How many temples is too many?
Our trip to Kyoto somehow ended up being consumed by temples and shrines. In large part this is because there’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site listing for Kyoto that includes 17 different historic monuments, most of which are religious buildings. As you may know, Ben and I are fond of ticking World Heritage Sites off around the world (cf. Singapore Botanic Gardens, Ainokura, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and Himeji Castle. Japan in particular has lots to see according to UNESCO). Temples also happen to be recommended highly on places like TripAdvisor, which I find an excellent guide for figuring out what might be worthwhile to visit.
At any rate: several of them were truly extraordinary and I would recommend them to others in a heartbeat. But I also learned a valuable lesson: too many leads to “temple fatigue”: an increasingly apathetic response to beautiful pagodas, torii, statues, bridges, zen gardens etc. in direct proportion to increased exposure to said features, particularly over a short period of time. (Not strictly a real condition, but felt very strongly by Ben and me nevertheless!).
So how many is too many? I guess that’s different for each individual. I’ve decided that in writing this post I’m going to be more discerning than I was in our itinerary and only focus on my top three temples/shrines. Supplemented with my favourite non-religious sights from Kyoto too…
Top Three Kyoto Temples and Shrines
1. Fushimi Inari Shinto Shrine
This shrine is number one on Tripadvisor (they advertise the fact on flags at the entrance) and I can see why. From the main shrine at the bottom of the mountain, countless orange torii snake up Mount Inari. It’s really something special. There are plenty of selfie-takers you’ll have to weave around to start with, but most of these folks aren’t in it for the long haul so if you’re inclined to climb all the way to the top (as we were), you’ll be rewarded with photo opportunities aplenty. It’s quite the climb though, and really wore me out! I’m glad we did it, but I’ll warn you that there’s not much to see at the very top. A shrine, and signs to say “top of the mountain” but that’s it.
2. Daisenin (a sub-temple of Daitokuji Buddhist Temple)
Admission: 400 yen
Apologies for the lack of photos here! I knew in advance that photography wasn’t allowed at this little temple but from what I’d heard it seemed a worthwhile visit. Besides, as much as I love to capture places through a lens, sometimes I think I can become too preoccupied with getting a good shot and stop really being “present”. We took an information board at the entrance, which effectively constituted a self-guided tour. It contained so many details about the symbolism and images represented in the rock garden. Within rocks, gravel and plants lay representations of water, animals and islands. We were captivated. I doubt we could have experienced the garden so fully had we been focussed on our viewfinders!
3. The Golden Pavilion / Kinkakuji Buddhist Temple
Admission: 400 yen
This shining beacon of a pavilion is a magnet for tourists (us among them) and rightly so. It’s magnificent to behold even when you have to crane around many other heads just as in awe as you are (see crowds above!). When the sun hits it… just wow. Besides the building itself there’s actually very little to see, and sadly you can’t actually get inside. The surrounding stroll garden is pleasant, but nothing outstanding, so you’re really paying just to join the crowd and admire that gilded exterior. But if you’re anything like me, the beauty of it is enough that that’s still worthwhile!
Beyond the temples:
1) Higashiyama District
This historic area with picturesque wooden buildings lining the streets is perfect for strolling around and window shopping. We began our morning at Kiyomizudera temple and then wandered on foot down Sannenzaka, Ninenzaka and then on to Nene-no-Michi Lane. I’m not sure what I enjoyed more, the photogenic streets and shop fronts or browsing what was inside the shops. There were so many beautiful items on display – dangerous when you’re backpacking and trying to keep your belongings to a minimum! If you’re after souvenirs of Japan, I’d definitely recommend looking in some of the shops in Higashiyama.
Getting there: We used our JR passes and caught the Sagano Line to Saga-Arashiyama Station, which was a short walk to the Togetsukyo Bridge and the central shopping area. For other means of transport see Japan Guide.
West of Kyoto is Arashiyama, famous for its towering bamboo grove. We spent half a day there, beginning with a short climb up Mount Arashiyama to reach Iwatayama Monkey Park and some wonderful views over the city.
Iwatayama Monkey Park
Admission: 550 yen (food for feeding the monkeys costs 100 yen per bag, I think)
I’m averse to zoos and other settings where animals are caged or enclosed, but I was pleased to discover that in this park the many gorgeous macaque monkeys roam free, coming and going as they like to the area open to the public. In fact if a person wants to feed them they have to enter a cage like area! In this way the macaques know that they will be fed from one area, meaning they won’t seek food from bystanders in other places. Obviously there’s no guarantee you’ll avoid attention from them, though. At one point, an adorable baby macaque grabbed onto an American lady’s leg with earnest. See above right!
After this we visited Tenryuji (more temples!!) and then went on to the bamboo grove. I had really high expectations for this area. I imagined a large, dense forest, full of bamboo trees through which you could meander and get lost. Turns out it’s a very small grove, you can’t enter the bamboo area (there are fences either side of the path) and it’s packed with people taking photos. (I shouldn’t complain – I was one of those people!) If you raise your eyes to the sky you can just about block that out, though, and soak up the impressiveness of the sky-scraping plants.
3) Nijo Castle
Another World Heritage Site. We visited Nijo Castle on our last day in Kyoto, just before catching a train to Nara. It was also my birthday, and a rainy one at that!
Although not a “must see”, I found it gave intriguing insights into life in a Japanese castle. It wasn’t as beautiful on the outside as Himeji Castle, but the interior was far superior in my opinion. Elegant wall paintings, mannequins and objects brought rooms to life or demonstrated their functions. Naturally photos weren’t permitted inside, so I can’t share any of those details here!
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you visited Kyoto before? What were your highlights?