Kyoto is one of Japan’s best holiday destinations. The area is scenic with a rich history and tradition. When it comes to explore beautiful temples in Japan, Kyoto is hard to beat. In fact, it’s famous for its fascinating Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. While there are many modern sights to see, if you want to get a true taste of Kyoto, you should take the time to visit some of its amazing temples.

Each of the temple you see in this post can be discovered all year round. They are often considered the iconic landmarks of Kyoto, where impressive natural beauty including many National Treasures can be experienced.

Beautiful Kinkaku-ji! Photo Credit: Pedro Szekely at Flickr.

Kyoto has a real ability to surprise! Indeed, these must-see temples in Kyoto are not only historically and spiritually important places, but they have also had a major influence on Japanese art. They are well worth touring if you are in Kyoto and find a gap in your schedule.

Let’s begin the trip and see why you should visit these famous Buddhist temples when traveling around Kyoto!

1) Nanzen-ji Temple

The Sanmon of Nanzenji Temple. Photo Credit: 663highland at Wikimedia Commons.

This spectacular temple is one of the most important Zen temples in Japan. It is a very large complex with spacious grounds and dates back to the 13th century. It began as a retirement villa for a Japanese villa and was later converted to a Zen temple.

Its original buildings were destroyed in the civil wars of 1333-1573, but it has clearly since been rebuilt. Visitors enter the temple complex through the huge Sanmon (entrance gate) that towers above the treetops. Past the gate is the Hojo, the main hall of the temple, which is famous for its rock garden, where the rocks are said to look like a tiger and her cubs crossing through water.

Nanzenji Temple’s Pond Garden. Photo Credit: Hideyuki KAMON at Flickr.

There are many sub-temples in the complex, each notable for its design and lovely garden features. Nanzen-ji Temple is particularly attractive in the fall when the trees on the temple ground stake on their amazing fall coloration. Its Pond Garden in autumn look always breathtaking! Therefore, don’t you forget to pay a visit to the garden.

Access: Nanzen-ji is a 8-10 minute walk from Keage Station on the Subway Tozai Line.

2) Ginkaku-ji

Silver Pavilion or Kannonden at Ginkaku-ji. Photo Credit: Oilstreet at Wikimedia Commons.

Also called Silver Pavilion (a translation of its name), this Zen temple was originally the retirement home of a 15th century shogun. The shogun was obsessed with art, and even after the villa’s conversion into a temple, it remained a center of culture and the arts.

The gardens and path around the Silver Pavilion are open to guests, while the inside of the temple is not open to the public. There are many wonderful views of the Silver Pavilion along the circular path on the grounds, offering a look at the architecture of ancient Japan that is not seen in many other places.

Access: Ginkaku-ji is a 5-minute walk from Ginkaku-ji mae stop.

3) Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)

Kinkaku-ji during winter. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

This Zen temple is famous the world over for the way its top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. It overlooks a large pond and is a truly amazing sight, especially on sunny days against a clear blue sky.

It has been burned down and rebuilt several times, with the present structure dating back to 1955, though it has maintained its traditional look through every rebuilding. Every floor of the Golden Pavilion represents a different style of architecture. Once you have viewed the Golden Pavilion itself, take a stroll through its lovely well-tended gardens.

Access: Take Kyoto City Bus 205 from Kyoto Station, and then get off at Kinkaku-ji mae bus stop, from there it’s a few minutes’ walk.

4) Kiyomizudera Temple

Visitors can enjoy surrounding incredible vistas from the wooden stage at Kiyomizu-dera. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Kiyomizudera Temple is one of the most celebrated temples in Japan. Its name means “Pure Water Temple”. It gets its names from the Otowa Waterfall that it was founded near. It was added to the list of UNESCO world heritage sites in 1994.

Its tall wooden stage is a great place to view the autumn colors of the maple trees below and the spring blooms of the cherry trees nearby.

If you opt to view the rest of the grounds, be sure to take a drink from the streams of the Otowa Waterfall. Each of the streams is said to grant different benefits (longevity, success at school, and a fortunate love life) but drinking from all three is thought to be greedy, so choose wisely.

Access: Kiyomizudera is a 10 minute walk from Kiyomizu-michi bus stop.

5) Tofukuji Temple

Tofuku-ji temple’s fall foliage. Photo Credit: mrhayata at Flickr.

Founded in 1236, this large Zen temple is located in southeastern Kyoto. This temple complex is best known as one of the most spectacular places to view fall colors. The temple’s Tsutenkyo Bridge offers one of the best views. It is a 100-meter-long covered walkway that extends over a valley of maple trees.

The temple complex itself contains several buildings that date back to the period of civil wars and are some of the few surviving examples of the period’s architecture. Every garden in the temple has its own character, making a tour of the complex an amazing way to learn more about the mentality of Japanese Zen Buddhism.

Access: To reach the temple, visitors will have to walk less than a 10 minute from Tofukuji Station on the JR Nara Line.

6) Byodoin Temple

Byodoin Temple’s Paradise Garden in Kyoto. Photo Credit: SnippyHolloW at Flickr.

Byodoin Temple was built in 998 and was very influential on the design of later temples. It’s most spectacular building, however, was built in 1053 and is known as Phoenix Hall because of the two phoenix statues on its roof. Phoenix Hall is one of the few original structures on the grounds and one of the few to survive dating from the Heian Period of Japan’s history.

The unique underground treasure house contains a number of valuable artifacts, including a number of important cultural and national treasures. In the spring, the cherry trees on the grounds bloom and the already spectacular Phoenix Hall is an even more breathtaking sight.

Access: The temple is a 10-minute walk from Uji Station on the Keihan Uji Line.

7) Toji Temple

Toji’s Five Storied Pagoda and Cherry Blossoms! Photo Credit: Robert Young at Wikimedia Commons.

This temple was built shortly after the country’s capital was moved to Kyoto in the late 700s. It served as one the capital’s guardian temples. It is on the list of UNESCO world heritage sites. It is an amazing temple complex contains many beautiful buildings and hidden discoveries including the five storied pagoda of Toji.

On the 21st of every month, a flea market is held from early in the morning until the late afternoon. It features a number of new and used items, including antiques, as well as many places to get food. A smaller antique market is also found on the grounds on the first Sunday of every month.

Access:  Toji temple is a five minute walk from Toji Station on the Kintetsu Kyoto Line. Alternatively, it’s a 15 minute walk south-west of Kyoto Station.

8) Kurama-dera

In the fall, many tourists go to Kurama-dera to admire autumn foliage. Photo Credit: Kimon Berlin at Flickr.

Located north of Kyoto in a small town, Kurama, this beautiful temple was founded in the eighth century. There are many legends and myths surrounding its founding. Many believe the there are many local mountain spirits still living in the area.

It began as Buddhist temple but is now dedicated to more esoteric spiritual belief centered around nature. A visit to the temple will reveal why, especially in autumn, when the trees turn color.

Visitors can spend a lovely day in Kurama town by exploring the temple, and other interesting hot spring baths, and outdoor activities like hiking and trekking.

Access: 2-3 minute walk from Kurama Station

9) Ninnaji Temple

The five storied pagoda of Ninnaji. Photo Credit: 663highland at Wikimedia Commons.

Another UNESCO world heritage site, this Buddhist temple was founded in 888 and it is the head temple of the Omuro School of the Shingon Sect of Buddhism. None of the buildings are original, but many dates back to the 1600s. Please note Ninnaji is one of the most popular hanami spots in Kyoto.

The graceful buildings and lovely gardens are amazing any time of year, though especially in autumn when the maple trees change color and in spring when the cherry blossoms bloom. Often it’s regarded that winter is also an ideal time to visit the temple. Why?! From the Goten Palace, visitors can experience a tranquil atmosphere of the snowy weather and the picturesque five-storied pagoda of the temple.

Access: Ninnaji temple is a 10-minute walk west of Ryoanji Temple.

10) Ryoanji Temple

Pink sakura and the rock garden of Ryoanji. Photo Credit: Didier Moïse at Wikimedia Commons.

Build in Muromachi Period (late 14th-16th century), Ryoanji is quite famous for its rock garden. This temple is one of the historic monuments of Ancient Koyo where visitors can enjoy the views of the rock garden including cherry blossoms in the spring, and autumn leaves in the fall.

The garden consists of 15 rocks of different shape and size that were places into a bed of white gravel and surrounded by earthen walls. They express spiritual enlightenment of Zen Satori and tell us infinite teachings. The garden can be viewed from the Hojo, the former residence of the head priest.

This is a must-see attraction in Kyoto along with other well known temples. Usually when tourists visit Ninnaji Temple, they do also pay a visit to Royanji Temple.

Access: Ryoanji temple is a 6-8 minute walk from Ryoanji-michi Station.

By following this 4 day Kyoto itinerary, you can experience most of the above famous temples. And if you are plan on visiting Kyoto in the fall, but not sure about the best autumn leaves spots, then read this article to get some useful travel tips. Thanks for reading!