Thousands of Buddhist temples dot the Japanese countryside and inhabit its cities. According to one resource, “virtually every Japanese municipality has at least one temple, while large cultural centers like Kyoto have several hundred.” Many are hundreds of years old, others well over one thousand.
Temples typically consist of a number of halls and structures. Gates mark the edges of the temple grounds. The main hall of each temple is used to display sacred objects, such as statues of Buddha, gods, or goddesses; pagodas are used in a similar manner. Lecture halls are used as places of meeting and teaching. Some temples are still used as monasteries, home to Buddhist monks.
While there are far too many temples in Japan to list in a single article, please enjoy these top seven picks, representing some of the most visited temple sites. Don’t forget that your JR Pass will provide fast and affordable travel between these and other locations.
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Kiyomizu-dera Temple (Kyoto)
Located on a hillside overlooking a valley and the city itself, Kiyomizu-dera is the most visited temple in Kyoto. It was built in honor of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. Special events are often held here, including occasional pink nighttime illumination of the temple for breast cancer awareness, traditional ceremonies, and various stage productions.
- Hours: 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Nighttime admission is available for special events.
- Address: 1-294 Kiyomizu, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture, Kinki, Japan
- How to Get There: From Kyoto Station, take bus number 206 or 100 to either the Gojo-zaka or Kiyomizu-michi bus stops. From the stops, the temple is a ten-minute uphill walk.
Kinkakuji Temple (Kyoto)
Kinkakuji was originally built in 1397 as the home of a shogun, or military chief. The building was covered entirely in gold leaf, giving it the title of the Golden Pavilion. Its gardens are meant to represent an earthly paradise.
- Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
- Address: 1 Kinkakujicho, Kita-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture, Kinki, Japan
- How to Get There: From Kyoto Station, take city bus 205 or 101 to Kinkakuji. The bus ride will last around 40 minutes.
Senso-ji Temple (Tokyo)
Legend has it that two brothers repeatedly tried to return a statue of the goddess Kannon to the Sumida River. Each time, the statue had returned by the next day. Senso-ji Temple was built in that location in honor of the goddess. The temple is at its most beautiful in the evening when nighttime illumination highlights its intricate architecture.
- Hours: 6 a.m. to 5 p.m.
- Address: 2-3-1 Asakusa, Taito, Tokyo, Tokyo Prefecture, Kanto, Japan
- How to Get There: The temple is a five-minute walk from Asakusa Station.
Hokokuji Temple (Kamakura)
Also called the Takedera Temple, the temple grounds house bamboo forests, delicate moss covered carvings, and ponds of brightly colored koi. Authentic Japanese matcha served with sweets is available until 3:30 p.m.
- Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- Address: 2-7-4 Jomyoji, Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, Kanto, Japan
- How to Get There: From Kamakura Station, take bus number 36, 24, or 23 to the Jomyoji bus stop. From the bus stop, the temple is a short walk away.
Todai-ji Temple (Nara)
The Todai-ji Temple in Nara is the largest wooden building in the world. It also houses an immense statue of Buddha. Attempting to portray the scale of this image, one visitor recalled, “a medium-sized human could fit through one nostril!” Many visitors also enjoy the friendly herds of deer that roam the site.
- Hours: Winter hours are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., while summer hours are 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
- Address: 406-1 Zoshicho, Nara, Nara Prefecture, Kinki, Japan
- How to Get There: Todai-ji is a 45-minute walk from the JR Nara Station. Alternatively, you may take a bus from the station to Todaiji Daibutsuden. The main temple building is a five to 10-minute walk from this stop.
Sanjusangendo Temple (Kyoto)
Formerly called Rengeoin Temple, this temple is unique for the sheer number of religious statues it contains. The Great Hall houses 1,001 “life-sized” images of the goddess Kannon.
- Hours: 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
- Address: 657 Sanjusangendo Mawaricho, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture, Kinki, Japan
- How to Get There: This temple is a 20-minute walk from Kyoto Station. Alternatively, you may take bus number 208, 206, or 100 from the station to the Hakubutsukan-Sanjusangendo-mae bus stop.
Shitennoji Temple (Osaka)
One of Japan’s oldest temples, Shitennoji was built more than 1,400 years ago. The temple is famous for its symmetrical architectural style. Subsequent temples built in this style are said to have the “Shitennoji style temple layout.”
- Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- Address: 1-11-18 Shitennoji, Tennoji-ku, Osaka, Osaka Prefecture, Kinki, Japan
- How to Get There: This temple is a 10 minute walk from the north exit of the JR Tennoji Station.
Wherever your travels in Japan take you, you are certain to observe the intriguing architecture of its many temples and the beauty of their gardens.