There is just so many beautiful temples and shrines in Kyoto, it's always difficult for me to advice only few for travelers in the rush. Basically I recommend the area from Kiyomizudera to Ginkakuji, plus Fushimi Inari in the south and Kinkakuji in the west, as a classic minimum to see. However, when a customer has little more time or want to go away from crowd, I really enjoy introducing more private, quiet and unknown places.One of those I went for the first time few days ago is the 大覚寺 (daikakuji). The Wikipedia webpage is here and the official webpage there. It is located in north of Kyoto and can be access with city bus number 28 or 91 (get out at Daikakuji st.). You can find it on Google map here.
As soon as I entered I've been impressed with how spacious were the temple and gardens. On the front side a stone garden fill the space between the temple and the gates. On the rear side this is a green garden, and there is a fairly big pond on the east side too. Inside the temple, the fusuma (traditional sliding door) are enhanced with beautifull paintings. Looking at them it remembered me those of the Imperial Palace of Kyoto. I was a little bit puzzled by such gorgeousness in a buddhist temple.
I had the explanation later : this temple was one were Emperors came on retreat. It was called 門跡 (monzeki). At first it was really an act of faith which took is roots in the past century (Nara period) and the rising of Buddhism in Japan. But later, during Heian period it became for top aristocratic family, like Fujiwara family, a good excuse to move away the Emperor from the court and take effective control of political life with no clash. It thus took part in the evolution of japanese political system toward shogunate. You understand then how this place is deeply linked with Japan history !
At first the Daikakuji was a imperial villa for the Emperor Saga and was called Saga-rikyu. In 818, the Emperor performed here Shakyo (the copy of a buddhist sutra) to save Japan from a plague epidemic. The copied scroll is still enshrined in one of the buidling of the temple. In 876, the daughter of the Emperor decided to change the villa into a shrine to honour the faith of her departed father. Even now people who come to this temple can copy the sutra has Emperor Saga did and offer it to the temple.
The Emperor Saga was also renowned for cultural matters. He founded a Ikebana (flower arrangement) school, and exhibition of his favourite flower, the chrysanthemums, are still hold in the garden. The Emperor Gouda, who also retreat at Daikokuji, also promote the japanese culture here, for example painting schools which production are displayed in some rooms.
For this year, this will be my personal recommendation to go to see red leaves. What about your, other J-hoppies ?