Japanese Temple Guide: Best Traditional Shrines & Temples To Visit In Japan
After a bunch of visits to Japan over the years, I’ve put together this Japanese temple & shrine guide to help you find the best ones!
There are more than 160,000 traditional Japanese temples and shrines scattered across the ‘Land of the Rising Sun,’ and usually they have a bunch of interesting history behind them, plus the buildings themselves are real works of art.
Kyoto is Japan’s ancient capital and cultural center, so it has most of the famous shrines in Japan, as well as many of the best temples to visit in Japan. You can also find some good ones in and around Tokyo city.
Read on for my complete Japanese temple guide!
Best Traditional Shrines & Temples In Japan
1. Todai-ji Temple (Nara)
Todai-ji Temple is one of Japan’s biggest and most spectacular landmarks.
This massive ancient monument has a lot of cool history behind it. It was the world’s biggest wooden building for a millennium, and it houses the biggest bronze Buddha statue in the world.
We’ve visited Todai-ji a couple of times and it’s a must-see. If you look around the Nara Park, it also has a bunch of other traditional Japanese temples and shrines.
Nara is super easy to visit on a day trip from Osaka or Kyoto, so you should definitely add it to your Japan bucket list!
More info: Todai-ji Temple
2. Kinkaku-ji Temple (Kyoto)
The Kinkaku-ji Temple (also known as the Golden Pavilion) is one of the most iconic and famous places in Japan.
It’s the #1 most visited tourist site in Kyoto, and for pretty good reason! It’s almost impossible to take a bad photo here! This is the king of Japanese temples and shrines.
The best time to visit is in the morning before the wind picks up, then you can see reflections on the pond. Sadly when we went it was very windy, so no reflections.
More info: Kinkakuji Temple
3. Tenryu-ji Temple (Kyoto)
This temple was built in the 14th century and it’s located in Kyoto’s Arashiyama district.
It has a nice landscape garden and incredible fall colors if you come near the middle of November.
Tenryu-ji also borders the famous Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, so chances are you’ll be near it anyway if you’re visiting the top tourist sites of Kyoto.
4. Senso-ji Temple (Tokyo)
Sensoji is the biggest and most popular temple in Tokyo. It’s also the oldest, since it was built in the 7th century.
If you only visit one traditional Japanese temple during your time in Tokyo, this is the one to see! On the outside, it has a 5-story pagoda and a giant paper lantern that’s popular for photos.
Sensoji also happens to be a great place for souvenir shopping. We found lots of great stuff in the street shops surrounding the temple.
More info: Sensoji Temple
5. Kawasaki Daishi Temple (Tokyo)
Kawasaki Daishi is one of the nicer temples in the Tokyo area, in Kawasaki City.
It may not be quite as big and famous as the one at Sensoji, but it’s worth a stop if you’re looking for more things to see in Tokyo.
This one was originally built in the 12th century, but it was mostly destroyed in World War II. Even though the current building is a reconstruction, it’s still pretty impressive and looks authentic.
More info: Kawasaki Daishi Temple
6. Hase-Dera Temple (Kamakura)
This is a hill temple and Japanese shrine in Kamakura that may date back to the 8th century.
There are lots of interesting statues at this one, including a 9-meter tall Kannon figure that is one of the biggest wooden statues in Japan. At the top, there’s a viewpoint where you can look out over the city and see Sagami Bay in the distance.
Hase-Dera is very close to the famous Great Buddha statue in Kamakura, so you can easily visit both in the same day.
7. Fushimi Inari Shrine (Kyoto)
This is an 8th century Japanese shrine in south Kyoto with more than 1,000 orange torii gates surrounded by forest.
It’s fun to wander around the maze of gates and there are some nice mountain trails too.
This place can get very crowded with tourists though, so it’s best to come in the early morning or late afternoon.
8. Kiyomizu-dera Temple (Kyoto)
This is probably Japan’s most celebrated temple, and it’s a great place to see fall colors too.
Most people take pictures of the main building, but our favorite part was actually the orange pagoda next to it. In any case, there are loads of good photo ops all around this Japanese temple!
Kiyomizu-dera is a Buddhist temple that was built in eastern Kyoto in the 8th century.
9. Byodo-in Temple (Uji)
This is an underrated temple located in Uji, a small city between Kyoto and Nara.
Byodo-in Temple was originally built in 11th century, and today it’s even featured on the Japanese 10 yen coin.
The surprising thing is that Byodo-in Temple actually has a twin building in Hawaii that looks just like it and shares the same name!
10. Yasaka Pagoda (Kyoto)
It’s impossible to visit the Higashiyama district in Kyoto without seeing this iconic pagoda sticking out above the rest of the buildings.
The Yasaka Pagoda has 5 stories and even though it was built in the 15th century, it’s part of a temple that dates back to the 6th century.
The best photos are on the outside, of course, but you can also go inside (up to the 2nd floor of the pagoda) for a fee.
11. Great Buddha Statue (Kamakura)
The giant Buddha statue at Kamakura is one of Japan’s most famous landmarks.
This bronze statue is part of the Kotoku-in temple, but it sits in the open air ever since a tsunami washed away the main building in the 15th century.
Kamakura is one of the closest day trips you can take from Tokyo since it’s just 1 hour south of the Tokyo city center.
Japanese Temple Etiquette
Most traditional shrines and temples in Japan are open to tourists, but there are a few basic rules and things to know:
- Always be calm and respectful, not noisy — especially when you’re indoors.
- To go inside of temple buildings, you may have to take off your shoes. This means leaving them at the entrance, or sometimes they’ll provide plastic bags for carrying them with you.
- You can take photos on the temple grounds, but usually not inside of the buildings. If pictures aren’t allowed, it’ll be sign posted.
- Most Japanese temples and shrines are free, but some are not. If there’s an entrance fee, it’s normally less than 500 Yen ($5 USD) per person and tickets are good for the whole day.
- There are lots of kimono rental shops in Kyoto and Tokyo, and you can wear these to a Japanese temple. If you ask the locals, they aren’t offended by foreigners wearing their traditional dress for pictures, and you’ll see lots of them doing the same.
When To Visit
Japanese temples and shrines are especially spectacular in the autumn and cherry blossom seasons, but that’s also when they’re the most crowded.
The timing for these seasons is different every year, but you can generally see the sakura season (cherry blossoms) in the last week of March, and fall colors peak around mid November (for the Kyoto area).
Generally the best time of day to visit is early in the morning and late in the afternoon, because the temples can get extremely crowded by midday, especially during holidays and peak seasons.
At any of the temples with ponds (like Kinkakuji), you’ll want to be there early in the morning anyway to capture the reflections on the pond before the wind picks up.
More Japanese Shrine & Temple Guides
I hope you enjoyed this list of some of the best temples to visit in Japan.
Don’t forget to check out my complete Japan Travel Guide with more tips, info, and photos!