The Temples and Shrines of Japan: Part 1, Kyoto

Read part 2 and part 3

The Kyoto Tower is the single most noticeable landmark in Kyoto and was built to lead Kyoto into a future of flying cars and jive talking robot butlers.
The Kyoto Tower is the single most noticeable landmark in Kyoto and was built to lead Kyoto into a future of flying cars and jive talking robot butlers.
Travelers to Europe often complain of church fatigue. Everywhere you go, you see old churches and castles and after a while they all sort of just blur into each other. In Asia, the equivalent would be Shrine and Temple fatigue. No place I’ve visited so far suffers more from this than the greater Kyoto area.

Kyoto is packed full of history. It is like going to Rome or London. This is the where the former capital of Japan was located and it was intentionally spared from bombing during WWII because of the historic structures there. There is so much stuff in Kyoto that after several days, I still felt as if I didn’t see everything. Throw in the sites of nearby Nara and Horyuji, and it was a lot to digest in a short period of time.

I’m going to break up the discussion of the historical shrines and temples of Japan into three different posts. The first will deal with Kyoto, the second with Horyuji and Nara, and the last with Nikko. This will easier to digest for you and easier to write for me.

I’m also only going to touch on what I found interesting. Two of the big attractions in Kyoto for example, are Nijo Castle and the Imperial grounds. I didn’t really find Nijo that interesting and tours in the Imperial household had to be scheduled in advance, so I didn’t bother. I do have photos of both places, however. If you’ve been to Kyoto and think I missed something special, feel free to mention it in the comments.


Kyoto was the capital of Japan from 794 to 1868. The Imperial grounds in Kyoto are in fact still owned and controlled by the Japan’s Royal Family. Having been the capital for over 1,000 years is what makes it the epicenter of Japanese history.

Unlike Hiroshima which was destroyed in the war and totally rebuilt, Kyoto was spared from bombing during the WWII. Since WWII however, most of the older houses and structures in the city have been razed and replaced with modern buildings. At first glance, Kyoto doesn’t look any different than any other Japanese city. (and they really all do sort of look the same, but that is another post). When you arrive in Kyoto by Shinkansen, there is only one building of historical note that you can see: the five-story pagoda at Toji temple.

One of the books I read in Japan was “Dogs and Demons” by Alex Kerr, who is an expat who lives in Kyoto. He really had nothing good to say about the development of modern Kyoto. Unlike many major historic cities like Paris, Kyoto destroyed and rebuilt most of the old housing and in the process destroyed the feel which the city had. While many of the historic buildings were preserved, they were preserved in neighborhoods which are indistinguishable from what you would find in Tokyo or Osaka. This isn’t to say Kyoto didn’t need to modernize but really lacks any unique vibe. You walk away from the train station and the first thing you are hit with are gaudy pachinko parlors. That is the reality of modern Kyoto. (I should also note that Kyoto is the home of Nintendo)

The Golden Pavilion
The Golden Pavilion

The Golden Pavilion

The one thing in Kyoto I just had to see was the Golden Pavilion. One of my favorite movies is Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters by Paul Schrader, about the life of Japanese author Yukio Mishima. One of the four chapters featured snippets of his 1956 book, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. In the movie, a young Buddhist acolyte with a stutter and a limp develops a hatred for everything beautiful and burns down the Golden Pavilion. It is, in my opinion, one of the greatest movies ever made and probably the most overlooked.

Anyway….I really wanted to see the Golden Pavilion. The Golden Pavilion is sort of the poster child for Kyoto. The photos of the Golden Pavilion are one of the iconic images in Japan. What I was completely unaware of until I got there was that the story of a young monk burning down the pavilion….was true! In 1950. a Buddhist acolyte burned down the Golden Pavilion. It was a huge scandal at the time in Japan. The building which currently sits was a replica of the original building and was constructed in 1955. (Actually, like most historic buildings in Japan, the pavilion had burned down several times previously)

The Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji in Japanese) was built to house relics of the Buddha on the grounds of a former Shogun. The building is literally covered in gold leaf.

If you ever come across other photos of the Golden Pavilion, you will notice that almost everyone is taken from the exact same angle. You can’t enter the pavilion. There is a pond in front and across the pond there is a place for taking photos. Looking at the structure from across the pond is about the totality of the Golden Pavilion experience. There is a nice Japanese garden nearby, but there are no tours of the building.

Five story pagoda and garden at Toji Temple
Five story pagoda and garden at Toji Temple

Toji Temple

From the outside, the most stunning and prominent feature of Toji Temple is the five-story pagoda. Not only is it the tallest wooden structure in Japan (57m) but it is also the largest structure of any sort in the immediate area. No matter where you go in Japan you will see a sea of two and three story buildings (this is because of earthquakes. Until recently, the engineering to build tall, earthquake proof buildings didn’t exist.) It is really odds to see a wooden building stick out as the tallest structure in the area. As I said earlier, it is the only historic structure I was able to see from the Shinkansen as it entered Kyoto from Osaka.

The temple, however, is more than just the pagoda. There are two large wooden structures on the grounds in addition to a Japanese garden. The other building serves to house large statues of the Buddha. It was in these buildings that for the first time on my trip I got the real feel for something being old. The wood inside was ancient. You could feel it and you could smell it. Prior to this point, the oldest man-made structures I’ve seen were either made from stone (Easter Island and Nan Madol) or were masonry buildings no more than 400 years old (Vigan and Intramuros, Philippines). Toji was in a different league of old, at least as far as the senses were concerned.

The temple is of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, a subject which I feel not in the least bit qualified to discuss further. In many of the temples I’ve been to Asia have belonged to different sects and I can’t say I really know enough to describe the differences between them. I think that will be something I will have to research for a post in 2008 from China or Thailand.

The Shinto shrine to Inari in Fushimi
The Shinto shrine to Inari in Fushimi

Fushimi Inari-taisha

If this looks familiar it is because I used it as a daily photo a few weeks ago. It is a Shinto shrine to the fox deity Inari. The mountain which it is located (also called Inari) is significant because its paths are lined with thousands of wooden gates (torii). The wooden gates are sponsored by individual and are continuously being built. Walking up the mountain surrounded by gates is sort of surreal experience. Every so often you’d run across a guy who works for the shrine installing or painting a new gate. At several spots on the mountain, you would find small shrines with miniature gates. There is a small gate industry in the area as you can purchase gates and put them on the shrines.

There is a scene from the recent movie Memoirs of a Geisha which takes place here.

If you manage to make it up the mountain, you have a beautiful view of Kyoto all its sprawling, gray glory. Along the way, they have small stores and places for pilgrims to buy things. I really had no idea that Fushimi Inara existed before I arrived in Kyoto, but it was probably the highlight of my time there. The fact that I walked for over an hour from my hotel to get there made it all the better when I finally arrived. (Finding a train station just a few blocks away from the entrance which I could have used for free with my JR rail pass made me sad on the way back, however).

In my next installment, I’ll be talking about the oldest and largest wooden buildings in the world in Horyuji and Nara.

4 thoughts on “The Temples and Shrines of Japan: Part 1, Kyoto”

  1. Two more cool places to check out the next time you find yourself in Kyoto:

    The “pair” to the golden pavilion Kinkaku-ji is Ginkaku-ji. It was built by a shogun who wanted to build a silver version of the gold-leafed Kinkaku-ji, but construction was halted due to war and it was never covered in silver leaf. Ginkaku-ji both complements and contrasts Kinkaku-ji; based on the same design, Ginkaku-ji sports aged wood rather than Kinkaku-ji’s shiny, new gold leaf.

    Within walking distance of Kinkaku-ji is Ryouan-ji, a zen temple which sports one of the most famous rock gardens in Japan. There are 15 boulders amongst the raked gravel, but only 14 can be seen from any angle other than from above. The last boulder is said to be seen after obtaining enlightenment.

  2. Temples and shrines… man

    The first few you see are really impressive. Then you notice that every one is pretty much the same. I usually prefer the walk and views from them.

  3. Having been to Kyoto quite a few times, I think you have done a good job of giving someone who has not been there a good sense of what it is like. Please keep up the excellent posting!

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