Center yourself for a day of exploration with a stroll on the Philosopher’s Path, a 1.2-mile stone trail along a picturesque canal dotted with temples and lined with cherry trees. Starting at the southern entrance gate, Nanzenji temple in early morning is a haven of tranquility, barely changed since it was constructed in 1291. Monks chant their sutras and the aroma of incense fills the air as it has for seven centuries. Nanzenji’s famous Zen rock garden is said to resemble a mother tiger and her cub. The exquisite sliding screens were painted by the old masters of the Kano School.
A short walk north is Eikando Zenrin-ji. Its gardens burst into golden splendor every fall, and in early morning it is blissfully free of the tourist hordes. With more than 1,100 years of history, the temple’s treasures include the hauntingly beautiful statue Mikaeri Amida (“The Looking-back Amitabha”) and the garyuro staircase.
Hōnen-in also has few visitors, even in peak season. Don’t miss the moss garden and the secret grotto behind the Main Hall. If you are lucky enough to be here in the fall, the peak of maple-viewing season, the hall, with its lovely Buddhist statuary, is open to the public.