The buildings of Kyoto’s sprawling, venerated Shimogamo Shrine have been designated as national treasures. The shrine’s leafy, covered approach – a cluster of ancient trees known as Tadasu no Mori (“The Forest of Truth”, for reasons indiscernible) – will take your breath away. As will the massive new year hatsumode crowds, who down warm amazake as they fight for space around the shrine’s conspicuous torii entrance gate.
Access: A 10-minute walk from Demachiyanagi Station on the Keihan Line; if you get lost, just follow the crowd.
For information: www.shimogamo-jinja.or.jp
Arguably the most photogenic temple in Kyoto (the impressive Phoenix Hall was held in high enough regard to put on the back of Japan’s ¥10 coins), Byodo-in is surrounded by pond-accentuated grounds that offer a relatively quiet way to enjoy hatsumode. Relatively, we say; even though Phoenix Hall is undergoing renovation until March 2014, the crowds that flock to the shrine’s mountain-framed garden setting are still quite heavy.
Access: A 15-minute walk from Uji Station on the JR or Keihan Line. Again, let the crowds guide you.
For information: www.japan-guide.com/e/e3923.html
And speaking of crowds! While the locals, visiting school groups, and international tourists that descend on this UNESCO World Cultural Heritage spot keep the place plenty busy all year round, hatsumode brings things to an entirely new level. Though slightly frenetic, the atmosphere of Kiyomizu is also extremely pleasant. Standing in the crisp winter air watching scores of kimono-clad bodies on Kiyomizu Stage is a fine way to start the year.
Access: A 25-minute walk from Kiyomizu Goju Station on the Keihan Line.
For information: www.kiyomizudera.or.jp
Although you’re about six months early for this mountain temple’s famed “snake-cutting” event (the “snake” is bamboo but the swords are plenty real), a January visit to Kurama-dera is another lovely way to start the year. The air atop Mount Kurama is chilly, though, so wear plenty of layers – or bring plenty of warmed sake – to fend off the cold.
Access: A 5-minute walk from Kurama Station on the Eizan Line; however, the 2-hour hike from Kibune-guchi Station is well worth it for the solitude and greenery.
For information: www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/regional/kyoto/kurama.html
An embarrassment of sightseeing riches, as far as temples go. In addition to hosting Japan’s largest main temple entrance gate (standing 24 meters tall) and the country’s largest bell (67 tonnes; the story of how it was finally suspended makes for very interesting reading), Chion-in features an array of lovely garden areas that look spectacular wreathed in fall leaves, cherry blossoms, or – if you’re very lucky this month – a light dusting of freshly fallen snow.
Access: A 20-minute walk from Gion Shijo Station on the Keihan Line.
For information: www.chion-in.or.jp