Kyoto’s Beautiful Sanctuaries: The City's Top 5 Photogenic Temples

Kyoto’s Beautiful Sanctuaries: The City's Top 5 Photogenic Temples
| 5 min read

Formerly the Imperial capital of Japan for more than one thousand years, Kyoto delights the modern world with its preservation of culture. Home to more than 1,000 Buddhist temples, there is no other opportune destination to immerse in the peace that the place of worship gifts. However, before your trip turns into a blur-of-days where each temple visit appears homogeneous, here is a recommended list of temples that will not tire you with their especial charms. Featuring beautiful landscapes and architecture, get ready to take Instagram-worthy photos of Kyoto’s top 5 photogenic temples.

1. Chishaku-in Temple

150124 Chishakuin Kyoto Japan01s3
Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user 663highland used under CC BY 2.5

At first glance, Chishaku-in Temple may look like an ordinary beauty – carrying ethereal paintings and pond-view gardens which perfume the temple with the sweet scent of flowers. However, upon closer observation, Chishaku-in Temple is arguably the best when it comes to delighting your optical senses.

One of the most photogenic temples in Kyoto, and conveniently located just minutes away from the Shichijo station, it is surprising that this temple has escaped the crowds’ radar. But that’s undeniably good news as you’ll be free to revel in the peaceful nature of the temple and take intriguing-optical-illusions photos, all people-free!

Through the adept manipulation of scale and perspective, you would find yourself feeling like the protagonist from Alice in Wonderland in that scene when she plunges down into the rabbit hole. From the illusion of deep space created in the southern section of the garden to a vision of an infinite river, Chishaku-in tastefully combines architecture and landscapes to bring a surreal experience for visitors.

While the temple’s buildings and gardens were destroyed by a fire in 1947, the survival of Chishaku-in’s outline and stone arrangement retains the temple’s distinctive aura. Featuring paintings of maples, hollyhock, pine and cherry trees painted by artist Tohaku Hasegawa and his son Kyuzo, and Insho Domoto’s elaborate fusuma, the art pieces which date back to 1682 bring out the adulated tranquility of the temple.

Chishaku-in Temple

Address: 964 Higashi-kawaramachi, Higashi-oji Nanajo-sagaru, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto City

Opening Hours: 9.00AM - 4.00PM

Admission Fee: Free for Temple Grounds / 500 JPY (4.68 USD) for Treasure Museum and Garden

Contact: 075-541-5361

2. Sanzen-in Temple

Sanzen-in 三千院 (KYOTO-JAPAN) (4950791861)
Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Chi King used under CC BY 2.0

One of the main attractions of the rural town of Ohara, Sanzen-in is a Tendai school monzeki temple in Kyoto. Featuring large temple grounds, this national treasure satisfies you with a breath-taking journey of the temple and its surrounding landscapes.

As you enter the temple, the Kyakuden (guest hall) enthralls you with the extensive display of Japanese calligraphy and paintings on fusuma. The building then opens up to the Shuhekien Garden where you are free to appreciate the beauty of the traditional Japanese garden, accompanied by a picturesque small pond and hill.

The main attraction, just a corridor away, is the Shinden (main hall) where there is a display of three Buddhist deities and, more breathtakingly, the famous view of Sanzen-In Temple – one where you see the Ojo Gokuraku-in Hall, built in 985 through the warm, rich hues of maple and cedar trees across a moss garden.

Venerated as one of the best autumn viewing spots in all of Kyoto, the temple’s beauty is definitely at its peak during the autumn months. Take a walk through the moss garden itself and surround yourself with the stunning nature of Sanzen-in.

Sanzen-in Temple

Address: 540 Ohararaikoincho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 601-1242, Japan

Opening Hours: 9.00AM - 5.30PM (March - November) / 9.00AM - 4.30PM (December - February)

Admission Fee: 700 JPY (6.55 USD)

Contact: 075-744-2531

3. To-ji Temple

Toji Temple Blossoms
Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Robert Young used under CC BY 2.0

Ask about the symbol of Kyoto, and many will point you to the To-ji Temple. Just a 15-minutes’ walk from Kyoto Station, the temple is hard to miss with its five-story pagoda peaking at 54.8m (180 feet) high, making it the tallest wooden tower in Japan.

One of Kyoto’s UNESCO world heritage sites, this Buddhist temple of the Shingon sect in Kyoto once stood along the Sai-ji, another temple, with the purpose to protect the nation’s people together. The crowds of visitors are a testament to the temple’s popularity. And you just need to step in to witness the magnificence of To-ji.

Boasting intricate details like the Buddhist pictures and motifs that decorate the temple’s pillars and walls to the pagoda’s majestic architecture, the temple stuns you with its long-standing beauty and tradition.

However, it is the vigour of the people that brings the temple to life. As they floor the traditional Japanese garden or engage in animated chatter, the energy diffuses into the temple and even the residential carps and turtles seem more enthused.

When you are done with the architecture’s marvel, the temple continues to delight you with plenty of things to see and do.

If you happen to visit on the 21st of the month, don’t be too astonished to see around 300,000 pilgrims coming here to pray for good health for the Yakushi Nyorai, the Medicine Buddha, which is the temple’s principal image. The Kobo-san Market is also set up on the temple grounds on the same day, so prepare to fight the crowds or feast in the movement of people.

To-ji Temple

Address: 1 Kujocho, Minami Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 601-8473, Japan

Opening Hours: 8.30AM - 5.30PM / 8.30AM - 4.30PM (mid September - mid March)

Admission Fee: 500 JPY (4.68 USD) / 800 JPY (7.48 USD) during special openings of the pagoda

4. Hosen-in Temple

Source: Photo by Flickr user Chris Gladis used under CC BY-ND 2.0

Perhaps it is the timber from Fushimi Castle in the ceiling of its corridor, or maybe it’s the Goyo-no-matsu, the 700-year-old pine tree that stands in the temple’s garden. Whatever it is, there is no denying that the Hosen-in Temple spells serene throughout.

Experience time slowing to a standstill and surrender yourself to the peace of the small, quiet temple. However, don’t let the humbleness of the temple fool you. The 800-year-old beauty actually features one of the most scenic sights you will find of a temple.

Make yourself comfortable in the large tatami-matted room as you enjoy your complimentary Matcha tea and cake. The unrivalled beauty of the picturesque garden is right in front. Adore the view of the garden resplendent with the pine tree and growing shrubs – where the foliage of the tree is said to resemble that of Mount Fuji. Complete with the backdrop of Kyoto’s mountains, the full-length windows offer you a beautiful view at all times; nature and light working like magic together.

Pay attention to the surroundings and learn a thing or two. Like the Chi-tenjo ceiling which features bloodstained tiles from the Fushimi Castle siege where 300 defenders committed suicide. Feel like a witness to all of the temple’s time and history, and leave carrying much more.

Hosen-In Temple

Address: 187 Ohara Shorinincho, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto 601-1241, Kyoto Prefecture

Opening Hours: 9.00AM - 5.00PM

Admission Fee: 800 JPY (7.48 USD)

Contact: 75-744-2409

5. Ryoan-ji Temple

Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Fg2 used under PUBLIC DOMAIN

Originally an aristocrat’s villa during the Heian Period (794 to 1185), Ryoan-ji Temple is listed as one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Other than the panoramic views of the commodious parks, the temple entices visitors with a different charm.

You may start out curious – why is a rectangular plot of 15 rocks surrounded by low earthen walls the main attraction? However there is truly more than meets the eye. Regarded as Japan’s most famous rock garden, Ryoan-ji Temple’s rock garden sees a design where one rock is always hidden from the viewer at any vantage point. It is said that only after one attains enlightenment, then can the 15th rock be seen.

Hundreds of visitors come to visit this attraction every day, so come in the morning to avoid the crowd. Alternatively, take a languid stroll along the walking trails and discover quaint finds like a pond that dates back to the time when the site still served as an aristocrat’s villa.

Just like the koan, zen riddle of the rock garden, Ryoan-ji Temple surprises you with its enigmatic qualities.

Ryoan-ji Temple

Address: 13 Ryoanji Goryonoshitacho, Ukyo Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 616-8001, Japan

Opening Hours: 8.00AM - 5.00PM (March - November) / 8.30AM - 4.30AM (December - February)

Admission Fee: 500 JPY (4.68 USD)

Kyoto's quietude

It is no question that a visit to Kyoto is incomplete if you do not visit the temples. From the bigger, tourist attractions to the smaller, more local oriented ones, there is a temple for every taste and character. Build your trip around Kyoto’s temples and refill your energy levels in its tranquil nature. Travelling no longer means hurrying to get everything done.

Disclosure: Trip101 selects the listings in our articles independently. Some of the listings in this article contain affiliate links.

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Megan is an ardent writer, eater and sleeper. Studying communication studies at Nanyang Technological University, she is rewarded with learning every day in school and at work. She believes...Read more

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