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Please note: this post is ready for a do-over at some point, as I had to modify it to remove some old formatting and it has a bunch of strange-looking links that used to be buttons. But, for now, I’m leaving it as-is.
Kyoto has been called the land of 1000 temples. During my trip, I visited ten Zen temples of Kyoto. Here’s more about the ten I visited along with some tips on temple etiquette.
Click here to view a photo album of the Zen temples we visited.
The Heart of Zen?
This is the heart of Zen.” While walking through Nanzen-ji temple, I overheard a man repeatedly whispering that phrase to his wife (or possibly, to himself; his spouse didn’t seem to be acknowledging him) while simultaneously snapping photos with a giant iPad in a no-photo zone.
Is Kyoto the heart of Zen? While I tend to think that the heart of Zen isn’t a place at all and, if it were, it would be wherever you are right now. But if one place is the heart of Zen, Kyoto may well be it. It is, at least, the heart of the Rinzai school — one of the main branches of Japanese Zen Buddhism.
Shortly before my journey to Kyoto, I had a chance to speak with my old Zen teacher, with whom I’d long been out of touch. He referred to Kyoto as “temple city”: a title that certainly does fit. Kyoto has over 1600 temples — far too many to visit in one trip. I managed to squeeze in at least ten — from the heavily touristed Kinkaku-ji to the more remote and quieter Ikkyu-ji.
Perhaps I was looking for inspiration and motivation to renew my meditation practice with the enthusiasm I once had, though I knew that in a short trip I wouldn’t find any Zen there that I didn’t already bring with me. But I did find a few quiet spots to sit amid the crowds of other tourists also seeking the heart of Zen while simultaneously Instagramming.
Before You Go to Kyoto Zen Temples: Some Advice on Japanese Temple and Shrine Etiquette:
If you’re a tourist visiting Zen temples, here are a few things to know:
Carry a Pocket Full of Yen
If you’re familiar with visiting churches and cathedrals in Europe or North America, you may have the habit of paying for admission via credit card. Don’t expect to do this in Japan. While some shops, including some of the souvenir shops at the larger temples, may accept credit cards, I didn’t encounter a single temple that took credit card for admission.
Admission to most of the temples seemed to be in the ¥400-500 range. I carried around a pocket full of coins and smaller bills during days with heavy temple-visiting. Also, bring some small coins for offerings at some of the temples you visit.
Shoes off at the Door
If you’re a regular at Buddhist temples, you’ll be used to this — it’s a pretty hard rule to forget when you visit the temples. Most have numerous signs with English translations reminding you to remove your shoes as well as convenient places to leave your shoes on entering.
There also doesn’t seem to be any hard-and-fast rules about dress code — jeans are OK but do keep it in mind that you’re visiting temples and dress respectfully.
Also (and this should go without saying) please respect other posted rules as well. Some temples invite photography; others have posted signs requesting that visitor not take photos in certain areas — this mostly applies to indoor spaces or specific pieces of art. I know the temptation of getting a picture of that relic or impressive tiger screen, but resist.
Do I Have to Follow any Rituals?
As a foreign visitor just there to see the temple, you don’t have to follow any rituals, aside from leaving your shoes by the door, but you may wish to out of respect. If you carried small coins in with your pocket full of yen, you might find that at some temples and shrines there are places to throw these as offerings.
A couple of other things you might notice:
At Zen temples, you’ll find that many have the same purification fountains common at Shinto Shrines, used in a ritual called temizu. Here’s the procedure, using the ladle to scoop the water:
- Wash your left hand
- Wash your right hand
- Put some water in your left hand, and use it to rinse your mouth, spit the water out beside the fountain; don’t swallow.
- Return the ladle to its original position.
You might also find incense burners. If you purchase incense to burn, put it in the censer and fan the smoke toward yourself as if it were purifying or healing you.
One more thing you’ll find at each temple is a large map of the temple buildings and grounds. Most of these don’t have any English translation but can help with your sense of the layout of the grounds.
The (Ten) Zen Temples of Kyoto
Official name: Rokuan-ji. The temple has been a World Cultural Heritage site since 1994. The golden color and lavish gardens make it one of the most visited Zen temples of Kyoto.
If I could redo my trip, I’d visit Kinkaku-ji a bit later in the afternoon or early evening, toward sunset, when the sun shines off the golden exterior of the temple. I’d also buy a special-Golden-Pavilion-edition Hello Kitty. Because it exists.
Called Kinkaku-ji, or the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, the pagoda is not merely golden in color. Real gold foil on lacquer actually covers its top two levels.
Each level of the temple is representative of a different style of architecture. According to the brochure from the temple, the first level is in 11th-century imperial style, the second level is in the form of the warrior aristocracy, and the top level is in the “Chinese zenshu-butsuden style.” I appreciate the discrepancy. A hodgepodge of styles plagues any decorating I try to do myself, though not in such a grand way, unfortunately.
The pavilion has been subject to more than one fire — in fact (according to the venerable Wikipedia), though the original temple was built in 1397 and undoubtedly did have some gold covering, the present structure was a 1955 rebuild after an arson and likely now has a much thicker gold coating than the original ever did.
Of course, tourists all flock to see the Golden Pavilion — but there’s much more to see here: ponds, a tea house, lovely gardens make it worth braving the crowds to visit this gem.
Photos From Kinkaku-ji
Not really silver, but worth a visit. Prepare for crowds — one of the busiest Zen temples of Kyoto.
Perhaps, after visiting Kinkaku-ji, you might expect a temple nicknamed the “Silver Pavilion,” actually to be covered in silver. Ginkaku-ji is not. So why the nickname?
According to this post, the moniker arose to contrast it with the Golden Pavilion. An alternate explanation is that the moon’s light gave it a silvery appearance.
While the temple interior is generally not open to the public, the grounds, moss garden, ponds, and rock garden are enjoyable. The rock garden features a sizeable cone-shaped structure meant to symbolize Mt. Fuji.