Shinnyodo is an under-the-radar and free temple in Kyoto, Japan (officially known as Shinsho Gokuraku-ji Temple). It makes both our Top 10 Fall Color Spots and 10 Best Hidden Gem Photography Spots lists for Kyoto, an impressive feat as usually the best autumn foliage locations are among the most popular temples and shrines in Japan.
In this post, we’ll share photos of Shinnyodo Temple during fall and spring, when the autumn leaves and cherry blossoms surround the main pagoda in breathtaking color and beauty. We’ll also share tips and info for visiting, transportation, and our thoughts about incorporating Shinnyodo Temple into your itinerary for Eastern Kyoto.
Most of what we know of Shinnyodo Temple’s history has been gleaned from other unofficial sources, as the temple itself doesn’t have an English website (or even a working Japanese one, for that matter), and we’ve never received any sort of pamphlets about it from our visits to the Shinnyodo.
The commonly-known history of Shinnyodo Temple is that it was founded in the year 984 on the grounds of Enryaku-ji on Mount Hiei. At that time, the principal statue of the temple, the standing figure of Amida Nyoraione, was first enshrined and thus Shinsho Gokuraku-ji Temple was born.
The temple was relocated multiple times by the Ashikaga Shogunate and Toyotomi Hideyoshi before reaching its current location on Yoshida Hill in 1693 following the Onin War. As is common with temples in Kyoto, the main hall was destroyed by fire, with the current building dating to 1717.
While most of Shinnyodo Temple’s grounds are free to visit, there is a paid inner chamber accessed from inside the main hall (most of which is also free). This inner area includes the temple’s garden and costs 500 yen to enter. The inner chamber features a large gold leaf canopy, ornately-painted fusuma doors, statues of Monju Bodhisattva, library, and huge paintings pertaining to Pure Land Buddhism that are displayed on a rotating basis.
From the inner chamber you can also view the temple’s gardens, including one dry garden with geometrical stone patterns and and a second representing the one of the Pure Land Buddhism paintings on display in the inner chamber via rocks, gravel and trees.
The geometrical stone garden is Zuien-no-niwa, also known as the “Garden of Connection” and is a modern Japanese style stone garden that was completed in the 2000s. The garden’s design is based on the Japanese family crest of major temple benefactor.
The design has a strong geometric emphasis, with diamond-shaped patterns, repeating lines, and variations in color to create what I’d describe as a ‘sharpness’ that’s quite unique to this garden. Even though it’s said to replicate a family crest, it’s an abstraction of that, and there’s ample room for interpretation. It’s a fascinating and engaging design.
The second garden is Nehan-no-niwa, or Nirvana Garden, which is also a contemporary karesansui. The design of the Nehan Garden is based upon one of Shinnyodo Temple’s great treasures, Nehan-zu, or the Painting of Great Nirvana, which is one of the aforementioned rotating paintings.
This is another abstraction meant to evoke the image of Buddha as he lie dying in the center of the garden via large stones. Other stones and various species of trees are used to represent other aspects of the image. As you can see and imagine, much is also left open to interpretation here.
Mount Daimonji and other smaller mountains in the distance that are part of the “Higashiyama-Sanju-Roppo” or 36 Eastern Mountains are incorporated into the garden via shakkei, or borrowed scenery. This is something utilized in a number of Japanese gardens; in Kyoto, it’s most notably a feature of the gardens at Tenryuji Temple.
While these gardens are unique and have some interesting features, they’re small and not exemplars of Japanese gardens. There are much better garden options throughout Kyoto, making these skippable if you are on a budget or don’t have the time.
Back on the free grounds of Shinnyodo is where most of the temple’s seasonal beauty lies. The “Flower Maple” adjacent to the main hall’s well is said to be a harbinger of the coming of autumn. The leaves turn red from the top of the tree down, meaning there is a time when the top of this tree is red, the middle yellow, and the bottom green while other trees in its vicinity are mostly green.
During the heart of fall foliage season, Shinnyodo Temple is mostly a sea of red. This is especially true around its pagoda, which is surrounded by red and orange momiji maple and kaede maple. Around the grounds and main hall there are also yellow ginkgo that provide a nice pop of color.
However, it’s the area immediately around the pagoda that is most stunning–and is one of the best autumn views in all of Japan. I love finding various ways to frame Shinnyodo’s pagoda among these red momiji leaves, and there are few more photogenic sights in all of Kyoto.
Despite making our and others’ lists of the best fall colors spots in Kyoto, Shinnyodo Temple lacks the crowds of other popular temples in Kyoto. On my fall visits, I’ve often encountered less than a dozen other visitors, which is a far cry from the hordes of tourists at places like Kiyomizudera Temple.
To be sure, some tour groups do come to Shinnyodo Temple, and it’s not totally devoid of people, but heavy crowds are the exception and not the rule. This coupled with its fiery reds are a main reason why I love incorporating this into a fall stroll through Eastern Kyoto.
While Shinnyodo Temple receives plenty of attention in autumn for its colors, it truly is overlooked and underrated during the spring, when its ~70 cherry trees blossom. While the pastel pinks aren’t quite as photogenic as the fall colors, they also provide beautiful photo ops with the pagoda.
As for accessing Shinnyodo Temple, board the Kyoto city bus #5 or #17 from Kyoto Station and get off at the “Shinnyo-do-mae” stop. From there, the temple is a 5 minute walk from the bus stop. As always, we recommend consulting Google Maps for more precise times and directions.
Almost no one is actually going to go directly from Kyoto Station to Shinnyodo Temple–it’s just not a major, “destination” temple. More likely, you’re going to be doing a walking tour of Eastern Kyoto, and will be coming from the Silver Pavilion, Path of Philosophers, Heian Shrine, or Kurodani Temple.
It’s a short to moderate walk from any of those points of interest, and can be slotted into our 1-Day Eastern Kyoto Itinerary before or after Honenin Temple. As that itinerary is already pretty jam-packed, you might want to break that itinerary into 2 days if you intend upon visiting multiple temples on Yoshida Hill.
Shinnyodo Temple is open from 9:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. daily. As noted above, entrance to the grounds is free, and this includes some areas of the main hall. To enter the inner chamber of the main hall and the two contemporary landscape gardens, the admission fee is 500 yen for adults.
Overall, we love Shinnyodo Temple. It’s a great option as a free and relatively quick temple that will yield some incredibly photogenic results during spring and fall, and if you want to linger a bit longer and see striking modern Japanese landscape gardens, you can do that for only 500 yen. The quiet temples on Yoshida Hill are among our favorites in Kyoto, and Shinnyodo Temple is a must-visit whenever we’re in the area.
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 Shinnyodo Temple? What did you think of the experience? Would you recommend it to a first-timer visiting Japan? Is this a temple you’d add to your Kyoto itinerary? 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!