There are thousands of temples as well as shrines in Kyoto, so it is understandable that people may be confused as to the difference between the two. Calling a temple a shrine (or vice versa), however, is akin to calling a church a synagogue. Both buildings belong to two different religions: Buddhism lays claim to the temples whereas shrines are dedicated to the gods of the Shinto religion.
The entrance to a Shinto shrine is always through a torii gate and a pair of animals, usually dogs or lions, (or in the case of Fushimi Inari Shrine, foxes) guard either side of the entrance. There is also a fountain nearby where you should cleanse your hands and mouth before prayer.
Kyoto has a number of significant shrines that are free to visit and worth seeing during your stay (listed below) but before you dive in, it is helpful to understand a little about the Shinto religion.
Dating back thousands of years to Japan’s feudal ‘clan’ days, Shinto is based on the belief that powerful gods (kami) inhabit both heaven and earth. Each clan identified with its own god and built shrines in order to worship them. The most important Shinto shrines in Kyoto include the ancient Kamigamo-jinja and Shimogamo-jinja in north Kyoto, Yasaka-jinja in Gion, east Kyoto and Fushimi Inari Shrine in Fushimi, south Kyoto.
Kamigamo Jinja, 339 Motoyama Kamigamo Kita-ku
Dating back to the 7th century, this shrine is one of Tokyo’s oldest and the colorful Aoi Matsuri (Hollyhock Festival) is held here in May.
Shimogamo Jinja, 59 Izumigawa-cho Shimogamo Sakyo-ku
Sister shrine to Kamigamo, Shimogamo is equally ancient and set amid picturesque and peaceful surrounds.
Yasaka Jinja, 625 Kitagawa, Gion-machi, Higashiyama-ku
This lively shrine in the old part of Kyoto dates back to 876 and is the end point for the famous Gion Matsuri Festival.
Fushimi Inari Shrine, 68 Yabunouchi-cho, Fukakusa Fushimi-ku
Dedicated to the god of rice and sake, this much-photographed shrine is famous for its miles of striking brick-red torii gates.