Rurikoin Temple: Kyoto’s Not-So-Hidden Gem

In some regards, Rurikoin Temple is about the furthest thing from a hidden gem in Kyoto. It’s famous for foliage–and not just fall colors–within Japan, and despite a pricey entrance fee, this renowned spot commands lengthy lines that can result in waits of 2-3 hours just to enter.

Despite that, there’s a reasonably good chance you’ve never heard of Rurikoin Temple. To our knowledge, it’s not covered in any of the major Japan guidebooks or major websites, at least those written in English. This is understandable, as Rurikoin Temple is not open year-round, and requires a bit of a commute to access.

Due to the dearth of coverage, we only first learned about Rurikoin Temple last year while perusing fliers at one of Kyoto’s invaluable Tourist Info centers when an eye-catching photo caught my attention. Even on that poster, the info was entirely in Japanese, save for the official website URL.

By that time, Kyoto’s autumn foliage season had passed and the leaves were starting to fall, so we opted against paying the steep entry fee and saved it for “next time.” This year, our fall visit to Kyoto occurred prior to peak colors, leaving us with a dilemma.

Not knowing when “next time” would be, we decided to roll the dice. In order to beat the crowds, at least to the greatest extent possible, we got up early one morning and headed north to experience Rurikoin Temple. Are we ever glad we did; it was one of the best decisions we made this visit to Kyoto.

After taking a packed Eizan Railway (we bought one-day unlimited passes and combined this temple with several others in the area–see our 1-Day Northern Kyoto Itinerary for some ideas) train, we arrived at Yase-Hieizan-guchi Station. Initially, we worried that everyone would be heading to Rurikoin, but it turned out most people were en route to Mount Hiei and Enryakuji Temple.

We also had one of our first Google Maps “wins” ever in Japan, as the app directed us through a quiet back pathway, resulting in us beating everyone who took the normal path to Rurikoin Temple. When we did arrive, we were surprised to find quite the line, even at 45 minutes before the temple’s opening time.

This should have come as no surprise. In Japan, you’re punctual if you’re 30 minutes early, and late if you’re on time. Or so it seems. We were the only Westerners in line, which was nice from the perspective of doing something other foreign tourists were not. That is, until a long announcement was made…entirely in Japanese.

A few other visitors looked at us towards the end of the announcement, which is never a good sign. These looks always make me feel like they’re thinking, “do these gaijin realize this is actually an 8-hour line to meet the Boss Coffee mascot?!” (And in actuality, I would wait 8 hours to meet Tommy Lee Jones in Japan.)

It turned out that whatever was said wasn’t all that important, as we had no issues entering with the first wave of visitors. We followed the same protocol as everyone else: stopping to have our photo taken by the greeter, paying our 2,000 yen per person entrance fee at the ticket booth and receiving a packet.

After that, we entered Rurikoin Temple’s main (and only publicly accessible) building. At this point, there was a delay of only around 30 seconds–roughly the time it took to pay–between each group being admitted inside.

Once inside, we immediately headed upstairs to the iconic table, which offers stunning reflections of the gardens outside. Photos of this scene are what sold me on visiting Rurikoin Temple, and I had been stalking recent posts on Instagram to see how the colors were progressing in the days before we made our visit.

While the foliage was changing more slowly than I would’ve liked, part of me is pleased with the timing of our visit, which we purposefully delayed until the last of our stay in Kyoto. By arriving before the heart of fall colors season, not only did we beat some of the crowds, but we saw a kaleidoscope of color.

I was able to compose my photos so some looked like summer, some looked like fall, and others looked like a mix of two. I like the range of greens, yellows, and reds present, and think maybe this is the “ideal” look for Rurikoin Temple.

Then again, I very well might be trying to convince myself of that as much as anything. (If given the chance to go back when the whole place is fiery red, I’d jump at it…)

We spent 30 minutes up there, as I tried every conceivable photo composition with such a limited subject. As you might expect, I have many more photos of the colors reflected in that table, but I don’t want to overdo it here. I’ll slowly dole them out over the next couple of years, so each one makes more of an impact. Gotta really get my money’s worth from that admission fee! 😉

One thing that should be noted is that the photos here might be a bit deceiving, as they showcase what appears to be a mostly crowd-free experience. That’s a result of careful angles, good timing, and barriers within the Rurikoin Temple that have been established to make the environment conducive to photography.

Rurikoin is about as far from an intimate or serene temple experience as you can possibly have. This is all about the eye candy, and picture-perfect spaces. The reality of visiting is largely chaos. This is especially true around the table in the upper level, where you might have to wait in line for several minutes just to get the “front row.”

This is not to discourage you from visiting, but to set expectations. I wouldn’t say this put a damper on our experience, but we’ve also had the chance to visit countless other temples entirely devoid of people. If you have limited time in Kyoto, you’ll want to find time for actual hidden gems to savor the serene, as well. (To this end, we recommend Rengeji Temple, which is a short walk from Rurikoin.)

Another thing to note is that we were towards the end of the first wave of visitors, who are all admitted one group after another, with only pauses in between to stop for the entrance photo and then pay. This resulted in something of a log-jam inside at the beautiful reflecting table.

Sort of figuring this would be the case, we lingered in this upper room. After about 20 minutes, it almost entirely cleared out, with only a handful of new visitors showing up every few minutes. This is definitely our recommended approach if you arrive for Rurkoin Temple when it opens. (If you arrive later in the day, this will likely be the default experience.)

By the time we left Rurikoin Temple, the line was longer in length than when we arrived, and judging by the very slow of guests being allowed inside, I’d estimate it was over a two-hour wait to enter.

If you do decide to visit, you should definitely arrive early, and go on a weekday if at all possible. This is primarily a popular destination with domestic tourists, so the difference in crowds between weekends and weekdays should be fairly pronounced.

If you’ve seen photos of Rurikoin Temple before, it’s probably of the colors reflected in that polished table. What might surprise you is that this room is but one on the upper level of the temple, with a wealth of other areas below, and striking architecture and views throughout the temple.

In terms of atmosphere and design, the interior of Rurikoin Temple feels as much like a villa as a temple. Less-touted highlights include a drawing room, teahouse, rare prototype of an early Japanese-style steam bath, and viewing areas for the beautiful Japanese style gardens outside.

All told, we spent nearly 2 hours in Rurikoin Temple, trying as much as possible to get as much value as possible out of it. This is the second-most expensive temple we’ve ever visited, with most Kyoto temples costing around one-quarter what Rurikoin did.

It’s difficult to say Rurikoin is “four times better” than a normal temple in Japan, but pricing no doubt takes into account its limited opening seasons and restricted attendance numbers. (That includes a ‘free’ ink pen, admission to nearby Louis Icart Art Museum Kyoto, and ‘unlimited’ green tea.)

Ultimately, it’s impossible for us to say definitively whether Rurikoin Temple is “worth it.” As frequent and repeat visitors to Japan, it was worth it for us to see something new and unique, and a place that few foreign tourists visit. As a photographer, Rurikoin was a treasure trove for me, and felt like it was designed purposefully with great photos in mind.

You likely will have different considerations when trying to judge whether visiting Rurikoin makes sense for you. Money is only one component of the cost, as the time investment in commuting here is also significant. (Although we’d argue that’s mitigated by doing a full-day in Northern Kyoto, which you absolutely should do.) If you have only 2-3 days in Kyoto, we’d recommend allocating your limited time elsewhere. If you have 4 or more days in the city and aren’t on a tight budget, Rurikoin Temple is a great splurge; it ranks highly among our top overall temples and is very different from other options.

If you’re planning a trip to 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! 

Your Thoughts

Have you visited Rurikoin Temple? What did you think of the experience? Worth the effort and expense? Would you recommend it to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting this temple 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!

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