The girl behind the guesthouse desk pulled out a city map. “Where do you want to go first?” she asked. I fumbled through my purse, trying to find my sightseeing notes. “Mmm”, I mumbled distractedly as I searched, “…that uh…really big temple…nearby”. I hadn’t meant for that to be the end of my description, but she laughed anyway: “I’m not sure which one you mean. There are a lot of temples in Kyoto”.
“A lot” is kind of an understatement considering that there are over 1600 temples and shrines in Kyoto. Some people had told me that visiting Kyoto was an enriching exploration of Japanese culture, while others described their trip as a frustrating schlep between dozens of monuments that all ended up blurring together anyway.
I really wanted to like Kyoto, and it seemed like this meant being decisive about which temples and shrines I would plan to see, and letting go of the many others that I would miss. Personally, I can only take in 1 or 2 temples and shrines per day before I stop appreciating them at the level that I want to. That number probably seems pretty low when held up against most Kyoto sightseeing itineraries, but I would rather get enthused about a few places than drag myself to dozens.
So how did I make a choice among thousands of temples and shrines? I considered what kinds of qualities would make a place really stand out to me. Did I want to see the most famous temples and shrines? Or maybe the ones with the most historical significance? Or the ones that are off the usual tourist track? When I thought about it, I decided that I really wanted to see the most beautiful and unique places that I could find. Here are a few of my picks:
Fushimi Inari Taisha
The Fushimi Inari Shrine was one of the few places in Kyoto that I had heard of before I started researching local attractions. The network of paths behind the main shrine take you up a mountain, passing under thousands of closely-set, bright vermilion-coloured torii, which are traditional gates found in Shinto shrines.
It takes about 2 hours to follow the path all the way to the top of Mount Inari. You can turn back at any point, but I think it’s worth walking for about 30 minutes to reach the Yotsutsuji intersection and see the view over Kyoto.
I decided to walk past the Yotsutsuji intersection, and I noticed that the number of other walkers dropped off significantly. At the risk of sounding like one of those hypocritical tourists who hates other tourists, it was kind of nice to walk through these quieter paths without the distraction of loud groups and other tourists clamoring to snap photos.
I decided to use UNESCO World Heritage designation to narrow my list down further. By definition, World Heritage sites “represent a masterpiece of human creative genius”, so it seemed like a reasonable way to decide which of Kyoto’s 1000s of temples and shrines would be particularly exceptional.Seventeen of Kyoto’s temples and shrines comprise the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage site, and Kinkaku-ji Temple is among them. As soon as I saw photos of the Golden Pavilion covered in shimmering gold leaf, surrounded by gardens and overlooking a lake, I knew that I wanted to include this place on my list. And it didn’t disappoint.
I was lucky enough to visit on a relatively sunny day, so I could see the pavilion’s reflection in the appropriately named, Mirror Pond, and it was easy to spend hours strolling around the gardens after I had seen the Golden Pavilion. I spent a while in front of some small stone statues where visitors can toss coins for good luck.
Kiyomizu-dera is also a World Heritage site, it’s one of the most visited temples in Kyoto, and it just happened to be a 10 minute walk away from my guesthouse, so it was a logical inclusion. The main hall of Kiyomizu-dera looks like it’s gently sinking into the forest below.
Beyond the main hall is the Jishu Shrine, which is dedicated to “the Japanese god of love and good matches”. In front of the shrine are two large stones placed 18 meters apart. Supposedly, those who are able to walk from one stone to the other, with their eyes closed, will have good luck in finding a love. There’s a certain amount of chaos created by dozens of girls launching themselves out into the crowd of tourists with their eyes firmly shut, but it’s too endearing to be annoying.
The streets of the Higashiyama District, which lead up to the temple are almost as interesting as Kiyomizu-dera itself. These busy, narrow streets are densely lined with restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops selling local pottery and sweets. And it seemed like every other shop was selling soft-serve green tea ice cream, which was definitely a bonus.
Ultimately, Kyoto is a place where you can’t allow yourself to get caught up in the common tourist fear of “missing out”, or not seeing everything there is to see. In a place with so many “must-see” attractions, I think it’s important to save yourself the stress of trying to see too much, and instead, focus on enjoying a handful of places that seem special to you.
I’ve shared my Kyoto picks, now I want to know what yours are!
What are some of your favourite Kyoto temples and shrines? How do you decide which tourist sites to visit in a city?