World Heritage sites, National Treasures, and a gardens designated as a Place of Scenic Beauty, the shrines of Kyoto are simply stunning. If you are planning a trip to Kyoto, be sure to stop off at a few of the shrines listed below, as you are bound to be impressed by their character and history. Here are six of the best:
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Coated by luscious red lacquer, Heian Shrine was built in 1895 in commemoration of the 1,100th anniversary of the establishment of the ancient capital Heiankyo. The shrine is a 5/8 size reproduction of Heiankyo’s central government building Chodoin in the state it was at the time of its opening by Emperor Kanmu. The shrine’s approx. 30,000 square meter garden is an “excursion type” garden that is divided into four gardens–the East Garden, the Central Garden, the West Garden and the South Garden–where you can enjoy flowers of the four seasons. The garden is designated as a Place of Scenic Beauty by the national government. It is particularly known for its cherry blossoms; nearly 300 cherry blossom trees of various kinds including 150 weeping cherry trees are covered with pink or white flowers around early April to mid-April. Especially, featuring a pond reflecting the guest house (Shobikan) with the traditional hiwadabuki thatched roof and the surroundings, the view at the East Garden is absolutely breathtaking. The “Crimson Weeping Cherry Concert” is held for a limited period of four days while the flowers are in full bloom; visitors are treated to performances of traditional Japanese music and the view of cherry blossoms lit up at night.
Widely known as one of the three grand festivals of Kyoto, the Jidai Matsuri (Festival of the Ages) is held annually on October 22. This spectacular festival features a parade that gives one an impression that you are watching a moving ancient picture scroll that depicts the history of Kyoto. The parade starts out at the Kyoto Imperial Palace and ends at Heian Shrine. The parade covers eight ages from the Enryaku period (782 – 806) up to the Meiji Restoration of the late 19th century and early 20th century. Lasting for about 3 hours, nearly 2,000 people and animals, such as cows and horses, parade a distance of approximately 2km. The best highlight of the parade is the costumes that are reproduced faithfully. From the footwear, hats, accessories, flags, to hairstyles, everything is reproduced based on historical research conducted by professionals of various fields. Check official websites for the dates of the Crimson Weeping Cherry Concert and the Festival of the Ages.
- Guidebook from Planetyze about Heian Shrine
- Reviews from TripAdvisor about Heian Shrine
- Tours of Heian Shrine
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Kibune Shrine, which has a history of 1500 years and is surrounded by woods along the banks of the Kibune River, the source of the Kamo River, is a shrine that deifies the God of Water. It’s separated into 3 rear shrines: the main shrine devoted to the God of Water, an associated shrine devoted to the God of Marriage, and the site of the original main shrine. It is also said to be one of Japan’s three major marriage shrines and known as the place where Izumi Shikibu, one of the poets for the Hyakunin Isshu anthology, visited to pray for reconciliation with her husband. A 30-minute walk from Kibune-guchi Station, the shrine has 2 torii (shrine archways). Beyond those archways, there are scarlet lanterns along the stone steps which are popular as photography spots at the shrine.
With the spring water flowing from Mt. Kibune where the shrine is located to the stone wall in front of the main building, mizu-uranai with this holy water is very popular. Receiving fortune slips at the conferment place, they are dipped into the holy water and as characters emerge, you can find out your fortune. Moreover, wishes to be written in pieces of paper can be purchased at the main shrine, and when they are tied to places at the associated shrines, it is said that the God will determine all destinies for things such as romance, friendship, higher education and job hunting. During the summer between May and September, you can enjoy a meal on the riverbed, a special feature at Kibune. You can experience the local cuisine of Kyoto on the bed of the Kibune River where cool breezes blow by during the humid summers there. In addition, there is the famous restaurant “Hirobun” at the riverbed where you can enjoy nagashi somen (flowing noodles), a seasonal dish only available in summer. The somen flows on half-cut bamboo pipes so you can grab them with chopsticks, dip them into dashi (stock) and eat them. To get to Kibune Shrine, you can also walk from Kurama-dera Temple for 1 hour along the Ki-no-Nemichi path.
- Guidebook from Planetyze about Kibune Shrine
- Reviews from TripAdvisor about Kibune Shrine
- Tours of Kibune Shrine
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Yasaka Shrine was established in 656, approximately 150 years before the transfer of the capital to Kyoto. Affectionately called Gion-san, it can be visited from a walk through Hanamachi. Its guardian deity is known as Susano Kushi-inada Hime Yahashiranomiko-kami. Revered from all over Japan as the capital underwent development, even today, it has 3000 branch shrines all over the nation. The Gion Festival which is the great annual summer festival for Kyoto which lasts for almost a month from July 1st is the festival of Yasaka Shrine. It was begun in 869 as a way to ward off an epidemic. During the festival, there is a custom in which parishioners are not allowed to eat any cucumbers, the reason being that the cut end of the cucumber resembles the crest for Yasaka Shrine which is greatly revered.
Facing away from Gion, you will come across the beautiful west roumon gate painted in vermillion. Many tourists enter the shrine through this gate but it’s actually not the front entrance. If you face the west roumon gate and climb up the slope to your right for a bit, there will be a stone torii gate right in front of you. The south roumon gate that is beyond it is the actual main entrance. Once you have cleansed your hands and mouth at the chozuya well on the way to the shrine, you will reach the main shrine. And then when you have made your prayers to ward off evil and hope for good health and business prosperity, don’t forget to stop by Okuninushi Shrine near the main shrine. It’s known for good luck in matchmaking.
Make your way out of the shrine through the west roumon gate. But before that, make your way to Utsukushigozensha to the right of the main shrine. For people in the know, it is the place of the god of beauty where maiko and geisha visit. It is said that if you drink the Gion spring water and sacred water at the east of the main shrine and then visit Utsukushigozensha, you will gain in beauty. In front of the shrine, there is also beauty water which is supposed to be good for the skin. Apply 2 or 3 drops to your face and then pray. It is said that for the maiko who pray at Yasaka Shrine, they gain a special power for success in life. Those secrets may be hidden in these two types of water.
- Guidebook from Planetyze about Yasaka Shrine
- Reviews from TripAdvisor about Yasaka Shrine
- Tours of Yasaka Shrine
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Established in 947, Kitano Tenmangu is the head shrine for the nation’s 10,000 tenmangu enshrining Michizane Sugawara who was heralded as a child prodigy, a scholar and a politician. Currently, there is an ardent faith in the Patron of Learning and many students preparing for examinations come to visit the shrine from all over Japan.
Having been born in the Year of the Ox, many legends remain about Michizane’s connection with the ox, and so it was made to become the messenger for the Tenjin, and on the temple grounds, a number of statues of oxen have been enshrined. When the head of the statue of a black ox known as the “Patting Ox” is rubbed, it’s said that the person will become smarter. Furthermore, it’s also said that after a visitor rubs a part of his body that is having problems and then rubbing the corresponding part on the ox, that area will be cured. In addition, there is the “Lantern of the God of Wealth” on which the mouth of the god is carved into the pedestal. If a small stone is placed there without falling out and placed into a wallet with a prayer, then the owner will have no money problems.
Once beyond the roumon tower gate on the path leading to the shrine, the visitor will encounter the main Sanko (three lights) gate, named since the sun, moon and a star are carved into it. One theory goes that though there are these carvings of a sun, a moon and a crescent moon, there is no carving of a star since the star Polaris is twinkling straight above the gate. And as for the many statues of oxen lying down on the grounds, it is said that they are prostrate since the ox that was pulling the cart with Michizane’s remains simply lied down and refused to move. However, according to the carving on the ranma screen over the doorway of the front shrine, there is one standing sacred ox which remains a mystery to the present day. Also, paying homage at the shrine is always done at the front, but at the rear of the main shrine of Kitano Tenmangu, there is the Onkou-no-Mihashira, the site to place a sacred object, where Amenohohi (the ancestral god for Michizane), Kiyotomo Sugawara (his grandfather) and Koreyoshi Sugawara (his father) are enshrined to be worshipped together.
- Guidebook from Planetyze about Kitano Tenmangu
- Reviews from TripAdvisor about Kitano Tenmangu
- Tours of Kitano Tenmangu
Fushimi Inari Shrine
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For more than 1,300 years, people have come to Fushimi Inari Shrine to worship the Inari God that assures bountiful crops. The shrine is the headquarters of the more than 30,000 inari shrines across Japan. The red torii gates and white foxes are the symbols of Fushimi Inari Shrine. It is said that the red color of the torii gates and the shrine building has power against supernatural powers and that the color also indicates the bountifulness of the Inari God. Foxes are believed to be the servants of the Inari God; it is said that foxes were chosen as the God’s servants because they prey on crop damaging mice and also because the color of the fox and the shape of their tails resemble ripe rice plants. Replacing the usual guardian dogs, a pair of foxes is placed at the Roumon gate as protectors against evil.
The row of torii gates called Senbon Torii is the highlight of this shrine. Senbon Torii came about due to the custom that has spread since the Edo period (1603 – 1868) to dedicate a torii gate to the shrine to express gratitude regarding the worshiper’s wish that “will come true” or “did come true.” At present, nearly 10,000 torii gates line the main path and the tradition of donating a gate is still practiced today. Based on the idea that assuring bountiful crops for farmers is relevant to assuring prosperous business for merchants, since the Edo period and onward, the Inari God has been worshiped also as a god that assures prosperous business. The grounds of the shrine stretch to Mount Inari; it takes more than two hours to cover the approx. 87 square meter shrine premises. The Senbon Torii is a short walk away from the main sanctuary. From there, as you walk toward the mountain peak, you will reach the crossroad (yotsutsuji) where you can view the entire city of Kyoto. You can also rest at a tea house while enjoying this magnificent view. Though the shrine is opened to the public 24 hours a day, we recommend visiting the shrine during the day because it has many stone steps and the lighting during the night is limited.
- Guidebook from Planetyze about Fushimi Inari Shrine
- Reviews from TripAdvisor about Fushimi Inari Shrine
- Tours of Fushimi Inari Shrine
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The World Heritage site of Shimogamo Shrine (Kamo-mioya Shrine) is located in the triangular zone bracketed by Kyoto’s Kamo and Takano Rivers. With belief in the God of Guidance and the God of Victory since ancient times, it is known as a shrine to celebrate the beginning of things. Two east and west main shrines have been built. On the left is the shrine dedicated to the god Kametaketsunomi-no-mikoto who opened a mountain castle in ancient Kyoto, and on the right is the shrine dedicated to his daughter, Tamayorihime-no-mikoto. The buildings, constructed in the Nagare-zukuri style, have been designated as National Treasures. The shrine was reconstructed in 1863, but its majesty as a holy ground with a solemn atmosphere is still felt.
As well, there are many various gods enshrined within the grounds. The God of Marriage is enshrined in the Aioi-sha Shrine next to the tower gates (roumon) of Shimogamo Shrine. Of note are the 2 trees that join into one partway (the Renri-no-Sakaki tree) as a sacred tree. There is a strange legend about the power of the God of Marriage that binds it together. If the tree dies within the grounds, then another such tree will be found. This bound sacred tree is one of Kyoto’s Seven Myths. Then there is Kawai Shrine which is popular with women. Enshrined there is Tamayorihime, the guardian spirit of women. She was believed as a goddess for female beauty from olden times and was also said to the goddess for easy childbirth, child-rearing, marriage, studying and long life. The votive picture, or ema, of Kawai Shrine is the Mirror Ema, and is in the shape of a traditional Japanese mirror. It is a unique ema in that it isn’t seen very much at the other shrines. The surface of the ema with a picture of a face is supposed to represent that of the holder’s face, and after applying painting the face with the woman’s own makeup, a prayer is said. Even if she doesn’t have any cosmetics, crayons are available. A spreading primeval forest from ancient times, Tadasu-no-Mori, surrounds Shimogamo Shrine, and has become a place of relaxation for the citizens. After praying to the gods, the negative ions suffusing the forest makes it a recommended place to refresh yourself.