Byodoin (平等院, Byōdōin) is a Pure Land Buddhist temple with some of Japan’s most eye-catching architecture. A short train ride from Kyoto on the JR Nara Line, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a must-visit. In this post, I’ll share photos from Byodoin (including night shots!), history, info & tips for visiting, and thoughts on the experience.
If you’re in the midst of planning a trip to Kyoto, there’s a reasonable chance you haven’t heard of Byodoin Temple, and that’s likely because it’s technically in Uji, Japan and not in Kyoto proper. While Uji is unquestionably a city distinct from Kyoto, it is worth noting that Byodoin Temple is a straight-shot 29-minute train ride from Kyoto Station with zero transfers. It takes less time to get here than to many other temples and shrines within the city limits.
If you’ve already visited Japan but haven’t heard of Byodoin, there’s still a chance you’ve carried a piece of it around with you. I don’t mean in your heart or spirit, or anything like that. I mean physically–along with the lint in your pocket. The Phoenix Hall at Byodoin Temple is featured on the back of the Japanese ten yen coin. If that’s not a definitive sign of cultural-significant, I don’t know what is!
Let’s get to brass tacks and cover the history of Byodoin Temple, followed by our tips for visiting, and review of this UNESCO World Heritage Site near Kyoto, Japan…
Byodoin Temple and its accompanying garden represents the Pure Land Paradise and was influential on later temple construction. Built in 998 as a countryside retreat palace for the politician Fujiwara no Michinaga, Byodoin was not initially viewed as a temple.
It was converted to a temple by Yorimichi Fujiwara during the beginning of the Mappo “end of the world” period to enshrine the Buddha Amida. He also ordered the construction of Byodoin’s most striking building, the Phoenix Hall. Built in 1053 to enshrine a statue of Amitabha Tathagata, a National Treasure, the Phoenix Hall was originally known as Amidabha Hall.
Byodoin Temple’s other buildings have been repeatedly lost to fires and destruction over the centuries. One of the lone exceptions to this is the Phoenix Hall, which has never been destroyed and is one of the few important wooden structures to have survived from the Heian Period.
Tips & Info
As mentioned at the top, Byodoin Temple is located in Uji, Japan. However, at a 19-minute train ride from Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, it’s closer to major points of interest in Kyoto than many other temples that are technically within Kyoto to the north and south, including our favorites like Kuramadera and Yoshiminedera.
Because of that, and since we don’t intend to create any comprehensive coverage of Uji, we’re just going to lump it in with Kyoto. That’s probably how you’ll experience it, perhaps with other stops in Uji at the Tale of Genji Museum, Ujigami Shrine, and a teahouse for the city’s famed green tea.
Note that there are two different Uji Stations, each about a 10-minute walk from Byodoin Temple. One serves the Keihan Main Line while the other serves the JR Nara Line. Both are incredibly straight-forward approaches to Byodoin Temple. As Uji’s main point of interest, you’ll have no trouble finding the temple.
The grounds of Byodoin Temple are open daily from 8:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m., with last admission at 5:15 p.m. The Phoenix Hall and Museum both close earlier than the grounds, so you should ideally arrive no later than 3:45 p.m. Admission to the main grounds and museum of Byodoin Temple costs 600 yen.
Visitors to Byodoin can enter the Phoenix Hall, which houses the Amida Buddha, on short guided tours that run every 20 minutes and cost an additional 300 yen. Each tour can take a maximum of 50 people, and on busy days, there will be a wait for the tours. Tours are only in Japanese, with supplementary brochures available in English (and other languages).
We recommend allocating about 60 minutes for Byodoin Temple, plus another 20 if you want to enter the Phoenix Hall. While the other buildings around Byodoin are not particularly noteworthy or memorable (in our estimation), you’ll still want to take your time walking around the Phoenix Hall and its pond, as well as the exquisite displays inside the museum.
We’ve been to Byodoin Temple a couple of times, and both experiences were great. Obviously, the first experience was good…or why else would we return? It was also pretty straightforward, going on an uncrowded fall day, walking the grounds to see all of the buildings, entering the museum, and sitting at a table perched above Phoenix Hall and just gazing at it, awestruck, for a while.
Photos don’t do Phoenix Hall justice; it’s among the most mesmerizing buildings in all of Japan. I don’t know what it is about this building–there are more grandiose, ornate, older, etc. buildings–but it has a certain wow-factor to it, and is distinct from other temple buildings elsewhere. I think it looks like the building version of a dragon, which is high praise, since dragons are pretty rad. It’s unlike anything you’ll see anywhere else. Well…unless you visit the replica in Hawaii, I guess.
Hoshokan Museum is also exceptional. Built underground so as to not distract from the historic character of the temple, Hoshokan Museum reminds me of a smaller version of Kyoto National Museum. It’s only around 20 years old, and clearly had an emphasis placed on its presentation and style while being built, because it’s a beautiful museum.
It houses several National Treasures of Japan, including the Buddhist Temple Bell, a pair of Phoenix, and statues of Worshiping Bodhisattvas on clouds. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside Hoshokan Museum, but you can catch a few glimpses of the museum on the museum page of Byodoin Temple’s official website.
We’ve also visited Byodoin Temple for a cherry blossom season night illumination. The only way we even knew about this was by finding a flier at a tourist information center in Kyoto. Even as seasoned travelers, we still stop at these because, as we discuss in our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan, they have special event information you often cannot find elsewhere–even the internet.
Byodoin Temple’s evening illumination is one such event that is not covered on Japan planning sites. This was a bit surprising given Byodoin’s stature, but we chalked it up to the temple being in Uji instead of Kyoto. Nonetheless, between the beautiful photo on the flier and the prospect of an under-the-radar event, it became an instant must-do for us.
After a day in Nara, we took the train north to Byodoin. We had never been to Uji at night, and stepping off the train at Uji Station felt like arriving in a ghost town. Especially during the heart of sakura season, experiences like this are nice, since there are otherwise crowds…pretty much everywhere.
This had us really excited, envisioning a night event without the typical throngs of crowds. Then, we got to the shopping street leading to Byodoin Temple and we found the crowd. We continued to the entrance of Byodoin, and we found half the population of Uji (explaining why no one was in the street anywhere else!).
It turned out that this was only the second time Byodoin had done a night illumination, with the prior event being a limited run last fall. This was the first night of the spring event, compounding the crowds. Ironically, this “under-the-radar” night illumination ended up being the most congested one we attended, but that was partly the result of an artificially narrow path and awkward crowd control.
On the plus side, it was almost entirely locals. Even though it was busy, it still did feel like we had found something most tourists would never see. Oh, and the night illumination was absolutely stunning. I thought Byodoin Temple’s Phoenix Hall was beautiful during the day, but that did not compare to night. It looked really cool and the lighting really accentuated the details of the hall’s architecture.
Aside from a few cherry trees, there was really no reason that this was a sakura event (I assume it was just scheduled for this time of year because people enjoy doing evening illuminations during the spring and fall). Unfortunately, even the temple’s website doesn’t seem to publish dates for this event, so I can’t say whether it’ll return this fall or next spring.
Overall, Byodoin Temple is a wonderful place to visit. It has several things going for it, including distinctive architecture, beautiful grounds, and a brilliantly-presented museum containing National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties. Byodoin is very easy to access from Fushimi Inari, Nara, Daigo, and other popular spots around Kyoto making a visit here easy to justify from a time-investment perspective. Even if it were more challenging to access, we would consider Byodoin a temple worthy of “destination” status.
If you’re planning a trip to the Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend starting by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit!
Have you visited Byodoin Temple in Uji, Japan? What did you think of the experience? Would you recommend it to a first-timer visiting Kyoto? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting this temple interest you? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!