Origami Guides: Ranking the Top 30 Shrines and Temples in Kyoto
With over 1,600 shrines and temples to choose from, how many sites can a traveller realistically include in her itinerary? And how does she narrow down her list?
To help with that, we've put together a ranking of the top 30 temples and shrines that we’ve personally been to - from the least to most impressive - during our year long stay in Kyoto. For a three day trip, we recommend visiting 4-6 shrines/temples total (or a maximum of 2 a day) to avoid cultural burnout.
The Underwhelming 7
Places that are widely hyped but fail to deliver for one reason or another
30. Kyoto Tower (“Holy Tourist Trap, Batman!”)
This is not a shrine or temple, but makes the list because you should never, ever, ever, come here. There are better, cheaper, and more interesting views of Kyoto from other places on this list.
29. Nijo Castle ("The Very Pregnable Castle")
Also not a temple, but easily the least impressive and most penetrable castle that we’ve seen in all of Japan.
28. Ginkaku-ji (“The Brown Temple”)
The ‘Silver Temple’ is in reality, brown and unfinished so we’ve renamed it thus. The original plan had been to cover its exterior with silver foil a la the Golden Temple. Alas, war broke out and this blatant attempt at plagiarism was 'foiled.'
27. Iwashimizu Hachimangu Shrine ("The Suburban Temple”)
This shrine was simply not remarkable enough to justify a 30-45 minute trip down to the Southern Kyoto suburbs.
26. Chion-In (“The Drive-by Photo-Op”)
The only draw was the massive Sanmon gate right at the entrance. Snap a picture and wave to it as you sail by on your way to better uses of your time.
25. To-ji (“The Convenient Pagoda”)
Earns its nickname due to its proximity to Kyoto Station, making it the default stop for tourists arriving from Osaka or Tokyo by train. In our opinion, To-ji doesn't even have the most impressive pagoda in Kyoto (that would be in Ninna-ji).
24. Ryoan-ji (“The Pet Rocks”)
We know it’s all very Zen and profound, but to the unenlightened, it just looked like people were paying $6 for the privilege of counting to 15 (i.e. the number of rocks in this rock garden).
The Obligatory Visits
Shrines and temples that evoke major FOMO (“fear of missing out”) but are really not all that
23 & 22. Kamigamo & Shimogamo Shrines (“The Obligatory UNESCO Twins”)
The Kamo Shrines are the two oldest shrines in the city, having been around before Kyoto was even the capital. There’s also nothing remarkable about them.
21. Kinkaku-ji (“The Obligatory Instagram”)
We’re probably not going to sell anyone on this, since The Golden Temple is one of the city’s most iconic images. We’ve probably taken people here a half dozen times, and each time was just as underwhelming as the last.
20. Kiyomizu Dera (“The Obligatory Crowd Surf”)
Perhaps we’re being unfair here. We do enjoy Kiyomizu-dera, but only under the right circumstances (i.e. absent the crowd). And since there’s almost always a mountain of people, we try to stay away from the place. If you must, buy your tickets 45 minutes to an hour before closing time.
For Fall Colors
Fall foliage or momiji is an underrated spectacle in Kyoto. Come for the light-ups after dark as mountains are set ablaze by color. Best time to visit is during the last two weeks of November.
19. Kiyomizu Dera (again)
The autumn light-ups are the only time of the year when we would willingly crowdsurf our way to Kiyomizu.
18. Kodai-ji (Downtown Kyoto)
For those with limited time and are unable to venture too far out of downtown, Kodai-ji is just an easy walk away.
17. Nanzen-ji (Western Kyoto)
It boasts a rock garden, a pond garden, and a freaking aqueduct, all surrounded by the fall foliage of Higashiyama (East Mountain).
16. Eikando Zenrin-ji (Western Kyoto)
Just north of Nanzen-ji, this place houses 3,000 maple trees, which makes for a pretty epic autumn illumination show.
For Cherry Blossoms
Best time to visit is during the first two weeks of April.
15. Daigo-ji (Southern Kyoto)
The classic pick. Where the warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi held his own cherry blossom viewing.
14. Maruyama Park (Downtown Kyoto)
The popular pick (and the most crowded). Families set up tables and mats here for an old fashioned picnic.
13. Ninna-ji (Northern Kyoto)
The trees here tend to be the last to bloom in Kyoto, making it one of the best places to see cherry blossoms towards the end of April.
12. Philosopher’s Path (Western Kyoto)
Walk under a constant shower of blossoms as fallen petals are borne away by the river.
11. Hirano Shrine (Northern Kyoto)
An underrated local favorite. Admission is free.
For Special Festivals
These temples and shrines host events on specific dates or months
10. Kyoto Imperial Palace (Aoi Festival: May 15)
As of summer of 2016, advance reservations are no longer required to see the Imperial Palace grounds. It’s also the starting point for the (very formal) Aoi Festival parade on May 15.
9. Yasaka Shrine (Gion Festival: Month of July)
Gion Festival is a time when locals really let loose and head outdoors to enjoy the Kyoto summer in all its hot and humid glory. Yasaka Shrine is at the epicenter of this month-long party.
8. Heian Shrine (Jidai Festival: October 22)
Travel back in time as you follow a costumed procession from every period in Japanese history as they travel from the Imperial Palace to Heian Shrine.
The Underrated Gems
Places that the average tourist ignores
7. Kitano Tenmangu Shrine (“The Plum Blossom Temple”)
Procrastinating students pray for divine intervention before exams. But the real treat happens every year on February 25th when the plum trees are in full bloom, as the shrine hosts a tea ceremony attended by most of the geishas and maikos in the city.
6. Kokedera Saiho-ji (“The Moss Temple”)
Largely ignored by your average tourist due to its requirement of advance reservations made by snail mail (in 2016!). Thankfully, there are services (in English) that can take care of that for you.
The All-Season Top 5
Our all-around favorite Kyoto experiences.
5. Enryaku-ji (“A Solemn View”)
Reachable by cable car up the side of Mt. Hiei, Enryaku-ji provides a truly 360 degree view of the city of Kyoto on one side and Lake Biwa on the other. This temple wasn't built for tourists. The monks at the monastery are too busy being hardcore.
4. Adashino Nenbutsu-ji (“Temple of Death”)
8,000 Buddhist moss-covered statuettes built to honor the souls of the dead.
3. Otagi Nenbutsu-ji (“Temple of Life”)
The cheerful cousin to Adashino Nenbutsu-ji. Filled with hundreds of quirky statues with unique facial expressions and personalities.
2. Senko-ji (“Ivan & Jennie’s Secret Temple”)
This is the place we were most reluctant to share. This off the beaten path temple in Arashiyama offers a breathtaking view of Kyoto by way of a remote hiking trail up the mountain.
1. Fushimi Inari Shrine (“The Orange Gates”)
The only tourist hotspot that completely lives up to the hype. Open 24 hours a day. We’d highly recommend visiting after dark for an eery (and unforgettable) experience.