Exploring the huge array of temples that Japan has to offer is an integral part of any visit, so here are just a few of my top temple recommendations.
Kiyomizudera - Image: Eloise Oatley
Kiyomizudera, named after the waterfall alongside it (Kiyomizu means clear or pure water), is one of the most well-known temples in Kyoto. Boasting beautiful views across Kyoto from its position amongst the lush green hills of east Kyoto, it has a large wooden main hall seemingly propped up by the canopy of trees. Drink from one or two of the three streams of the waterfall that culminate in a pond below for a blessing of longevity, success at school or in your love life – to drink from all three is considered greedy.
There are multiple shrine areas dedicated to different deities, an impressive pagoda and ‘Moon Garden’, but be sure not to miss the smaller, sometimes overlooked areas. One example is down a short dark staircase in the Zuigu Hall. Tainai Meguri is a completely pitch black room designed to represent the womb of a female Bodhisattva. Feeling your way through, guided only by a thick rope, you emerge back into the sunlight, reborn, but not before passing a dimly lit power stone engraved with a sacred symbol that seems mystical if only for its existence in the blackness.
Kiyomizudera has much to offer but I recommend an early morning trip to avoid the bulk of the crowds at this UNESCO World Heritage site.
Jojakkoji - Image: Eloise Oatley
Arashiyama - just 25 minutes by JR train from Kyoto station – is populated with stunning bamboo groves and a wealth of tiny temples tucked amongst the trees. When you reach Jōjakkōji prepare to soak up views of lush green moss, coating everything from the woodland floor and stone lanterns that line the pathways, to the temple roofs. Aside from the notable spring cherry blossom, Jōjakkōji is also well known for its array of autumnal foliage. Exploding from its many maple trees and Japanese acers, the burning reds and oranges set against the backdrop of mossy green make this a tranquil but visually stunning temple not to be missed.
Miyajima views - Image: Eloise Oatley
Miyajima or ‘Shrine Island’, is a small island about an hour from central Hiroshima. Among the many reasons to visit Miyajima are the Itsukushima Shrine and the spectacular views from Shishiiwa Observatory atop the islands Mount Misen.
The iconic tori gate can be seen as the ferry pulls into the port, guiding you to the shrine. At low tide you can walk out to it and marvel at its size, but high tide is when it really shines. Partially submerged, the gate appears as if floating on the water. Onshore you’ll find Itsukushima Shrine, an impressively designed Shinto shrine that, like its tori gate counterpart, seems to float on the water.
The island itself has long been considered a holy site of Shinto and is peppered with other interesting and beautiful shrines. If you missed out on the deer in Nara, you’ll find some here and although they may not be quite as accommodating as their bowing relatives on the mainland, they will happily pose for a selfie or two.
Take the Miyajima Ropeway to the Shishiiwa Observatory near the top of Mount Bisen and if you can handle the short steep walk, head to the peak and take in the stunning views. A leisurely walk back down the mountain via the walkway will provide you with a welcomed dose of tranquillity amongst the vast forest. For something a little extra, stay a night in one of the beautiful Ryokans (traditional Japanese guesthouses) and don your yukatas for an evening stroll, admiring the view of Itsukushima Shrine, beautifully lit up and twinkling in the water across the bay. You won’t forget it in a hurry.
Ise - Image: Eloise Oatley
Ise is a shrine mecca in Japan with two huge areas dedicated to Shinto deities (the second of which was enshrined there to keep the first company). The closer of the two to Iseshi train station is Naiku, dedicated to Amaterasu-Omikami, considered to be the Guardian of Japan. Here you will find a forest housing impossibly tall (and ancient) trees, with trunks it would take several people around the base to provide a full hug. The entire complex is dotted with Shrines, tori gates (it is customary to bow as you pass through each of them) and small waterways with picturesque and beautifully crafted Kintai style bridges. The older of the two sites (by 500 years), Naiku has a wonderfully tranquil area aside the shallow river where you can feed the resident birds or just sit and take in the atmosphere.
Ise provides a different kind of Shrine experience but one that is just as peaceful and beautiful as any other. As one of the top pilgrimage sites in Japan, it’s the atmosphere that is defined by its surrounding area, rather than the temples themselves, that are the attraction here. Wandering amongst the impressive trees, crossing the intricate wooden bridges and relaxing beside the still water are the real draw.
Come during off peak seasons to avoid the bulk of the crowds and you’ll be gifted with walks through the trees (almost) all to yourself. For an extra bonus visit Okage Yokocho Ancient Street, around the corner from the Geku Shrine area (the second of the two areas, a short bus ride away), for traditional-style wooden buildings and all sorts of delicious smelling food to try, perfect after all that relaxing.
Miyajima Pagoda - Image: Eloise Oatley
There are literally thousands of temples in Japan and although the ones listed here have a lot to offer (not just as a singular place to visit but as a destination to enjoy for a whole day), I highly recommend taking small detours to find tiny hidden temples that tourists often don’t bother with. There you are likely to be greeted by friendly monks and can experience with reverence, the stillness of these sacred places, tourist-free.