Similar to European cathedrals, Asian temples are impressive and intriguing. The history and religious traditions are as robust and complex as the architecture; some are taller than 20-story buildings and have stood for more than 1,000 years. These cities are the most accessible for explorations of many of Asia's most awe-inspiring houses of worship.
The 33-temple pilgrimage route in Japan's Kansai region is dominated by Kyoto's 12 Buddhist temples, but also includes five or six each in Shiga, Hyogo, Nara, and Osaka—all easily reached from Osaka International Airport. Kyoto's leading temples include the aesthetically beautiful Temple of the Golden Pavilion, the hillside Kiyomizu-dera Temple, and the 13th-century Chion-In Temple. In nearby Nara are the Seven Great Temples, notably the ancient imperial temple, Yakushi-ji, which like most of Kyoto's temples are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Many of Asia's most noteworthy temples are in India—mostly centuries-old Hindu temples. But Delhi's architecturally stunning Lotus Temple is the locus of the Baha'i faith and was completed in 1986. Twenty-seven massive marble “petals" envelop a 2,500-capacity hall that's open to visitors of any faith. It's been called the world's most visited building. Two of the country's other most renowned temples are also in northern India: the lakeside Golden Temple in Amritsar, the world's most revered Sikh temple, and the castle-like Jain Temple in Ranakpur, which is sacred to the Jains.
Three special temples are found in Singapore, East Asia's wealthiest and smallest country — the country is smaller than New York City. The Buddhist Tooth Relic Temple and Museum is a visually dazzling building in Chinatown with a giant prayer wheel in the rooftop garden and what believers regard as the tooth of Buddha inside. The Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple in Little India is as lavishly colorful as its name is long. And Sri Mariamman is an exquisite white-and-gold temple that honors the goddess of rain.
Seoul is a densely populated city of 10 million, yet tucked right downtown is an island of tranquility — the Jogyesa Temple, which has preserved Korean Zen Buddhism over the years. In the southern mountains of South Korea, meanwhile, travelers can visit the Three Jewels Temples — the most revered Buddhist temples in the country. Tongdosa Temple includes one building that was built 2,600 years ago, the Haeinsa Temple houses all of the Buddhist Scriptures on 81,350 wooden blocks and the Songgwansa Temple is an active monastery in a coastal provincial park.
The same 15th-Century emperor who had the Forbidden City built — about 1,000 buildings which include his palace (now the Palace Museum) — also built the Temple of Heaven nearby. The central Beijing Taoist temple complex can only be described as mind-boggling. The park-like grounds include numerous ornate palaces, halls, pavilions, turrets, gates, gardens and ponds. Also in Beijing is the Lama (or Yonghe) Temple, a former imperial palace and now a temple and monastery for Tibetan Buddhists.
Bangkok's three most popular attractions are conveniently all side by side in the city's historic district. One is the Grand Palace and the other two are grand temples. On one side of the palace is the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, named after the 150-foot-long golden Buddha that's housed in its own mural-decorated chapel. Also in the temple complex is Thailand's largest collection of Buddhas. On the other side of the palace is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, named after a treasured Buddha carved from a single jade stone.