Yoshiminedera Temple: Kyoto Hidden Gem

Yoshiminedera (吉峰寺) is a Japanese Buddhist temple in Kyoto’s southwestern mountains, comparable to Kiyomizudera or Kuramadera. That’s high praise considering their quality, but this is one of Kyoto’s crown jewels, which is also one of its best “hidden” gems. In this post, we offer info on getting to this off-the-beaten path temple, details about its history, share photos from our visit, and offer some tips for this spot, which is also known as the Pine Tree Temple (Matsu no Tera).

I’ll start by giving a huge hat-tip to Embracing Sakura in Kyoto, a Japanese book I’ve mentioned before that we purchased while in Kyoto. This book featured a selection of relatively obscure (at least among English resources) temples, including Yoshiminedera. Prior to that, this temple was not even on my radar. However, once I saw a couple of pretty photos and read that book’s two-paragraph recommendation, my curiosity was piqued.

My online research was mostly dead-ends. TripAdvisor had fewer than 100 traveler reviews, and ranked Yoshiminedera the #76 thing to do in Kyoto. Google had fewer than 200 reviews, and while both sites had positive feedback, the quantity of reviews was on par with a neighborhood temple. Of the major Kyoto resources, only Japan-Guide.com even had a listing for Yoshiminedera Temple, and it ranked #55 out of 65 things to do in Kyoto. Not exactly confidence-instilling. To its credit, that site did make the connection between Yoshiminedera and Kiyomizudera Temples, which solidified my desire to visit.

As I started planning our visit to Yoshiminedera Temple, the reason for the scarcity of reviews became obvious: it’s in the middle of nowhere. And unlike other out-of-the-way temples in Kyoto, the middle of the nowhere here is not really nearby much else.

Since we had a surplus of time in Kyoto and I was really curious, we decided to give Yoshiminedera Temple a chance. Suffice to say, Yoshiminedera Temple far exceeded our high expectations, and is arguably better than Kiyomizudera. We enjoyed our visit so much that we started talking about a return trip to Yoshiminedera while we were still at the temple…

History

Saint Gesan, a distinguished pupil of Bishop Eshin on Mt. Hiei, established Yoshiminedera as a small personal mountain temple in 1029 at the age of 47. He chiseled the eleven-faced Kannon statue as the object of worship at the temple. In 1034, Emperor Goichijo Tenno designated the temple as an Imperial shrine for protection of the state, and gave it the name Yoshimine Temple.

Subsequent emperors highly respected Yoshiminedera Temple, and it expanded under their guidance. Emperor Shirakawa constructed the annexed buildings found around the mountain temple’s grounds. Several successive princes, known as the “Princes of Nishiyama” lived on the mountain at the temple.

At the height of Yoshiminedera’s prominence, it had 52 priests in its ranks. Unfortunately, it seems a major turning point in the temple’s history occurred in 1467 when it was destroyed in the Onin War. Yoshiminedera was rebuilt throughout the 1600s.

The temple’s official history (per the paper outline we received) ends at that point; our assumption is that most of the buildings presently found at Yoshiminedera Temple date to the late 1600s.

Tips & Info

Getting to Yoshiminedera Temple is intimidating, and its remote location is unquestionably the greatest barrier that keeps more tourists from visiting. From Kyoto Station, take the JR Tokaido-Sanyo Line to Mukomachi Station; you can also take the Hankyu Line from Arashiyama or Central Kyoto to Higashimuko Station. From either of these stations, Yoshiminedera Temple can be reached by Hankyu Bus #66 in 30 minutes. Note that only one bus runs per hour.

Also note that we don’t recommend relying upon Google Maps for this route. While we were planning this side-trip, no matter what I did, Google Maps wanted us to take ~3 different buses to access Yoshiminedera Temple, with the average trip duration being 90 minutes. If you follow the steps above and time your departure correctly, it can take you under an hour to get from Kyoto Station to the Yoshiminedera-yuki bus stop.

We’re currently working on a Kyoto itinerary that starts at Yoshiminedera and features other highlights of Southwestern Kyoto. While no other major points of interest are near the temple, Katsura Imperial Villa, Kokedera Temple, Komyoji Temple, and other places near Arashiyama could all be conveniently bundled with a visit to Yoshiminedera Temple.

Yoshiminedera is open from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. daily, with the last admission at 4:45 p.m. Special events occur a few days per year, and times could change, so we recommend consulting the official site before visiting. Expect to spend 1-2 hours at Yoshiminedera; the full pilgrimage walk without stops takes 30-40 minutes.

Once you arrive at the Yoshiminedera bus stop, you have about a 10 minute walk up a series of switchbacks that are moderately steep. You then arrive at the Sanmon, the temple’s main entrance gate where you pay the 500 yen admission fee.

Yoshiminedera’s main building, the Kannon Do, is located just beyond the entrance gate in the main plaza that also includes a treasure house. A couple of flights of stairs up from this lies the highlight of Yoshiminedera: Pine Tree of Yuryu (“Yuryu no Matsu”). This tree’s name translates to the Frolicking Dragon, and I’m now debating starting a band just so I can name it the Frolicking Dragons. 

Designated as a Natural Monument of Japan in 1932, this 600 year old Japanese white pine tree is 54 meters “tall.” Those are air quotes because the Frolicking Dragon lies flat on a 90-degree plane along a terrace surrounding a couple of towers (which are also highlights of the temple).

Yoshiminedera claims that this “tree is well known to the people as Japan’s greatest pine tree,” and I believe that. This tree looks like the crazy love-child of some “frolicking” between a bonsai and bristlecone pine. Albeit in a different way, the Frolicking Dragon is every bit as awe-inspiring as the towering sequoia that can be found in the Sierra Nevada.

Standing before this tree is alone worth the effort to get here and price of admission. Neither photos nor video can really do it justice. Yuryu no Matsu is one of those things you need to see both from a distance to get a sense of its scale, but also up close so you can see the wisdom and detail in its crags and knots.

You could only enter the main plaza and this adjacent terrace and leave completely satisfied with your visit to Yoshiminedera. I’d say these are the main highlights of the temple, and from the terrace, you have great views of Kyoto.

However, if you take the time to walk the pilgrimage path up the rest of the mountainside, you will encounter another dozen-plus temple buildings and other structures, and many of these are equally stunning. All of this “other stuff” could itself constitute a formidable temple if visited separately from the main plaza.

In terms of crowds, you’re unlikely to have much of an issue at Yoshiminedera. The temple is so far off the main tourist corridors that it mostly draws tour buses and Japanese tourists arriving via car. There is a parking lot at the temple and we did see one tour bus during our visit, but the mountainside temple is so large that it easily absorbed the crowds.

If the translation provided by the official Yoshiminedera website’s FAQ is any indication, the temple is much more popular during fall colors season. This makes complete sense, as photos for sale in the temple’s gift shop were simply jaw-dropping. Even then, we can’t imagine crowds being too bad outside of the peak weekends–and still probably only a fraction of what you’d encounter at Kiyomizudera and other more easily-accessible spots in Kyoto.

Our Experience

Due to the perceived time commitment of visiting a temple with no other major points of interest around it, we elected to visit Yoshiminedera Temple a few days before the start of peak cherry blossom season. Our concerns here turned out to be (slightly) misguided, as commuting to and from Yoshiminedera did not take as long as we expected.

It ended up being surprisingly simple to get to Yoshiminedera. It was a quick train ride from Kyoto Station to Mukomachi Station. We had about 10 minutes to kill between our train and the bus, so we grabbed snacks from the 7-11 right by the bus stop. It’s a small station, so everything is pretty compact.

The sprawling size of the Yoshiminedera Temple coupled with its many fascinating buildings and wonderful atmosphere led us to spending far longer here than we would an average temple. All told, we were here for about 3 hours–you could definitely do it in less time, but we were having such enjoyable time that we were in no rush to leave.

It was slightly painful being there only a few days before the start of cherry blossom season. There were a couple of trees blooming prematurely, but for dozens of others, we saw the buds indicating they were less than a week away. We kept remarking on how beautiful the temple would look in only a week, and debating whether we should just say “screw it” and return then.

We did the entire mountain path, and we didn’t encounter another person on the upper portion of this. It’s wild to me that people would make the effort to visit an out-of-the-way temple like this, but then would skip so much of it. (I’m guessing the tour groups are on a tight timeframe, though). Suffice to say, we would highly recommend doing the full path.

Some of the details on this route really underscore the similarities to Kiyomizudera. The mountainside location and layout is the most obvious parallel, but there are other similarities: pagodas, towers, ponds, and the Shorenin Waterfall, among other things.

While it’s really easy to compare the two, ranking them is more difficult. Kiyomizudera has so many iconic features, and none of the buildings at Yoshiminedera compare with the Hondo there. On the other hand, none of the natural features at Kiyomizu compare with the ancient trees at Yoshiminedera.

Then there’s the matter of crowds and accessibility. Kiyomizudera scores points for being in the heart of Higashiyama, but it loses points for being insanely busy pretty much all the time. It’s a tough call, but just the fact that it is a tough call should speak volumes about Yoshiminedera Temple.

We ultimately decided against returning to Yoshiminedera Temple again during sakura season, but that’s because by the end of our visit, we entered the main hall and saw photos for sale. Most of these were from the autumn, and for good reason. Wow. I don’t know when we are getting back to Kyoto during the autumn, but whenever that happens, Yoshiminedera Temple is our #1 priority. We did a pretty good job of hitting all of the best autumn foliage spots last fall, but I feel like we made a huge omission by not visiting Yoshiminedera.

After all of that gushing, what else is there really left to say? Due to the out-of-the-way location, it’s somewhat difficult to recommend Yoshiminedera Temple to first-timers visiting Japan, even if it is one of our top 5 places in Kyoto. Those who do take the time and make the effort to visit these beautiful mountain grounds will be rewarded with one of the best experiences in Kyoto, and are unlikely to regret missing a few other temples in the city. Yoshiminedera Temple is really that special of a place.

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! 

Your Thoughts

Does Yoshiminedera Temple interest you? Do you think it would be worth it to visit this temple, even if it meant skipping over a couple other top spots in Kyoto? Any questions about Yoshiminedera Temple? Hearing your feedback and questions is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!

2 replies
  1. Drew
    Drew says:

    I’ve been to Kyoto three times and have never even heard of it. I had to pull up Google Maps and I’m still fuzzy on where this is. I don’t think I’ve ever been in this area of the town, but I will remedy that with my upcoming visit to Japan. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      It’s definitely in an area of the city you wouldn’t visit as a tourist unless you had a specific purpose there…and this is the perfect ‘specific purpose’!

      Reply

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