Kyoto’s Hidden Gems

Kyoto is blessed with having  a seemingly endless supply of temples and shrines, and yet it seems all the tourists congregate around the most famous 10 or 15 temples in the city. While it makes sense that everyone would want to see Fushimi Inari or the golden temple (Kinkakuji), it sadly makes visiting those popular sites less pleasant. The congested temple grounds heave under the weight of tourists who swarm these places like a colony of ants.

Rather than following the standard circuit of popular temples, below is a list of quieter shrines you can visit and enjoy without having to fight for your space.

 

Gio-Ji Temple (Arashiyama)

Giou-ji is a very small temple with the most beautiful moss garden. photo credit: Giou-ji 祇王寺 via photopin (license)
Gio-ji is a very small temple with the most beautiful moss garden.
photo credit: Giou-ji 祇王寺 via photopin (license)

Gio-ji is a small unassuming temple with no magnificent structure to speak of. What it does offer is the most beautiful and luxurious moss garden. Inside the temple is a statue of Dainichi Nyorai, the Buddha of Light. The temple ground is especially beautiful in autumn, when bursts of yellow, orange and red speckle the trees and stand in sharp contrast to the green moss. If you’re looking to escape the manic crowds in Arashiyama, then make sure to visit this wonderful temple.

 

Adashino Nembutsu-ji Temple (Arashiyama)

A graveyard with over 8000 Buddhist statues to symbolize the souls of the dead photo credit: Adashino Nenbutsu-ji Sento Kuyo Festival 2013 化野念仏寺の千灯供養 via photopin (license)
A graveyard with over 8000 Buddhist statues to symbolize the souls of the dead
photo credit: Adashino Nenbutsu-ji Sento Kuyo Festival 2013 化野念仏寺の千灯供養 via photopin (license)

Another temple in Arashiyama that’s off the beaten track is Adashino-Nembutsu-ji. This is a moving temple that commemorates the spirits of those who died without kin. The graveyard is filled with over 8000 Buddhist statues. As an added bonus in the back of the temple is a little bamboo grove. It’s a good place to take photos of a bamboo lined path without a ton of tourists in the picture.

 

Kodai-ji Temple (Gion)

Kodai-ji Temple has two beautiful gardens to explore. photo credit: Kodai-ji Temple Gardens via photopin (license)
Kodai-ji Temple has two beautiful gardens to explore.
photo credit: Kodai-ji Temple Gardens via photopin (license)

Only a 10 minute walk through the Higashiyama district and north of the famous Kiyomizudera Temple is the Kodai-ji Temple. This is a modern temple (it was rebuilt in 1912) that’s surrounded on its two sides by impressive gardens. The first is a rock garden consisting of a large field of raked gravel meant to represent the vast ocean. The other garden features a pond, man made hills, decorative rocks and beautiful pine and maple trees.
 


Yasui Konpiragu Shrine (Gion)

This stone structure is thought to bind good relationships closer and sever bad ones.
This stone structure is thought to bind good relationships closer and sever bad ones.

The Yasui Konpiragu Shrine is worth a visit if only see a strange stone that’s plastered with paper and has a hole in the middle of it. Legend has it that this stone can bind good relationships closer together and it also has the power to severe bad ones. The way it works is you take a piece of paper and write what you want (relationship wise) on it and paste it to the rock. If you want your relationship to get closer then you crawl through the rock front to back. If you’re looking to dump your honey then go back to front.

 

Chion-in Temple

Chion-in's massive Sanmon Gate
Chion-in’s massive Sanmon Gate

The Sanmon Gate, Chion-in’s main entrance, stands at 24 meters tall and 50 meters wide and is the largest wooden gate in Japan. This gate dates back to the early 1600’s. Past the gate are the temple’s main buildings. The Miedo Hall holds the temple’s principle object of worship; a statue of priest Honen. This temple also has a beautiful garden that was designed in the 1600s.

 

Tofukuji Temple

Rock Zen Garden in Tofukuji Temple photo credit: Tofukuji temple Kyoto via photopin (license)
A rock zen garden in Tofukuji temple
photo credit: Tofukuji temple Kyoto via photopin (license)

I’m adding Tofukuji temple to the list, just because I don’t feel its on many tourist’s radars. Most people visiting Fushimi Inari are unaware that this interesting temple is just down the street from it. Tofukuji is a large temple offering beautiful architecture, a lush green garden and an interesting zen rock garden. While technically not a hidden treasure, I feel like this temple slips under most people’s radars.