Heian Shrine (平安神宮, Heian Jingū) was built in 1895 for the 1100th anniversary of Kyoto’s founding as capital of Japan. This modern re-creation is a 5/8 scale replica of the original Hiean Palace. In this post, we’ll discuss whether this free shrine is worth your time, if the paid gardens are worth the money, and will share photos of Heian Shrine–including of the weeping cherry blossom trees at their peak during sakura season.
For me, Heian Jingu is a tale of two shrines. I don’t think the free area is that impressive. It’s large and expansive, but not in a way that evokes grandeur or makes you want to spend time exploring the grounds. To the contrary, the shrine feels impersonal and lacks any sort of spirituality. The design is neat and memorable, but that’s partly because the wide open courtyard is unique. That’s the “meh” tale of Heian Shrine.
Then there’s the paid garden area behind the main buildings of Heian Shrine. This is pretty much the polar opposite of the rest of the shrine. It has a winding path with beautiful weeping cherry trees, small ponds, intimate areas for contemplation, and some lovely design. These gardens are the “charming” tale of Heian Shrine.
Heian Shrine announces itself to visitors via a giant, 24 meter torii gate far in front of the main shrine in Okazaki-koen Park, a museum-dense area of Kyoto.
To be honest, I had no idea that this torii was even part of Heian Shrine for the longest time, as it’s so far removed from the rest of the shrine, and seems more like a way to tie Okazaki-koen Park together.
Upon arriving to what most would consider the actual grounds of Heian Shrine, visitors enter the courtyard through Ōtenmon Gate, a twin level main gate constructed as a replica of the original entrance gate of Heian Palace.
Inside, the ground is covered with white sand. This sand area makes up a pretty huge courtyard–it never really feels crowded at Heian Shrine thanks to this area.
The architecture inside is also reminiscent of Chinese design, and those flourishes plus the wide-open white sand courtyard plus the green & vermillion color palette makes for a striking appearance.
Across the sprawling courtyard of Heian Shrine is the Daigokuden, which is composed of three buildings. Some of these are only open select days of the year. We don’t consider any of these buildings all that memorable.
The paid gardens of Heian Shrine are called the Shin’en, which covers 33,000 square meters and is divided into four distinct areas: the East, West, South and Middle Gardens. The Shin’en Garden was designed by Ogawa Jihei, who is considered the forerunner of the modern Japanese garden.
This garden took two decades to complete, and he incorporated occidental style into traditional Japanese gardening, creating stroll gardens that blended ponds, plants, bridges, and stone along with wide space to create a unique dichotomy.
Shin’en Garden is great. This is what elevates Heian Shrine from a mediocre shrine with outsized popularity due to a convenient location into something special. The late-blooming cherry trees make Shin’en Garden a must-visit during sakura season.
Even during other times of the year, this would be one of the better gardens in Kyoto. It’s Heian Shrine’s greatest asset, and we would say Shin’en Garden is worth the 600 yen admission fee year-round.
Here are some photos from our sakura season visit to Shin’en Garden:
Heian-jingu is one of the shrines we visit most in Kyoto, but that’s not because we love it. Rather, we find ourselves in the area a lot, be it for the museums, the surplus of excellent restaurants nearby, or flea markets and other events that are held in the courtyard in Okazaki-koen Park. Basically, it’s a “might as well” type of thing.
Invariably, after about 10 minutes, we always find ourselves ready to go. If you’re not going into the Shin’en Garden, that’s probably about all of the time you need at Heian Shrine. There’s really not a ton of substance to it, and most of your time here will be spent walking across that huge courtyard. You’ll look inside the main building for a few minutes, saying “that’s it?” before turning around and walking back.
In order to access Heian Shrine, you can walk from Higashiyama Station on the Tozai subway line or from Sanjo Station on the Keihan Line. There are also a couple of buses that have stops (basically) at the main gate. However, we would not recommend treating Heian Shrine as a “destination” temple. This is the kind of place you visit because you’re a short walk from it and you have the time.
Despite my ambivalence towards Heian Shrine, I don’t necessarily dislike it nor do I recommend skipping it. I would just caution against getting your expectations too high, as this is a really popular, really well-known shrine in Kyoto…but on my list of the best temples and shrines in Kyoto, it’d be lucky to crack the top 50.
With that said, Heian Shrine’s architecture and style is distinct, so it’s worth the stop for a few photos, and it’s a memorable place visit. It’s also nearby Nanzenji Temple and a part of Kyoto that sees a lot of foot traffic, so there’s a good chance you’ll already be in the area. From that perspective, my recommendation is about the same as my thinking each time we’re nearby in Okazaki-koen Park…you might as well do it.
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 Heian Shrine? What did you think of it? Do you agree that it’s only mediocre, or think I’m being too hard on the shrine? Would you recommend it to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting this spot in Kyoto 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!