Visiting one ancient temple after another—as first-time travelers to Kyoto often do—can bring diminishing spiritual returns. So it’s refreshing to break up the dutiful temple-going with destinations that have no religious significance.
One of Kyoto’s most exquisite such sites is Shisendo (27 Ichijoji Kadoguchi-cho, Sakyo-ku; kyoto-shisendo.com), built in 1641 as a mountain retreat for Ishikawa Jozan, a scholar, poet, and samurai. The villa is considered one of the best examples of 17th-century landscape design, featuring a dry garden, roji stone pathways, satsuki azaleas (in full bloom late May), and maple trees (peak red in late November). The three-room main building is open to the outdoors; before walking the tiered grounds, take a seat on the tatami floor, turn off your mind, and listen to the murmuring stream. Another secular gem, Okochi Sanso (8 Sagaogurayama Tabuchiyama-cho, Ukyo-ku; kanko.city.kyoto.lg.jp), was built not by a samurai but by a movie star who frequently played one in period films, Denjiro Okochi, who died in 1962. (He also headlined several of Akira Kurosawa’s first efforts.) Okochi poured much of his fortune into this five-acre property on the slopes of Arashiyama. With its multiple structures built in the Edo style and gardens that invite you to get lost in them, it rivals the beauty of Kyoto’s most famous places of worship.