With over 1000 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, it goes without saying that Kyoto is literally chock-a-block with hidden gems and secret spots. One of the great joys of sightseeing in Kyoto is finding a quiet temple or shrine and having it all to yourself for an hour or two.
image © Jeffrey Friedl
My favorite activity in Kyoto is to strolling or cycling around the city, popping into any spot that looks interesting. Many of my Kyoto friends share the same hobby. Together, we’ve found some incredible secret spots, often just right around the corner from big name attractions. The Japanese call these places “anaba” and discovering them is one of the real delights of sightseeing in Kyoto. Here, I’m going to introduce some of our favorite Kyoto “anaba.”
- Honen-in Temple: Passing through the moss-covered gate here brings is like entering another world. It’s right around the corner from bustling Nanzen-ji Temple, but it rarely gets crowded here.
- Shisen-do Temple: This fine little temple is the perfect place to sit and think. It’s located just a bit too far north for most people to go, and that’s all for the best. While you’re in the area, be sure to check out nearby Manshu-in Temple as well.
- Nanzen Okunoin: Located up the hill and in the woods about 200m east of Nanzen-ji Temple, this grotto one of my favorite places in all of Kyoto. You can feel the power of nature all around you and you can understand why the earliest residents of the city considered this a sacred place.
image © Damien Douxchamps
- Gio-ji Temple: Gio-ji Temple is far enough off the main Arashiyama sightseeing route to escape the crowds that plague other nearby temples. But those who make the trek up here are rewarded with the most incredible moss garden you’ll see anywhere – a rival for the famed moss garden at Saiho-ji Temple.
- Saimyo-ji Temple: One of three temples in the northern mountain hamlet of Takao, this is a special place. It’s surrounded by greenery and you can usually count on having the place to yourself. Don’t miss the little grotto down by the waterfall behind the main precinct.
- Koto-in Subtemple at Daitoku-ji Temple: Every one of the subtemples in the sprawling Daitoku-ji Temple complex is superb, but Koto-in really takes the cake. The approach here is magical.
- Tenju-an Subtemple at Nanzen-ji Temple: Nanzen-ji is surrounded by interesting little subtemples, but Tenju-an will always be my favorite due to the beauty of its garden. Most folks just stream by this place on their way to the main hall of Nanzen-ji, but don’t make this mistake. The entrance is just across from the south end of the towering Sam-mon Gate (ceremonial main gate of the temple).
- Murin-an Villa: Just downhill from the busy Nanzen-ji Temple, entering this little pocket garden is like passing through the wardrobe into Narnia.
If you’re interested in seeing more of hidden Kyoto, be sure to check out my Off The Beaten Track itineraries, which gives you step-by-step walks through Kyoto districts that show the secret side of the city.
Kyoto Vacation Checklist
- Check Kyoto accommodation availability on Booking.com - usually you can reserve a room with no upfront payment. Pay when you check out. Free cancellations too.
- See my comprehensive Packing List For Japan
- Buy a data-only SIM card online for collection when you arrive at Kansai International Airport (for Osaka and Kyoto) or Tokyo's Narita Airport
- Compare Japan flight prices and timings to find the best deals
- If you're visiting more than one city, get your Japan Rail Pass
- Get travel insurance for Japan - we recommend World Nomads (and here's why)