Back in late April I flew to Japan for a whirlwind getaway that took me to Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima (see here and here). The second prefecture on my agenda was Kyoto, made famous for its Geisha in Memoirs of a Geisha. Located in the central part of Japan, in Hoshu, Kyoto has a population close to 1.5 million. You can easily spend days exploring the cute streets of Gion hoping to spot a traditional Geisha (not to be confused with a Japanese woman wearing a kimono), taking a leisurely stroll down Philosophers Path and discover the bamboo grove of Arashiyama.

Yet with over 1,600 temples scattered throughout Kyoto, the choice can get a little overwhelming. So if you only have a few days to spare, below are my ‘must see’ temples in the historic city.

KINKAKUJI Kinkakuji, otherwise known as the Golden Pavillion, is a Zen temple in Northern Kyoto whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. Formerly known as Rokuonji, the temple was the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. Following his death in 1408, his will instructed the villa to become a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect. Sadly it has burned down numerous times throughout its history including twice during the Onin War, a civil war that destroyed much of Kyoto. And once again more recently in 1950 when a fanatic monk set it on fire. The present structure was rebuilt in 1955 and stands as an impressive memory to its past. Kinkakuji can get very busy so try to get there first thing in the morning or late afternoon to avoid the crowds. Enjoy walking around the gardens and taking in the temple from various vantage points.

KIYOMIZUDERA Kiyomizu, otherwise known as the Pure Water Temple is one of the most illustrious temples of Japan. Founded in 780 alongside the Otowa Waterfall in the wooded hills east of Kyoto, the temple was originally associated with the Husso sect, one of the oldest schools within Japanese Buddhism. More recently it was added to the list of UNESCO world heritage sites in 1994. Best known for its wooden stage that juts out from its main hall, due to renovations this was sadly closed off to the public when I visited. However the view was impressive further up from the temple and the side streets around the temple were utterly adorable. Perfect for local Japanese trinket shopping!

RYOAN-JI Ryoan-Ji, also known as the Rock Temple is home to Japan’s most famous rock garden. The temple was originally an aristocrat’s villa during the Heian Period before it was converted into a Zen temple in 1450. As for the history of the temple’s famous rock garden, the facts are less known. The date the garden was established is unknown and there is a lot of speculation surrounding the architect. The garden itself is designed in a rectangular space with pebbles scattered on the garden floor and 15 rocks laid out in small groups on patches of moss. Most curiously, no matter where you stand to look at the garden at least one of the rocks is always hidden from the viewer.

GINKAKUJI Fondly referred to as the Silver Pavilion, Ginkakuji is a Zen temple located along Kyoto’s eastern Higashiyama mountains. Art obsessed shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa build his retirement villa on the grounds in 1482 and modeled it after Kinkakuji. Converted to a Zen temple after his death in 1490, it became the centre of contemporary culture and had a broad impact on the country. The arts developed and refined during the time include the traditional tea ceremony, flower arrangement, poetry, garden design and architecture. My favourite temple in Kyoto, Ginkakuji boasts an impressive moss garden – the most beautiful garden I’ve ever seen.