The Best Japanese Gardens, Temples and Shrines

You could easily spend your entire time in Japan roaming between gardens, temples, and shrines—and it would be time well spent. Meander through Kyoto’s moss and rock gardens or explore Tokyo’s Imperial palace garden. Stay the night in an ancient temple and eat among Buddhist monks or visit one of Japan’s three great Shinto shrines situated in Tokyo, Ise, and Nagoya.

1 Kinkakujichō, Kita-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu 603-8361, Japan
Built in the 14th century as a villa for a powerful shogun, Kinkaku-ji temple, commonly referred to as the Golden Pavilion, is an easy bus ride from the main bus terminal in Kyoto. The temple is one of the most popular buildings in Japan, so expect a lot of fellow gawkers. It exemplifies several different Japanese architecture styles, and the top two levels are completely covered in gold leaf. The extensive gardens are beautifully manicured and serene, despite the abundance of visitors using selfie sticks.
Kiyomizu-dera on Mount Otowa is one of the most famous temples in Japan, a place that appears in every sequence of Japanese travel photos. The landscape is all cherry trees and forest; it is among Kyoto‘s loveliest spots. The current structure dates to 1633 and is one of 33 temples on a pilgrimage circuit in the Kansai region dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. The circuit runs from the south of Wakayama north to the Sea of Japan. You’ll see pilgrims carrying nokyo-cho—books stamped to record the visit—and monks busily inscribing in calligraphy. The temple, set against a steep hill and constructed on huge pilings, is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

68 Fukakusa Yabunouchichō, Fushimi-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu 612-0882, Japan
Fushimi Inari Taisha on Inariyama mountain is dedicated to the Shinto gods of rice and sake, but Inari is also the god of merchants and that brings a lot of businesspeople to worship here. Everyone else stops by to see the thousands of vermilion torii, or gates (each of which is funded by a Japanese company). They lead to the main shrine, which was built in 1499. Walking underneath the gates is like passing through a fiery tangerine tunnel, and visitors leave behind tiny torii replicas as part of their prayer.

406-1 Zōshichō, Nara-shi, Nara-ken 630-8211, Japan
Huge and imposing—in fact, one of the largest wooden buildings in the world—the Todaiji was founded in 752 C.E. As big as the structure is now, it’s still only two-thirds of what it originally was. Besides being notable for its size and UNESCO World Heritage Site standing, the temple houses one of Japan’s greatest artistic treasures, the 15-meter-tall (49-foot-tall) Daibutsu. Usually, throughout Asia, the bigger a statue of Buddha is, the worse it is artistically. The Daibutsu, a staggering work of bronze art, is an exception. When it was first conceived, the Japanese themselves weren’t quite good enough with bronze, so they brought in Korean artists to bail them out. A don’t-miss spot.

2 Chome-3-1 Asakusa, Taitō-ku, Tōkyō-to 111-0032, Japan
Both Tokyo‘s largest and oldest Buddhist temple, Senso-ji is one of the city’s must see sights. The streets leading to Senso-ji are filled with souvenir shops where you can find tapestries, kimonos, kitschy key chains, and finger foods. Surrounding the temple you’ll also find yatai (food stalls) selling Japanese favorites like yakisoba (fried buckwheat noodles) and okonomiyaki (savory pancakes with a mix of ingredients including eggs, noodles, beef, octopus, squid, and green onion). Inside Senso-ji receive your omikuji (fortune) and if it’s not to your liking leave it behind on the wall of bad fortunes. Take your time exploring the grounds around Senso-ji, which are rich in pristine Japanese landscape design.
1-1 Yoyogikamizonochō, Shibuya-ku, Tōkyō-to 151-8557, Japan
The serenity of the Meiji Jingu Shrine is a notable contrast to the crowds of Harajuku hipsters just beyond the giant torii gates. The Shinto shrine complex, which was dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken in 1920, is inside a forest that shuts out the noise and energy of the city. This temple is a popular site for celebratory events such as weddings and children’s festivals, so chances are good that visitors will happen upon families dressed up in traditional kimonos.
The Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is a gorgeous park that’s just a short walk from Shinjuku Station. There are several gardens within the space, including a formal French one, an English landscape garden, and a traditional Japanese design. While the admission fee is nominal (about $2), it helps assure that it is surprisingly quiet, with fewer visitors than parks open to the public for free. If the weather is good, consider picking up a bento from nearby Takashimaya’s depachika. Convenience stores sell plastic “blue sheets” for impromptu picnics. The only downside to this park is that it is alcohol-free; if you want to drink sake at your picnic, head down the road to Yoyogi Park.
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