A Cultural Travel and Expat Blog

How to Choose Your Kyoto Temples and Shrines

Posted By in Japan | 14 comments

How to Choose Your Kyoto Temples and Shrines

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.

kyoto temples and shrines

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

Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto

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.

view from Fushimi Inari Taisha, 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.

Kinkaku-ji  Temple

Kinkaku-ji  Temple, Kyoto

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.

Kinkaku-ji  Temple stone statues, Kyoto

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 Temple

Kiyomizudera Temple, Kyoto

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.

Kiyomizudera Temple, Kyoto

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?


  1. Vanessa May 16, 2013

    Thanks for sharing these! We're semi-planning a trip to Japan and Kyoto is almost top of the list. Love the pics and will definitely take your recommendations into account! 1600 might be just too much for us to handle too. 🙂
    My recent post Is Reverse Culture Shock Real?

    • waysofwanderers May 16, 2013

      Thanks! I'm sure you guys will love Japan. I hope you include Takayama on your list too – we can show you around :).

  2. Mike May 17, 2013

    Great article as they all are (i have been plowing through your archives)

    I was in Kyoto for the Cherry Blossoms this year and i totally agree its really tough and being there just for three days made it impossible – couldnt even get to Kinkaku-Ji which i really wanted to do.

    The question about what do you see in a city is a good one especially in Asia i find because there isnt always a massive amount of info on everything. My strategy at the moment is really to combine travel websites to get a list of ideas and then to search the idea to see what the overall view on it is – generally seems to be good most of the time but obviously a few time wasters creep in!

    How do you manage to plan your trips? Below is the link to my trip to Kyoto

    • waysofwanderers May 18, 2013

      Thanks, Mike! I think your strategy sounds pretty similar to mine. I tend to research using a lot of different sources. Maybe I'm biased, but I've been using other travel blogs more and more lately. If there's a place that I think I might like to see, it helps to read more personal accounts of it from other bloggers – I find that this gives me a good idea whether or not it's worth my time. I also try to have a day of just walking around if there's time – and then I just see what sites and places I come across that way.

  3. agnesstramp May 17, 2013

    Great tips Jess. We are going to Japan soon and we will be exploring some of the temples in Kyoto. There is always a struggle for us to know where we should start sightseeing from.

    • waysofwanderers May 18, 2013

      Thanks, Agness! Let me know when you guys are coming to Japan! Maybe we can meet up or at least share some tips!

    • waysofwanderers May 21, 2013

      Awesome ideas! Fortunately, we're only 5 hours away from Kyoto. It's no day-trip, but it's not so far that I can't go back and check out a few more places :).

  4. Nick May 22, 2013

    I love pictures of temples in Japan. After all of the temples in SEA they seem to be quite different from most. Very distinctively Japanese. The Japanese have this weird ability to make everything look tranquil somehow. It looks like you had a great time there!
    My recent post Tea, millipedes and the kindest man we ever met

    • waysofwanderers May 27, 2013

      Agreed! I was totally taken in by the atmosphere of the temples in Kyoto. There's a peaceful, simplicity about them that is really wonderful

  5. Andrea September 21, 2014

    Thanks for the tips Jessica, really helpful! I'm actually saving your post to read it again before my trip to Japan.
    Happy travels!

    • waysofwanderers September 22, 2014

      Thanks, Andrea! I'm glad it was helpful for you. You're going to love Japan :).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *