Kyoto is the home of more than two thousand shrines and temples. It was also home to Japan’s capital from 794-1868 and the center of Japanese culture for that time. So it holds both spiritual and historical significance - home to 17 UNESCO Heritage Sites - it really is a special place to visit.
I found it hard to navigate which of the thousands of shrines and temples to visit. An internet search pulls up a number of different lists, because each shrine or temple has its own significance. I would highly recommend a guide. Appreciating the significance of any of these is very difficult for a westerner and you are likely to miss the importance on your own.
Context Travel is one of my go-to options. They offer private and small group tours. We also have a good network of excellent guides but I went with Context on this city. What is great about Context is that their tour guides are University Professors or PhD students at the nearby University. So they have deep insight into a particular topic.
Samurai Culture - World of the Warrior
Our first tour was geared toward kids and introduced us to the history of Samurai Culture in Japan. We began the tour at the Daitokuji Temple complex spread out over 35 acres holding 22 Zen temples in the Northwest part of Kyoto. We learned about Zen Buddhism in Japan along with the significance of a Japanese Zen Garden.
We then went to Nijo Castle built by Tokugawa, the founding shogun of the Edo empire. The impressive castle was built to demonstrate his power. It was fascinating to understand the traditions of the Samurai - we even heard the detail around their ceremonial suicide.
Spirituality in Japan - Shinto and Buddhism
Our second tour was one that focused on the difference (and relationship) between Shinto and Buddhism. We began the tour at the Yasaka Shrine which is home to the annual Gion Matsuri Festival held every July. Our guide introduced us to the many rituals that are part of a shrine visit including how to ask the gods for help with finding a suitable marriage partner and a fortune telling game that helped you see what kind of luck you had in your future.
We then took a lovely walk through the grounds and on up to the Kodai-Ji Temple which offers spectacular views of Kyoto and is a lovely spot to sit. We ended our tour at the Kennin-Ji Temple which is considered one of the five most important Zen temples in Kyoto. Our guide did a great job of helping us understand Zen Buddhism in Japan and its roots in history.
Fushimi Inari Taisha
The most spectacular shrine was the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine which is dedicated to Inari or the Shinto god of rice. As agriculture gave way to business, the deities now ensure prosperity in business. The shrine has a magical path of more than 5000 vibrant orange tori gates. The gate-lined path leads up the Inariyama mountain where visitors can reach the summit (233 meters) in about 5 kilometers. It was spectacular.
About three-quarters of the way to the top, there was a place where you could purchase a small Tori gate that would help bring luck to you - for academic success, prosperous business, health, etc. We couldn't resist, we had to purchase one for each of us. The gentleman who sold them to us wrote our names in Japanese and performed a short Shinto ritual or blessing for us.
In addition to the thousands of Tori gates, the other important character of the Fushimi Inari Shrine is the Fox. The fox is the messenger of the god Inari and you encounter statues of the fox guarding all the smaller shrines throughout the complex as you make your way to the top of the mountain.
By the time we had reached the top it was getting dark and it was a beautiful walk down with lanterns lighting out way. The main building was so beautiful at night. This was worth the trip to Kyoto. One of our favorite thins we did in Japan.