At one time the capital of Japan, Kyoto sits on the island of Honshu and is surrounded on three sides by majestic mountains. A place where the seasons are infinitely definable and where various blossoms dominate the landscape in predictable succession, year in and year out, there are so many things to do in Kyoto, particularly if you want to experience the Japanese lifestyle.
A Spiritual Place
Kyoto is home to countless Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, each with its own particular personality but all with the same respectful mood that inspires contemplation among all who visit them. For some visitors, the emphasis is on worship and paying respects. However for others, it’s about the stunning gardens or the impressive architecture.
Characterised by a ‘sanmon’ gate where you may show your respect by saying a little prayer before entering, temples are places for the storage and display of sacred objects for Buddhists. Travellers often erroneously think that they are like churches where a congregation goes to worship. Buddhists do pray at their temples, usually in front of or close to the sacred objects, but it is not the main reason for being.
Characterised by a ‘torii’ entrance gate, there is a purification fountain where visitors take one of the provided ladles, scoop up some fresh water and rinse their hands with it. The water is not for drinking. If you intend on saying prayers, then you would do this at the altar where you would firstly place a coin in the offertory box, bow deeply twice, clap your hands together two times, bow again once more and then continue to pray for a short time. You may even ring the gong once if there is one nearby.
Protocol to observe at Kyoto’s temples
There are certain things you must not do when visiting the temples in Kyoto, or anywhere else in Japan for that matter. There are also things you should do, in order to demonstrate your respect:
- Always remove your shoes before entering temples, shrines and other cultural buildings and place them neatly out of the way.
- Avoid making excessive noise. In fact, if you can remain silent, this is preferable.
- Do not take photos inside temples, shrines or other religious buildings. Even if signs are not posted, you should refrain as it considered highly disrespectful to capture images inside sacred places.
- Do not eat or drink anything inside these buildings, including sipping from a water bottle. You should only do so when outside.
- Never touch anything you don’t need to touch such as decorations, hanging lattices or other fittings. They are often quite fragile or may be very old. If you don’t need to touch something, simply don’t.
- If you decide to participate in prayer or worship in a temple, do as others around you are doing. You will probably observe others putting their hands together while praying and it is appropriate for you to do so too.
- In a Shinto shrine, the deity will be enshrined in the main building where an offertory box may be positioned for donations. When you put money into it, you ring the bell and offer a quiet prayer. Worshippers then stand up straight and continue praying then, clap their hands together twice before continuing to pray.
Must-see Kyoto temples
Depending on your tastes and spiritual inclinations, there are different temples for different people:
- Kiyomizu-dera Temple – With spectacular views across all of Kyoto, Kiyomizu-dera goes against everything typically expected of a traditional temple. It’s quite bustling and crowded with gaudy decoration including a colourful painted entrance gate and pagoda, and is also rather commercialised with the sale of fortunes and amulets available onsite. Four million annual visitors can’t be wrong about its designation as a must-see Kyoto temple!
- Chionin Temple – Features the staircase that was used in Tom Cruise’s 2003 movie The Last Samurai and a 70-ton bell which is rung on New Year’s Eve each year by a specially-selected team of 17 monks who use their own body weight on the ropes to swing the clanger.
- Tenryu-ji Temple – Kyoto’s finest gardens and glorious views of the surrounding mountains will greet you when you arrive at Tenryu-ji. The ‘pond-stroll’ garden was designed centuries ago by Muso Soseki, aka the Most Reverend Priest Muso who lived from 1275 to 1351. Spend an entire day exploring waterfalls, stone bridges, bamboo groves, islets and roofed passageways, all incredibly beautiful and soul-enriching.
Must-see Kyoto shrines
From Japan’s most historically important to a rock to which visitors attach their relationship wishes, Kyoto shrines vary dramatically. Here are three.
- Kamigamo-jinja Shrine – Although it is one of Japan’s most historically significant shrines, it is also one of the least visited by tourists in Kyoto, and therein lies part of its charm. Tranquil and aesthetically stunning, it is frequently the scene for traditional weddings on weekends. Visit in spring to see the cherry blossoms in full glory.
- Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine – Said by many to be the most spectacular sight to visit in Kyoto, it is also the city’s most important shrine. More of a pilgrimage up the mountainside than a mere tourist bus stop, international travellers are advised to read up on it before visiting to truly comprehend its significance to the Japanese.
- Yasui-Konpiragu – For those wishing to end bad relationships and initiate good ones, Yasui-Konpiragu offers the ‘power stone monument’ for such prayers 24 hours a day. Shaped like a votive tablet, it stands at 1.5 metres high and 3 metres wide and a crack in the middle allows the power of good to pour through it. Visitors write wishes on Katashiro (substitution charms) and stick them to the stone. It is also suggested that visitors enter the main inner sanctuary.
Book in Advance so you don’t miss out
Like most other tourist destinations, you can book ahead for many things to do in Kyoto and even pay online. Equipped with good travel insurance*, you needn’t be concerned if your plans are cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances as your expenses will usually be covered. Be sure to check your policy’s PDS before making any concrete plans.
Today we have just scratched the surface of the countless Kyoto temples and shrines you could visit, in the hopes of inspiring you to further explore what to see and do while you’re there. Whether you are religious or not, it can never hurt to say a quiet prayer of thanks and you’ll almost surely feel compelled to do so in the majestic surroundings you’ll visit.