1950, this was one of the places in Japan that I was most excited for Tony to see. The current, perched in the middle of a picturesque pond,  was rebuilt in 1955, and given its fraught past, the gold leaf that now covers it from peak to base seems almost as defiant as it is dazzling. Situating the pavilion within the pond is really a stroke of brilliance (pun intended?) as admires can enjoy the pavilion twice, marveling at the structure itself as well as its magnificent reflection upon the softly rippling waves of the water.

The gold is dazzling

We managed to arrive at kinkakuji within minutes of it opening, so we thankfully got to experience the temple and surrounding grounds in relative peace and quiet. While the pavilion is obviously the star attraction, the surrounding temple grounds are some of the prettiest and most photogenic you will see in Japan.

Tony did feel a bit let down by our overall experience at kinkakuji. Unlike other temples where you have plenty of space to roam and can avoid the crowds if you wish, the path through this complex keeps you pretty tightly roped in, and at times it does feel a bit like you are cattle being herded through. Tony also felt ambushed by the pavilion, as you stumble upon it pretty much immediately after entering the complex. You enter the gates, turn a corner, and WHAM! There it is, sitting smack dab in front of you in all its glory. Given the way Mishima’s book romanticizes the temple, I suppose Tony was expecting a bit more foreplay before the climax. Still, there is no denying just how exquisite the pavilion is, and there is good reason why it remains one of the mandatory stops for any visitor to Kyoto.

RYOANJI

So many rocks. Still, it was very tranquil

Not far from Kinkakuji sits Roanji, a zen temple that is famed for its rock garden. Our friend L’Ell’s father calls this his favorite garden in all of Japan, and seeing as he is not a man who tosses his approval around lightly, we dutifully made our way there.

The rock garden at ryoanji is famous because it is comprised of 15 stones, about which many legends have been spun. Some claim that the scene depicted is of a mother tiger carrying her cub across a stream, whereas others say that the garden is meant to do nothing other than encourage thoughtful contemplation. So the story goes, if you are able to sit in one spot and view all 15 stones from that position, then you will have reached enlightenment (the garden has been designed so that from the seated position, you can generally only see 13 or 14 of the stones concurrently). These days, it is hard to imagine anyone reaching clarity of thought at ryoanji, because although the rock garden is very lovely and attempts have obviously been made to ensure the space is tranquil, the swarms of visitors make it anything but. Yes, there are signs telling people to turn of their phones, people talk SO MUCH while at ryoanji that it is hard to hear yourself think. Instead you are far more likely to enjoy the garden with a constant soundtrack of people trying their very best to count to 15. Perhaps if we had not paired ryoanji with kinkakuji on the same sightseeing day we would have better luck, as I suspect this is place that is best visited as soon as the gates open so that a few minutes of peace and quiet can be had.

A beautiful pond filled with lilies and koi

All is not lost, however, because there is more to ryoanji than its rock garden. As everyone flocked there, we took some time to be charmed by the beautiful lily pond that sits near the entrance of the ground. It is exceedingly lovely and exudes the serenity that is hard to achieve at the rock garden, and the entire setting is very much like a painting brought to life.

FUSHIMI INARI

Thousands of torii
An inari

I am pretty sure that the popularity of fushimi inari with foreign tourists can be traced back to the film Memoirs of a Geisha, in which the tori-lined pathways prominently featured and captured the imaginations of millions. To be honest, I don’t know how many people  bother to actually make their way up the mountain to reach the shrine, as it seems most people (including ourselves) come merely to see the tori. The bright vermilion of these gates blazes against the forest that surrounds them, and each one is inscribed with the name of the individual or corporation who donated the money for it. The size of the tori is correlated with the amount of the donation, so it’s fair to say that several of the tori you pass under are staggering in more ways than one.

A cat in a temple devoted to foxes. Must be rough

We had been finding our time in Kyoto to largely offer a respite from the pervasive humidity we had experienced almost everywhere else in Japan, but our luck ended on the day we visited fushimi inari. Even in the cool of the forest, the air was thick and sultry, and with the many visitors clogging up the torii like globs of fat in a hardened artery, the path felt far too close for us to make it all the way to the top. We wandered for about 20 minutes until the torii began to thin, and then made our way back down. Apparently those with the constitution to persevere to the end of the path are rewarded with an expansive view of Kyoto, but we contented ourselves by picking up some black sesame gelato topped with a swirl of tofu ice cream and called it a day!

The tofu ice cream was weird and also delicious


This is definitely not an exhaustive list of temples and shrines to see in Kyoto; we know we missed some of the big boys like Nijojomae (we managed to try to visit during the one month during the year when it is closed on Tuesdays), Ginkakuji (Temple of the Silver Pavilion), along with dozens more. But given how we were feeling (and the fact that most temples in Kyoto have an admission fee, meaning temple overdosing can be harmful to the wallet as well as the spirit), we are happy with those that we did see, and now we have ample excuse to return one day. Plus, as you’ll see in our next few posts, we still managed to keep ourselves busy outside of the temples by simply strolling the streets of Kyoto, searching for geisha, taking a few daytrips to the outskirts of the city, and of course, eating plenty of food!

 

Written by: Stephenie Harrison


In another life, I moved from Toronto, Canada to Nashville, TN to pursue my doctoral degree in Psychology. That chapter of my life is now finished, but I did earn the right to demand you call me Dr. Steph (though I respond just as well to plain old Steph). I am an avid reader whose book collection is rivaled only by my many pairs of cute shoes. I also like to knit, hold impromptu karaoke parties, and try new and unusual foods. Generally not all at the same time. I also really love to learn languages, which may explain why I took 3 years of Latin in highschool. I'm turning over a new leaf, so instead of looking forward, I'm going to work on enjoying the present, so the country I'm most looking forward to is whichever one we're in right now!

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Read comments (21)

  1. October 11, 2012 at 8:42 am
    Oct. 11, '12

    I heard upwards of 3k temples in Kyoto – I think we saw like 10 lol. Second most of these though, seems like you hit the biggies.
    Dave recently posted..Getting Off The Beaten Path And Hiking In Busan

    • October 12, 2012 at 7:17 pm
      Oct. 12, '12

      I wouldn’t be surprised if they really did have over 3000 temples! I am happy with the four big ones we saw! 😉

  2. October 11, 2012 at 9:13 am
    Oct. 11, '12

    Lovely. This is just all so picturesque. Kyoto seems much more my style than Tokyo.
    jenn aka the picky girl recently posted..Comment on Notes from the Classroom: Curating by Joanna Hennon

    • October 12, 2012 at 7:18 pm
      Oct. 12, '12

      It was definitely more our style! It’s still a big city, but it feels like it is more in touch with its roots and its past than Tokyo. There was definitely more to see and do here that was in line with how we wanted to spend our time.

  3. October 11, 2012 at 9:24 am
    Oct. 11, '12

    Yay Kyoto! And Fushimi Inari! I’ve wanted to visit there for ages; I love foxes. Kij Johnson’s The Fox Woman is an excellent read set in Japan, fyi. 🙂 Anyway, this is definitely the part of Japan I’m most interested in, and I can’t wait for more posts about it.

    My mom and I had to do the same ‘quality v quantity’ thing in Mexico City: it’s insane how many museums, historic sights, markets, etc. the city has. Even visiting all of the famous murals would keep you busy for over a week. Although at least it’s closer to home, so we could comfort ourselves knowing we could come back!
    Eva recently posted..The Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed (thoughts)

    • October 12, 2012 at 7:21 pm
      Oct. 12, '12

      Thank you for the book rec! I will have to see if I can find an electronic copy, and will certainly check it out!

      And I am really glad that when we hit Kyoto, we were able to make our peace and just see things here and there that we really wanted rather than rushing around like crazy people getting all grumpy as we crammed our days full of sightseeing. I think on a regular vacation I’d have the stamina for that, but after 2 weeks of travel already, I needed to just slow down and enjoying being there. We knew pretty quickly that we would want to come back to Japan and come back to Kyoto, so that helped!

  4. October 11, 2012 at 9:27 pm
    Oct. 11, '12

    They’re all so beautiful! But I totally get the burnout. When I was backpacking through Europe (aeons ago), my roommate and I started referring to museums as AFM…another fucking museum.
    softdrink recently posted..American Psycho

    • October 12, 2012 at 7:22 pm
      Oct. 12, '12

      Yeah, museums are often my kryptonite (along with hiking, it would appear… apparently I am a finicky traveler!) so much like temples, I have to space those out as well. I have no idea what will happen when we make it to Europe, museum capital of the world, as Tony is a huge art junky. I suspect we’ll be brushing up on our compromising skills! 😉

  5. October 12, 2012 at 5:43 am
    Oct. 12, '12

    Gorgeous photos! We had a similar experience of “temple burnout” visiting Chiang Mai, Thailand last weekend. They are all very lovely, but I can only appreciate so many in one day! Good for you for focusing on just a few – I’m always more satisfied by thoroughly exploring a couple of places, rather than rushing through a whole bunch just so I can check them off the list.
    Jessica recently posted..I’m Not Your Tourist Attraction

    • October 12, 2012 at 7:24 pm
      Oct. 12, '12

      I think this time in Japan was a good precursor to Thailand, because I know it’s got temples galore. I think now we’ll be a lot more happier just picking a few that look or sound neat, but not feeling like each one requires a mandatory stop!

  6. October 12, 2012 at 6:21 am
    Oct. 12, '12

    I’ve just spent a lovely time browsing all your Japanese travel photos (sorry – not sure how I managed to not subscribe to your travel blog before now) and they brought back so many happy memories. You seem to have visited the same sites as me. I remember the deer in Miyajima trying to eat me, the sadness of Hiroshima and temple burnout in Kyoto. I look forward to following the rest of your trip. Enjoy!

    • October 12, 2012 at 7:25 pm
      Oct. 12, '12

      Thanks for commenting, Jackie! I really need to write a post over at S&TI! reminding people we have left on our trip and are now blogging here!

      So glad to hear that our posts are bringing back good memories of your own time in Japan, and I am glad to have you along for the rest of the ride! 🙂

  7. October 13, 2012 at 8:12 pm
    Oct. 13, '12

    Ohhhh Kyoto, I love you so! I went to the same places you guys did, and had the same ice cream at Fushimi Inari! I have a video of me running through the torii like Chiyo in Memoirs of a Geisha…so tacky, but I loved it and luckily the shrine was pretty deserted that day 🙂
    Rika @ Cubicle Throwdown recently posted..Roatan Month 2 Roundup

    • October 14, 2012 at 8:48 am
      Oct. 14, '12

      Alas, too many people at fushimi inari the day we visited to reenact any scenes from Memoirs, but I don’t begrudge you your tacky moment one bit!

  8. October 14, 2012 at 1:13 am
    Oct. 14, '12

    I was in Kyoto for a couple of days and was Temple hopping continuously!! The Golden Pavilion was the highlight, surely!!
    Wonderful captures as usual 🙂
    Arti recently posted..Meiji Jingu Shrine In Tokyo: A Walk In Peace

    • October 14, 2012 at 8:49 am
      Oct. 14, '12

      I think it’s probably impossible to take a bad picture of the Golden Pavilion, but it certainly proved an inspiring subject for both Tony & myself… I think that together we took more than 50 pictures of it! 😉

  9. October 16, 2012 at 6:06 pm
    Oct. 16, '12

    Oh yes! I know the feeling of temple burnout only too well! I’m in Cusco now suffering from an overload of sacred sites and travel exhaustion. Instead of running like a headless chicken through the sacred valley, I decided to take it easy before the big trek to Machu Picchu. Best decision I ever made!
    Arianwen recently posted..Otavalo market: an 8-hour round trip to buy a bag!

    • October 16, 2012 at 7:12 pm
      Oct. 16, '12

      I don’t generally associate South America with rampant temple-going, but now that you mention it, I’m sure temple burnout is alive and well there too! It sounds like you made exactly the right choice, as you’d want to be at the top of your game when visiting Machu Pichu. After all the effort involved, it would be awful to feel the place was just like any other!

  10. October 18, 2012 at 3:34 am
    Oct. 18, '12

    Hi Steph!

    Your post is written way better than Lonely Planet guide on Kyoto! Nice, very interesting. It makes me wanna go there now! I love the temples the most and the ice cream of course (don’t forget I’m a food lover :-D). These temples remind me of China a lot, maybe they are smaller than Chinese and less red 🙂 hihi- that’s my first impression.

    I love your photos and the way you describe Kyoto- it’s more interesting than most of travel guide, honestly.

    Happy travel girl! Keep being awesome.

    Best of luck,

    Agness
    Agness/ etramping.com recently posted..Culinary Journey in Bangkok on the Cheap (>$10)

    • October 20, 2012 at 7:57 am
      Oct. 20, '12

      Agnes, thank you for your amazingly kind comment! So nice to hear that you are enjoying the writing here and that you are getting good information and feeling inspired!

      We didn’t see tons of temples in China, but I do think there is a good deal of overlap between them and their Japanese counterparts. The big difference is, as you say, the color! Japanese temples tend to be very simple in their decoration (save for Golden Pavilion!), whereas Chinese temples are very colourful!

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