Where to Go Temple Hopping in Kyoto, Japan

Where to Go Temple Hopping in Kyoto, Japan

Narrowing down the popular city’s some 2,000 temples to its top five By: Jimmy Im
<p>Nanzen-ji is a complex of multiple temples. // © 2015 Creative Commons user <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/tmizo/5819087329/" title="tmizo"...

Nanzen-ji is a complex of multiple temples. // © 2015 Creative Commons user tmizo

Feature image (above): Kinkaku-ji has earned its nickname of Golden Pavilion, due to its gold leaf exterior. // © 2015 Creative Commons user napdsp

Fast Facts

Unlike Tokyo, Kyoto is compact and flat, which makes it incredibly bike-friendly. In fact, biking is the preferred mode of transportation for visitors. The Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto, which offers traditional pedal and advanced Haibike electric bikes for guests, has great routes with stops at the majority of the temples in town. Clients can go with a guide, a group or on your own.

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An iconic city in Japan, Kyoto has recently become the country’s most buzzing destination. According to municipal figures, it experienced a record 1.13 million foreign visitors in 2013, a 35 percent increase over 2012. 

Additionally, new hotels in Kyoto offer five-star luxury options for affluent travelers. The Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto opened last year as the first true luxury hotel in the city, and Four Seasons Kyoto is slated to begin welcoming guests in 2016. 

There’s no better time to visit Kyoto, which earned the title of top city in Asia by Conde Nast Traveler’s Readers’ Choice Awards in 2013, as well as top city in the world by Travel + Leisure in 2015. The city is chock-full of some 2,000 temples and shrines, which gives it a unique, ancient-meets-modern allure. 

Following are some of our favorite temples that your clients should add to their itineraries. 

Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)
Made completely out of gold leaf, this famous temple is the most visited in Kyoto. Kinkaku-ji, also known as Golden Pavilion and officially named Rokuon-ji, is not within the city center but is easy to get to by car (or a longer 30-minute bike ride).  

Originally built in the 14th century, the current gold leaf coat debuted in 1955. Throughout the day, the two-level Zen temple shines bright and casts a breathtaking reflection on the nearby pond. Simply gazing out from the other side of the pond is quite meditative. Arrive early to avoid the throng of tourists.

Almost any local or repeat visitor will tell you to visit Kiyomizu-dera, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and part of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto. Dating back to the eighth century as one of the oldest in Kyoto, the Buddhist temple is home to a “stage” set over the hillside with lovely views. There are several shrines, as well as a contagious sense of peace. 


This ancient Zen temple is one of the most popular in Kyoto, located right at the base of the Higashiyama mountain range. Massive in size, Nanzen-ji is a complex of multiple subtemples, which thankfully spreads out the packs of tourists.  

Constructed in the 13th century as a retirement villa for former emperor Kameyama, the temple is also one of the most visually exciting. There’s a centuries-old gate and a large, brick aqueduct that passes through the grounds. The gardens are gorgeous and, if you’re lucky, you might see a (harmless) garden snake. 


Sanjusangen-do (Hall of the Lotus King) is a great temple to visit if you want to avoid the crowds. Built in 1164, this Buddhist temple doesn’t look very impressive on the outside. However, once you enter, prepare to gape. Surrounding a giant statue of the main deity are about 1,000 life-size statues of the goddess Kannon (dating 800 years), each made of Japanese cypress clad in gold leaf.  


The ninth-century Tenryu-ji isn’t the most sought-after temple in Kyoto, but it has remarkably gorgeous gardens and a pond, as well as UNESCO World Heritage status. 

It also gives travelers another reason to head 20 minutes north — the first reason is typically Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, one of Kyoto’s most photographed attractions and located just steps away from Tenryu-ji. At the grove, visitors are flanked by tall, looming bamboo for one of the most serene and reflective moments they’ll experience in nature.