Shimogamo and Kamigamo Shrine (or the Kamo Shrines) are UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto, Japan. In this post, we’ll share photos from the these ‘important’ (and free!) Shinto shrines and thoughts on whether they’re worth including in your itinerary.
In terms of basic background and placement, Shimogamo Shrine, or the Lower Kamo Shrine, is located at the junction of the Takano and Kamo rivers north of Kyoto Gyoen and the Imperial Palace (or Demachiyanagi Station). It’s in a large park public and surrounded by an old growth forest that predates the modern city, with trees that are hundreds of years old.
Kamigamo Shrine, or the Upper Kamo Shrine, is located 3.5 km north of Shimogamo Shrine, and is also on the bank of the Kamo River. Due to its more remote location (it’s about 35-40 minutes by bus or foot), this is the less-visited of Kyoto’s two Kamo Shrines.
Both of the Kamo Shrines have distinct features that arguably make them worth your time. Kamigamo Shrine is famous for its two sand cones, which serve to purify visitors to the shrine. Shimogamo Shrine is probably Kyoto’s most vibrant and eye-catching Shinto shrine outside of Fushimi Inari.
Despite these selling points and the UNESCO World Heritage Site status, I don’t recommend visiting either Shimogamo Shrine or Kamigamo Shrine. It’s simply too much of an effort to get to them, and the payoff is not that great. The two shrines are each rather small, and the photos probably do them too much justice.
They look nice here, but there really isn’t much depth. The interior sections of each shrine accessible to the public are very small, and there’s very little to see in the shrines themselves not visible in these photos.
If you’re really wanting to visit one of the shrines for some reason (perhaps you’re interested in UNESCO World Heritage Sites?), I’d recommend Shimogamo Shrine. It’s more convenient to other points of interest, and I think it’s the more interesting of the two shrines. It’s also surrounded by more natural beauty.
Normally, I’d share some background history and other info to build interest, maybe hype you up to visit, and that sort of thing, but I think the official site of Shimogamo Shrine and official site of Kamigamo Shrine do a sufficient job of providing background if you’re so inclined.
The Kamo Shrines hold several events throughout the year, starting with New Year’s at the stroke of midnight when the shrines open and visitors stream in to give a traditional New Year’s Prayer.
Shimogamo Shrine also hosts a variety of other New Year’s festivities for the first four days of the year and again on January 15. The calendars of the two shrines (at the aforementioned websites) are filled with other festivals and events.
One of particular interest to me is the peculiar-sounding “Crow Sumo” at Kamigamo Shrine.
Per the official site: “In this very unusual ritual, shrine officials imitate the voice of crows and their manner of jumping to the side, then children perform sumo for the entertainment of the Kami. It has been designated by the city of Kyoto as an Intangible Cultural Property.”
The most notable of these special events is Aoi Matsuri, which is one of Kyoto’s three biggest festivals, the Aoi Matsuri. The festival commences on May 3rd with the Yabusame-shinji, a display of Heian period horseback archery. The event resumes on May 12th, when the oldest religious procession in Japan commences at Shimogamo shrine. Over one hundred people dressed in Heian period costumes march from Shimogamo shrine to the Mikage shrine, singing and dancing along the way.
Aoi Matsuri culminates on May 15th when costumed people parade from the Imperial Palace in Kyoto to the Shimogamo shrine before continuing to Kamigamo Shrine. During the event, leaders arrive on decorated horses, and make offerings to the gods in a rite known as Kemba. Dancers charm visitors in a rendition of Edo-period Azuma-asobi dancing.
With neither of the Kamo Shrines are regarded as particularly noteworthy fall colors or cherry blossom locations, there are decent options for both seasons.
Kamigamo Shrine in particular has some gorgeous weeping cherry trees in the park outside its main gates. Due to its location in an old growth forest, you can find better fall colors at Shimogamo Shrine.
If you do decide to visit either or both of the Kamo Shrines, the good news is that entry is free. Moreover, the shrines keep long hours, opening at 5:30 a.m. and closing at 5 p.m.
In terms of accessing Shimogamo Shrine, the easiest approach is walking about 15 minutes north from Demachiyanagi Station on the Keihan Line. A variety of buses will also get you there (refer to Google Maps), or you can walk about 20 minutes from the north entrance of Kyoto Imperial Palace Park.
Kamigamo Shrine is a bit tougher to access. The times we’ve gone, we have simply walked from Shimogamo Shrine. This takes around 45 minutes, which is obviously not ideal, but it’s along the Kamo River and goes through Kyoto Botanical Garden, so that helps break up the walk.
Alternatively, buses will take you there or you can walk 15 minutes from Kitayama Station on the Karasuma Subway Line.
Overall, the Kamo Shrines are fine. If these were located along the ‘main drag’ in Higashiyama or Arashiyama and there were zero effort required to visit, I’d say that you might as well. Unfortunately, there’s far more than a minimal effort required to visit, and the payoff just isn’t worth it. These are important shrines from a historical and cultural perspective, hence their UNESCO World Heritage Site status, but you’d never guess as much as a casual visitor.
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!
Have you visited Kyoto’s Kamo Shrines? What did you think of the experience? Would you recommend the Shimogamo Shrine or Kamigamo Shrine to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting these shrines 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!