Enjoying Kyoto’s temples and shrines

As I’ve noted before, there are more than a thousand temples and shrines scattered throughout Kyoto. Before we came here, I didn’t think I’d be interested in visiting very many of them, but I’ve changed my mind on that. Each one is a little world unto itself. And since they are all over the city, they make Kyoto feel like a collection of small worlds, all self-contained yet still part of the community. Some of them are extensive, world-famous complexes that draw many tourists every day. Others are tucked into residential neighborhoods, apparently visited only by locals and those of us travelers lucky enough to happen upon them.

I have so many photos for this post, I’m grouping them into galleries. To inspect any individual photo at closer quarters, click an image and a manual slideshow will pop up. On the circular galleries, clicking will also bring up the photo caption, if there is one.


Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion) is one of the best-known temples in the city. It has an impressive Zen sand garden and a lovely walking path that goes up the hill behind the buildings. Like Kiyomizu-dera, which we visited a couple of weeks ago, Ginkaku-ji is a major tourist attraction and as such, the streets around it are bustling and lined with food stalls and souvenir shops. I shared a sketch from Ginkaku-ji in yesterday’s post.


Not to be confused with Ginkaku-ji, Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) is another of Kyoto’s famous temples. It is best known for the gold-leafed pavilion which gives the temple its nickname; however, locals I spoke to thought the pavilion a bit showy. It is set at the edge of a magnificent reflecting pond with little tree-dotted islands in it (they reminded me of Loch Eilt). For weeks I’d been looking at photos and postcards of this vista, but I still gasped when I saw it in person.

We decided to be properly touristy at Kinkaku-ji, taking refreshment at the tea shop on the grounds and buying a fortune from a machine.

Yasaka Shrine

This one we visited by accident, on our way from Gion (the famous geisha district) to Maruyama Park in search of cherry blossoms. I kept getting distracted by the shops in Gion, so by the time we reached the shrine and the park, the sun had set. We walked around the park for a bit, then exited through the shrine. I loved the lit-up lanterns. About a dozen food vendors had set up shop near the main gate; on our way out we bought two treats on sticks: grilled beef cubes in a savory sauce, and some sort of okonomiyaki crêpe, both delicious.


Kitano Tenman-gū Shrine

We walked through this shrine on our first weekend in Kyoto, when we saw the ume in full bloom. It’s a beautiful shrine, but I returned this time for the monthly flea market, always held on the 25th. There were booths and blankets set out on the streets all around the shrine, and vendors selling everything under the sun.

I had thought I might pick up some kimono fabric scraps, or even a kimono — there must have been thousands available, both secondhand and new. At one booth there were pretty secondhand kimono going for ¥500 apiece (just over US $5); at another large and very busy booth, you could buy a plastic bag for ¥1500 or 4000 (depending on size), and fill it with as many kimono as would fit. If we were going straight home from Kyoto I would probably have filled an extra suitcase! But instead I ended up buying two handmade, hand-dyed slouchy hats from a very nice woman who also gave me a postcard and a face cloth as a thanks for my purchase. “Welcome to Kyoto,” she said.

I saw more non-Asian people at this market than I’ve seen anywhere in Kyoto. I wonder where they hide themselves the rest of the time! As a pair of middle-aged women passed me I heard one murmur to her companion, “Well, I’ve hit saturation point.” Truth. I was going to pick up some food at one of the vendors but by the time I finished browsing I was too overwhelmed to even consider it. I ended up catching a bus for home, sitting for a few minutes at the foot of Funaoka-yama, and then relaxing with a good lunch and my journal at Sarasa (if I really lived in Kyoto I’d be a regular at that cafe!).


Ryōan-ji is in the western part of Kyoto, just a short bus ride from Kinkaku-ji. According to Wikipedia, the name means “The Temple of the Dragon at Peace.” Isn’t that cool? The temple is a UNESCO Heritage Site and home to the most famous Zen rock garden in the city.

I found the Zen garden utterly fantastic and made four sketches in an attempt to depict its spirit. Two of my new friends came over tonight and expressed deep approval of the first of these sketches. One of them gestured at the negative space between the rocks and said something like, “This no-paint is Zen.”

You view the garden from a raised wooden platform, an extension of the building behind. Although there’s a buffer pavement between the garden and the platform, there are signs indicating that it is not permitted to step down. At one point while sketching, one of my pens fell from my purse and skittered across the pavement to land just outside the raked gravel. I momentarily stopped breathing and it felt as if everyone else did too. The guy next to me moved reflexively to pick it up, but then froze, turning his head toward the “do not step down” sign. I felt compelled to turn my gaze toward it too. Then the guy decided he might as well go for it, and stepped quickly down to retrieve the marker and return it to me. I said “Arigatogozaimasu,” he nodded almost perfunctorily, and then moments later reseated himself at a new spot several feet away from me. I felt that he had decided I was a danger! Anyway, I was very grateful that he had done the deed for me — being a foreigner makes me ultra-conscious of any type of transgression, however small.

After I finished my sketches, I walked through the gift shop area and was interested to note several other artistic depictions of the garden.  

The rest of the temple grounds, while less famous than the rock garden, is nothing to sneeze at either.

Last temple in this post: Ninna-ji

Ninna-ji is a short walk from Ryōan-ji, but that puts it far enough off the beaten track to be ignored by the tourists who throng around Ryōan-ji and its nearish-neighbor Kinkaku-ji. It is another UNESCO Heritage Site, with a massive main gate, a five-tiered pagoda, and relatively expansive grounds. The shinden (the main buildings, I think) creates a most beautiful and refreshing walk: after removing your shoes, you tread worn wooden boards beside rooms of painted screens and some amazing gardens. It is a wonderful place for quiet contemplation and enjoyment. (Also if you go on a cold day, as we did, you can meditate upon the chilliness of the wood underfoot.)