Temple Tour of Kyoto

Kyoto is known for being able to let people get a glimpse into traditional Japanese life. It was the center of Japanese social and religious life for many years. The streets are lined with traditional buildings and temples from times gone by.

One of the most well known things to do in Kyoto is explore the many temples that are found in the eastern portion of the city. There are two main areas: the northern portion and the southern portion. These can be seen a variety of ways. Some people will split these areas between two days, but if you’re fast/over-achieving, you can squeeze them in to one day.

Notice the word “squeeze.”

Seeing both sections in one day will be like your skinny jeans after Christmas dinner.  A tight fit.

Also bring your walking shoes. The temples are close enough together that you can walk between them, but there are a lot of temples so its a lot of walking.

Things to keep in mind: All the temples will have an entrance fee, between 300 and 500 yen. Also they are temples. So this should go without saying but they are sacred places. Maybe not your sacred places, but still sacred nonetheless. You wouldn’t go running around screaming inside a European cathedral so don’t act different here. I only bring it up because there were a couple tourists I ran into that I would consider to be…acting rudely.

But if traveling has taught me one thing, its that people suck everywhere, so not really sure why I was surprised.

Most of the really famous temples are in the southern section, so if you’re worried about time start here.

I got up and made it to Shoren-in Temple when it first opened (9:30) and I was literally the only person there. This is one of the less visited temples but I personally thought it had some of the best gardens that I saw all day. Actually this often-skipped temple was one of my favorites. If you go you’ll most likely have the place to yourself.

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Gardens at Shoren-In

After Shoren-In turn right and walk down the road. It will be impossible to miss the huge gate going into Chion-in Temple. A massive complex made of many buildings this is one of the larger temples in Kyoto. When I was there the main building was covered in scaffolding though. I still got to walk up to the giant bell which is one of a kind in Kyoto.

Exit through the main gate and walk straight down the road, you’ll find yourself in a little park. Take a right in the park and walk into Yaska Jinja Shrine. Painted BRIGHT orange, it has many paper lanterns and even some bells you can ring yourself.

Walk a little ways up to Kodai-Ji Temple. Along your way there you can do the statue walk, this is where you touch different statues asking for help in different areas of your life. It is a cute idea and gives you some history about the statues in the surrounding neighborhood. Kodai-Ji is interesting as it backs up into a mountain side and lets you have a more surrounding view of the city.  Along with Kodai-ji you can make a visit to the World War II memorial. It’s a giant sandstone Buddha. Some of you are like “omg Laura how can you go to a memorial commemorating Japanese soldiers? We fought AGAINST Japan!” Okay well yes, but also they were still human beings with family and friends and stories all their own. There’s no such thing as a lesser human being.  Everyone should enjoy life–and death–with dignity.

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World War II Memorial

Moving on, it’s time to head to the main attraction (or at least the most famous attraction) Kiyomizudera Temple. Getting there though, was one of the highlights of my day. There are three streets, Ishibeikoji, Ninenzaka, and Sannenzaka, that are crowded with pre-war buildings. Its gives off an old-school Japanese vibe. The buildings now are tourist souvenir shops and tea houses. Lots of tourists in rented kimonos will be walking around trying to get a picture against the backdrop of the traditional buildings. Walk up along these streets to get to Kiyomizudera. Sannenzaka street is the featured photo in this post.

The temple is built right on the edge of the forest, which gives it almost a floating appearance. There is also special holy water you can wash your hands in and drink. Plus the lover’s stone. You close your eyes and walk  from one stone to another, if you succeed, congrats, you’ll find true love. If you walk past it, sorry you’ll never find true love. Kiyomizudera was by far the most crowded temple I visited all day. And to be perfectly honest, I don’t *really* understand why, I thought most of the places I had been that morning were just as–if not more–beautiful. It’s pretty high up on the mountain, so it does give you the best panoramic view of Kyoto city, but viewing Kyoto from above isn’t like super picturesque or anything.  There could be historical factors that I am overlooking though. I mean don’t get me wrong it’s nice…just not the nicest.

Connected to the temple is the brightly colored pagoda Tainai-Meguri, just up a quick hill. Once you have gotten your fill of this area catch a bus up to the northern part of the temples.

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Tainai -Meguri Pagoda

Start at Nanzen Temple, a huge complex with a larger gate which offers good views of the surrounding area. It also has Roman type aqueducts inside which is an interesting contrast to the the traditional Japanese architecture.

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Nanzen Temple

From Nanzen walk along the Path of Philosophy, a quiet stone path that follows a small canal in a quaint suburb of Kyoto. There are three big temples here, since I was running out of daylight (most temples close at 4:30) I had to pick two of the three. I chose Zenrinji and Higashiyama Jisho. The northern temples are spread out quite far so there’s more walking to do here.

I went to Zenrinji first, and it was probably my favorite of the day. A less visited temple, despite being a HUGE complex, I basically had the place to myself. Complete with intricately designed rock gardens, several huge gold altars and a pagoda, it is a beautiful place.  Also if you’re lucky you can see some monkeys in the surrounding trees.

I closed out my temple day with Higashiyama. Another super famous Kyoto temple. This was probably the second most crowded place I had been all day. Again I didn’t *really* understand why. It is a nice garden, but they didn’t even let you enter the buildings here. And like only a 10 minute walk away was Zenrinji, where they let you enter all the buildings. Plus it has a pagoda and super nice gardens. Again, there may be historical factors I am overlooking here, and it was nice but it was the movie Dunkirk for me. Fine. But I don’t get the hype.

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Zenrinji Gardens

I stayed at Higashiyama until they kicked me out at 5. Then I took a bus to Gion. This is another historical district of Kyoto and if you’re lucky, and I mean extremely lucky, you can see a real life geisha.

Well count me as extremely lucky because as soon as I stepped off the bus I basically ran head-on into a real geisha.

She was beautiful. I really mean that. Her make up was so smooth and there was not a hair out of place.

What disgusted me was the behavior of other people around me. People were SHOVING to get a look at her. And when they would get close they would then SHOVE their camera in her face. The poor girl looked terrified and I honestly don’t blame her.

Like get a grip people, she’s going to work, she’s not a zoo exhibit. I understand that geisha’s are a unique part of Japanese culture so when confronted with that uniqueness many people want to capture it…but there is a respectful way to do that. Screaming and shoving like a desperate paparazzi chasing down a drunk Lindsay Lohan is not the way to do it. Literally people started STAMPEDING down the street in her direction when they found out there was a geisha. The whole experience made me so uncomfortable.  I can only imagine how she felt.

I basically spent 2 seconds in Gion. And they were spent watching tourists from all parts of the world terrify a geisha. After that I was ready to go. It made me uncomfortable enough that I didn’t feel the need to stay any longer. I walked around a bit, took in the old buildings and the paper lanterns then headed back to downtown for dinner.

After dinner I got drinks with some hostel friends in a ‘British pub.’ They played weird 90s music and charged like $6 for a Bud Lite. I loved it. lol. After a long day and a late night I walked back to the hostel for my last full day in Japan.

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