The Higashiyama region of Kyoto has more shrines and temples than I can possibly count — and certainly more than the average visitor can manage in a day. If you do them thoroughly, gardens and museum artwork and all, you’ll be lucky to make it through just two or three in a morning. So either plan to spend a lot of time in this area, or choose your destinations carefully.
My mother, sister and I started our day at Nanzen-ji, a Zen Buddhist temple tucked right up against the hills of eastern Kyoto.
Originally founded in its current location in 1291, Nanzen-ji underwent an unfortunate series of burning and rebuilding over the course of the next three centuries. But it’s had plenty of time to develop and settle since then. It is now famous for its sliding doors, drawn 16th century …
… and the garden of the hojo, considered one of the most remarkable examples of a Zen rock garden in Japan:
There are actually several rock gardens on site:
Just behind Nanzen-ji is an aqueduct built in the late 1800s to carry water to Kyoto from a nearby lake:
If you walk up the path behind Nanzen-ji, you’ll soon reach the small but lovely Saisho-in sub-temple.
It’s well worth a stop for the peacefulness — you’re likely to have the place all to yourself …
… and for the poetry:
Shrines and temples come in all shapes and sizes in Kyoto. We found this tiny modern shrine — no larger than my bedroom — in the twists of a back alley:
A fifteen-minute walk south brought us to Shoren-in, which might have been our favorite temple of the day. We loved the painted screens inside …
… especially the frogs that matched my mom’s shirt!
But the garden here was the real stunner.
The focal point of the garden is pond…
… at the center of which sits a large stone that is said to resemble the back of a bathing dragon:
Our brochure also directed us to admire a “straight line-shaped natural stone” basin, “filled with valiant atmosphere” (and also filled with cherry petals, to our delight) …
… and this stone bridge, “Koryu-no-hashi, made of two granites” and “designed with innovative ideas”:
You can also see the cherry blossoms in bloom …
… and go for a walk up through the bamboo forest behind the temple …
… which will lead you to a view of the whole temple complex:
All in all, Shoren-in is a pretty special place.
The next temple on our adventure was Chion-in, which our guidebook called the Vatican of Pure Land Buddhism.
The main temple building felt a bit large and impersonal to us (it probably didn’t help that it was closed for repairs). But we were charmed by the smaller temple complex just behind it.
Climb up, up, up the stairs beyond …
… and you’ll find a pair of small buildings that are well worth the hike.
One of these smaller temples houses this worship space:
We loved the little drums lined up all in a row:
We were also rewarded with a view out over the city from this spot:
If you need more reasons to visit, the grounds of Chion-in are home to the largest temple bell in all of Japan (created in 1633 and weighing in at 74 tons) …… and a small pagoda, which was lovely (though it didn’t really fit the rest of the temple’s aesthetic):
All in all, this is an impressive place — and while it’s more about grandeur than serenity, I think that’s the point.
We very much enjoyed our next visit to Kodai-ji, a temple founded in 1605 by a wealthy noblewoman in memory of her late husband. It’s famous for its garden, which was designed by a well-known seventeenth century landscape architect.
Though many of the buildings of Kodai-ji were destroyed in a fire in 1789, extensive rebuilding brought the complex back to life in the 1800s.
And there are still remnants of the original complex, from paintings on the walls and ceiling of Founder’s Hall …
… to an old teahouse that was designed by a famous tea master of the sixteenth century:
Kodai-ji also offers great spots for people to dress up as geishas and have their pictures taken (side note: there are dozens of places in Kyoto where you can rent geisha costumes, have your hair done, and go out on the town for a not-insignificant sum):
You’ll find temples and shrines without even planning to as you continue your walk south. You might run into this pagoda …
… or this one:
This latter pagoda is part of the Hokanji Temple, probably one of the most-photographed spots in town.
And then there’s Yasaka Koshindo, the shrine of the hanging monkeys. Here, worshippers buy small monkey dolls (which have their hands and feet bound to represent the taming of desire), write wishes on them, and hang them up for good fortune. We didn’t seek this shrine out — we just passed by the colorful gates …
… and couldn’t resist stopping in to see what was inside, where we were greeted with hundreds of little monkey balls:
Going to this many temples in one day is exhausting, but we decided to forge on and visit just one more: the famous Kiyomizu-dera. This giant Buddhist temple, built high up in the hills (without any nails at all) in 1633, is crowded with tourists — and with good reason.
This is a sprawling, beautiful temple complex. Unfortunately, the main temple — famous for its balcony that juts straight out over the cliffs — is entirely covered in dark brown tarps as they work on a restoration project. So you can’t really get a sense of the true majesty of the place right now. But you can admire this wonderful pagoda …
… and all of its wonderful architectural details:
There’s a lot to see here — there are prayers bells to ring, and long lines leading to fountains where you can purify yourself with spring water, and shrines where devotees can offer prayers (or, in my case, take photographs) …
… and a pond where you can see the pagoda reflected in the water between the fallen cherry blossoms:
I’ll have to say that we were thoroughly exhausted by the time we reached Kiyomizu-dera, so we did not give this temple its full due (we opted out of a number of the walking paths). But I will note that if you’re lucky enough to be here at sunset …
… you can watch the sun go down far across the city of Kyoto!