Unryu-in Temple in Kyoto is known for the views offered its beautiful windows into the Japanese gardens, which differ in each of the four seasons. In this post, we’ll share photos from our visit to Unryuin during its fall nighttime illumination, recount the somewhat-bizarre anecdote of our journey there, and provide our take as to whether Unryu-in Temple is worth your time.
In terms of basic background information, Unryu-in Temple’s normal, daytime operating hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with last admission at 4:30 p.m. Admission is 400 yen, or 900 yen with matcha. Depending upon the time of your visit, you can also participate in sutra copying for 1,500 yen.
One of Kyoto’s hidden gems, Unryu-in Temple does not draw many tourists. This is likely due to its location, which is in the park-like grounds of Sennyu-ji Temple, and a 20 minute walk from the nearest train station. Honestly, I don’t know how else to explain it, as I think Unryu-in Temple offers an exemplary experience that is every bit as compelling as high-profile temples that offer garden viewing.
Our visit to Unryu-in Temple was relatively spontaneous. We had already “completed” our autumn nighttime illuminations, visiting all of the most popular temples the previous couple of weeks when we went to a Kyoto Tourist Information Center. As noted in our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan (at the very end…in case you never read that far!), we always recommend visitors do this upon arriving in Kyoto, and this is a big reason why.
That’s because we found info at that Tourist Center indicating this temple–one we had never even heard of, much less visited or planned to visit–was hosting a nighttime illumination. After Googling the temple and finding scant information but a couple cool photos of its windows, we decided to make an impulsive visit that night–the last that it was hosting the fall illumination.
After a brief stop at our apartment to eat, we set out for Unryu-in Temple. Google Maps indicated that the walk from our place near Fushimi Inari would be 25 minutes, so we opted for that instead of the 18 minute walk plus 2 minute train ride. Little did we know the route Google had in store for us.
Okay, so it’s not like our GPS told us to drive into a pond or anything, but the app did take us on a small path through the woods behind some homes, over a stream covered by some makeshift boards. All in the dark of night–and since the woods don’t have street lights, we used our phone flashlights to guide the way.
I am still 50/50 on whether we were on private property. We weren’t so much spooked by the dark trek through the woods, but by the prospect of a headline on CNN, “American tourists arrested for wandering through backyards in Japan.” If this were the Midwest, I might’ve had some trepidation about being shot.
Fortunately, our “shortcut” was a relatively quick experience, but it was still…different. Odder still is that on the way back, we disregarded Google Maps, which again wanted us to go through the woods, and instead took adjacent streets.
That was just as quick, with the bonus of not creeping behind anyone’s house. (Just as a heads up, Google Maps still suggests this through-the-woods route; so if you’re looking for a bit of adventure to spice up your Kyoto trip, that might be just the ticket!)
At this point we were pretty much in the large, park-like complex that houses both Sennyu-ji Temple and Unryu-in Temple (the latter is technically a sub-temple of the former, but you’d only know that if you research them), where a sign signaled us towards Unryu-in Temple.
When we got to the temple, our initial reaction was, “shoot, it’s closed.” Unlike other temples we had visited for nighttime illuminations, there was no one around, and the entrance was pretty non-descript.
Nevertheless, a light was on, so we edged into the temple’s courtyard and found someone working the reception desk, who sold us our 400 yen tickets for the event. Inside, Unryu-in Temple was a ghost town.
When we arrived, there were two other visitors at the temple. They left within 20 minutes of us being there; I think maybe one other person showed up later. For the most part, we had the place to ourselves. In addition to viewing the gardens, we also perused the small interior, which contains some artifacts and fusuma art. Unfortunately, not all of this was illuminated.
Going into the visit, I expected crowds to be lower than places like Kiyomizudera or Eikando Temple. I had literally never heard of Unryu-in Temple prior to this, and it’s not even listed on major Japan planning sites or guidebooks.
We’ve since been back to the adjacent Sennyu-ji Temple during the popular cherry blossom season, and our experience there was much the same–zero tourists.
Nevertheless, being in a nearly empty temple was a serene and eerie experience. Mostly, it was just peaceful.
I think the design of the windows speak for themselves, and made for striking visuals with the darkened interiors juxtaposed against the vibrantly illuminated backgrounds.
Sitting there, without anyone around, was great. The windows are mesmerizing, and I think I probably spent an uninterrupted 10 minutes just starring into one of them.
I’m not going to pretend I had some deep state of Zen or reached non-mindness (if you ask Sarah, I’m probably at that point a good 2-3 times per day), but it was meditative.
My only regret is that we didn’t learn about this earlier in the fall colors season and go then, as most of the leaves had already fallen by the time we visited. In looking at Unryuin Temple’s official website, it looks like it would’ve been absolutely stunning about a week earlier.
Speaking of which, you should also consult that to determine dates for nighttime illuminations. Fall dates don’t appear to be published yet, but there are other openings throughout the year.
Ultimately, we ended up spending around 90 minutes at Unryu-in Temple for its nighttime illumination, savoring that contemplative atmosphere. It was an experience totally unlike those we had at other evening openings, and there’s definitely something to be said for the intimate, uncrowded experience. When you couple the lack of crowds with those visually-arresting windows and nice gardens, Unryuin Temple scores major points. I’d highly recommend paying Unryu-in Temple a visit–day or night. Getting away from the hordes of tourists gives you a greater appreciation for the spirit of Kyoto, and that makes this the type of place you should really find space for in your Kyoto itinerary.
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!
What do you think of the windows and interior design at Unryuin Temple? Have you been here? Was there anyone there when you visited? What did you think of the experience? Would you recommend this temple 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!