In the northeastern area of Kyoto, accessible by bus or the Eizan train line, is a wealth of temples and shrines less crowded than those found in the more southern parts of town. Following the curve of the mountain range that shelters Kyoto City, one can find all sorts of charming temples tucked away in backstreets and shrines at mountain bases. Don’t let the travel time deter you, as the gardens, treasures, and experiences these locations offer make them well worth the trip.
Located in northern Kyoto is Kamigamo Jinja, one of Kyoto’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. With a rich history as one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Kyoto, Kamigamo Shrine is traditionally linked with Shimogamo Shrine to the south, with the two referred to collectively as the Kamo Shrines. The shrines grounds combine swathes of nature and expanses of pale gravel, with the buildings contrasting yet somehow harmonized in natural wood against the brilliant vermilion of its gates and fences. A rather interesting sight on the grounds can be found in front of the worship hall in the form of two sand constructions called tatesuna that represent the divine mountain. Sometimes the shrine’s sacred horse is stabled on the property, and the theme of the yatagarasu, a legendary three legged crow, can be found in such forms as the crow-shaped omikuji fortunes. Host to festivals such as the Aoi Matsuri, one of Kyoto’s three most famous, the ancient Kamigamo Shrine is worth a visit no matter the day.
The former hermitage of Ishikawa Jōzan, a samurai famous as a scholar of Chinese literature as well as a landscape architect, Shisen-dō served as a retirement villa in Kyoto once he left military service. Shisen-dō (officially named Ōtotsuka) received its moniker from the portraits of Chinese poets displayed in the main room. After making your way to the hermitage through a bamboo path, you can head first to the smooth tatami mat of the main hall and enjoy the garden scenery. Shisen-dō boasts some interestingly pruned azalea bushes and the clever use of empty space with a backdrop of trees that makes for lush colors in spring and summer, as well as stunning oranges in the fall. After taking your time to explore the main hall’s artifacts and classic décor, you can step out for a stroll to enjoy the small pond and interestingly layered garden. The sound of a bamboo water fixture thunking steadily as it fills, spills, and refills only adds to the feeling of the hermitage where hopefully you can steal a moment away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Nestled partway up a mountain in northeastern Kyoto, Tanukidani-san Fudō-in Temple can trace its history all the way back to the Heian period, existing as a cave with a statue for centuries until the actual temple complex was built in its present form until 1944. It is said that the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi came to this area to hone his skills and undergo ascetic training in the 1600s, and visitors can see the waterfall at which this illustrious rōnin trained even today. Tanukidani-san Fudō-in is a temple that eschews the more traditional Buddhist sect system in favor of the ascetic nature worship of Shugendō. A practice that combines various Buddhist, Shinto, and Taoist beliefs, Shugendō can be translated as "the way to spiritual power through discipline", and the monks who follow this tradition undergo strict ascetic training. Also known as a place to pray for recovery from illness as well as famous for its many tanuki statues, make the climb up to Tanukidani-san Fudō-in and a look out over the rich mountain peaks yourself!
Nestled at the western base of Mt. Hiei in the northern mountainous area of Yase, Rurikō-in is the former villa of a Meiji period statesman with resplendent residential architecture that was later converted into a temple. Open only in the fresh spring aomomiji season and the fall kōyō season, Rurikō-in is particularly famous for their second-floor view full of lush maple leaves that reflect on the building’s polished interior. Despite its relatively steep entrance fee, Rurikō-in’s beauty and nature-rich, remote location more than make the trip worth it for those looking to see something memorable.
A small shrine located along the scenic Eizan train line, Miyake Hachimangū is one of many shrines to worship Hachiman, the god of war and protector of the country. Known particularly for safeguarding the health of children, this shrine also stands out for its numerous doves and dove imagery scattered about the grounds on account of the bird being revered as Hachiman’s divine messenger. Tucked away in a charming green patch of old Kyoto neighborhood, this shrine is a nice spot to visit if you have prayers for a child’s health in mind, or happen to fancy birds.
Located in the northeastern area of Kyoto not far from the Shūgaku-in Imperial Villa, Sekizan Zen-in is a relatively small temple that belongs to the Tendai school of Buddhism. Founded in 888, it enshrines Sekizan Daimyōjin, a deity originating from China and introduced by high priest Ennin after studying esoteric Buddhism there. It is also one of the temples on Kyoto’s Seven Gods of Fortune pilgrimage circuit, venerating Fukurokuju, the god of wisdom and longevity. A distinctive feature of Sekizan Zen-in is its two large rings of juzu prayer beads that visitors can pass through for a blessing. Sekizan Zen-in is a more unusual temple with many interesting things to discover, and it is particularly beautiful in autumn when its lush maple foliage turns red.