If you study, or begin to study Kyoto as the headquarters of Japanese Buddhism, you may devote months, even years, and yet find it difficult to master all the points of interest it yields. Buddhism came to Japan from India, via China and Korea, in 552 A.D., in the reign of Kinmei Tenno, and in the Nara period ( 710-784 A.D.) was already an established national religion. It made converts of the highest personages in the land--Emperors and Empresses and their sons and daughters. It was at the height of glory at the end of the 11th century, when even the Mikados found it impossible to curb its authority. The priests became the rulers not only of things spiritual but of things temporal.
Their prestige declined only in the second half of the 16th century with the decadence of the Ashikaga Shōgunate. It was then that Nobunaga, incensed at their arrogance, burned the Enryakuji, the stronghold of the Tendai priests, on Mount Hiei, destroying thousands of them, and at the same time gave liberal patronage to the Jesuit missionaries who arrived about this time. This temporary setback, however, was repaired during the Tokugawa régime. At the present time there are, at a rough estimate, 72,000 Buddhist temples in Japan with 52,000 priests, representing 14 main sects with their various branches of over 70. Altogether 42,000,000 believers are claimed. Remember that most of these sects have their headquarters in Kyoto, and as you "do" your sights, you will not be slow to recall what a cynic once said about Kyoto being a city of Buddhist temples.
To start with, you must see the two giant temples of Hongwanji, popularly called Higashi (East) and Nishi (West) Hongwanji. The Higashi embodies the largest wooden building in the world; the first sight of it will fairly take your breath away, its gigantic bulk and its wondrous symmetry of line and curb. It is the head temple of the Shinshū Sect, whose founder was the famous Shinran of the Ōtani branch. The West Hongwanji, much older in history, is the headquarters of the Honpa (orthodox) branch of the same sect. Most of the edifices of this temple are "national treasures," its main hall being regarded as the best of its kind of the Momoyama period. The Hiunkaku, another "national treasure" in the grounds of Nishi Hongwanji, is a bijou palace, first built by Hideyoshi in 1587 for his private abode, and transferred to its present site in 1615. These edifices are decorated with, or keep in custody, innumerable works of art -- paintings and sculptures, picture scrolls, rare manuscripts and priceless calligraphic specimens, sutras, and documents, etc. -- many of which you may see by special permit.
But the most famous Buddhist temple in Kyoto, and probably of the largest area and of the proudest memory, is the Chion-in, headquarters of the Jōdo Sect, founded in 1175 by the great Hōnen Shōnin. It occupies the northern part of Maruyama Park, which itself is one of the scenic attractions of the city. The temple must be studied from outside and inside. It cannot fail to hold spectators spell-bound for hours by reason of the rare and precious objects it offers to the view.
The Enryakuji on Mount Hiei represents the fountainhead of the Tendai Sect founded in the 7th year of Enryaku (788) by the priest Saichō, or Denkyō Daishi -- one of the oldest and most powerful Buddhist sects in Japan. The other great sects are the contemplative Zen, Shingon of Kōbō Daishi and Hokke of Nichiren with their sub-sects, each boasting of several millions of followers; and these are well represented in Kyoto both by temples and works of art, all of which are identified with the various periods in which they flourished. In short, Kyoto is one of the greatest Buddhist centers of the world-the Mecca of lovers of Buddhist art and culture, as well as of those believing in the religion of the lotus.