Is Kyoto Losing Its Magic?

Fushimi Inari Taisha

Just wait long enough at the upper reaches of the Senbon Torii path and you’ll get a chance at the iconic Fushimi Inari shot.

Kyoto. Population: 1.5 million; visitors last year: over 50 million. More people than bamboo in Arashiyama, shuffling inch by inch from the foot of Gojozaka to Kiyomizudera. Garbage strewn across Maruyama Park and Yasaka Shrine after a night of hanami partying. Has Kyoto’s beauty turned fatal to its charm? Has the magic gone?

My answer is a big, resounding Nope! But let me qualify that. Yes, Kyoto is receiving a lot of visitors, and they really are having an impact on local life. Visiting a popular site at a busy time can be a let-down or even a shock — I had guests who bugged out of Fushimi Inari Taisha a mere 15 minutes in due to the crowds. However, that in no way invalidates Kyoto’s importance as a center of Japanese culture and historical heritage, and the magic is still there — if you know where and when to look.

Kyoto is still very much my happy, quiet place. I’ve visited temples and shrines where, if I was not the only soul around, I still felt I had the place to myself. And Kyotoites are still as warm as ever, if you remember to act as a good guest. Let me share a few tips on how to find that magic.

View from shrine of Tokugawa Ieyasu's tooth, Enkoji

View from the shrine of Tokuwaga Ieyasu’s tooth (yes, tooth). Taken during the early morning special opening of Enkoji in autumn.

Kyoto is More than Gion
Kyoto’s visitors concentrate very heavily at just a few locales in the city. But often the temple just next door is nearly empty! Look beyond the Instagram post that everyone else has already made and find your own side of Kyoto. There are over 2,000 temples and shrines in the city alone, plus forest trails, parks, gardens, museums, preserved neighborhoods — you name it. Looking for that Zen calm? Try one of the temples in southern or northern Kyoto, like Bishamondo or Enkoji. Like the outdoors? Try hiking the Takao-Kiyotaki Trail. Here’s a list of alternatives or alternative strategies to the most crowded locations:

Kitano Tenmangu

Kitano Tenmangu shrine garden. The Kamishichiken geisha district is a short walk away.

Gion Alternatives
Try an early morning or late evening walk to enjoy Gion while it’s quiet. The place is specially magical late at night. If it’s geisha sightings you’re after, try the Kamishichiken hanamachi, which is near the Nishijin textile district in northwestern Kyoto. It’s near Kitano Tenmangu shrine, which is also famous for its autumn colors and plum blossom groves.

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Maruyama Park Alternatives
If you’re planning to see the cherry blossoms in Maruyama Park, be aware that the whole place is a victim to its own charm now. The paths are all lined with food stalls, blocking many views, and the grounds all covered in picnickers’ tarps. Way too many visitors are careless with their trash, so it’s becoming a mess. If the Kyoto government started charging admission for Maruyama Park on cherry blossom evenings I’d be all for it. The Kyoto Gyoen grounds and Okazaki Park however are much roomier, allowing you to appreciate the blossoms with less crowding. Or try walking down the Kamogawa from Gojo to Shichijo, this is also a nice sakura-lined stretch and far from the mobs at Shijo.

Kiyomizudera at 6:00 a.m. Peaceful, isn't it?

Kiyomizudera at 6:00 a.m. Peaceful, isn’t it?

Ninnenzaka early in the morning.

Ninnenzaka early in the morning.

The same place (Ninnenzaka) in the afternoon.

The same place (Ninnenzaka) in the afternoon.

Kiyomizudera Alternatives
Visit early in the morning. The temple is open at 6:00 a.m., but the crush starts only around 8:00 a.m. and continues until late night when the temple has evening illuminations. We’ve taken walks in Gion and up to Kiyomizudera at 5:00 in the morning, in cherry blossom season when tourist arrivals peak, and it was still wonderfully serene. Chion-in temple, just north of Maruyama Park, is also a nice alternative to Kiyomizudera.

Ginkakuji

Sand garden at Ginkakuji, around opening time.

Kinkakuji Alternatives
Ginkakuji receives less visitors than Kinkakuji, and is regarded as being closer to the true feel of a Zen temple. I personally prefer it for just that reason — Ginkakuji is a spiritual experience. Better yet, it combines very well with a walk down the Philosopher’s Path. On the other hand, there really is nothing like Kinkakuji anywhere else in Japan so it’s still worth a visit; just time yours for before or after the tour groups go there.

Hokyoin. This temple boasts the 'reddest maples' in all Arashiyama.

Hokyoin. This temple boasts the ‘reddest maples’ in all Arashiyama.

Arashiyama Alternatives
Most of Arashiyama’s visitors just cluster around the Togetsukyo Bridge, Tenryuji, and the Bamboo Grove behind it. Go farther up, north and west, and enjoy the tranquil Osawa Pond at Daikakuji, or the moss gardens of Gioji, and the statuary of Adashino Nembutsuji and Otagi Nembutsuji.

Adashino Nembutsuji.

Adashino Nembutsuji. This temple’s extensive cemetery commemorates those who died without any living kin left.

This route will also take you past a doll museum, a silk museum, uncrowded cafes, and some nice craft shops along the Saga Toriimoto preserved district. A little north of Daikakuji, there’s a little farmer’s market where you can buy fresh fruits and veggies right off the fields. Some households sell their fruits at little honesty stalls; we got a nice bag of mikan oranges here last autumn for just 100 yen.

Enormous mushrooms (matsutake?) at a farmer's market near Daikakuji, Arashiyama.

Enormous mushrooms (matsutake?) at a farmer’s market near Daikakuji, Arashiyama.

If you really want that iconic shot of the bamboo grove, though, plan to be there before 7:00 a.m.

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

The (in)famous Bamboo Grove behind Tenryuji. By catching the first train I was able to get a clear shot at it.

Fushimi Inari Taisha Alternatives
While there are other Inari shrines in and around Kyoto, with those signature vermillion torii, Fushimi Inari Taisha remains the grandest of them all. So instead of suggesting an alternative location, I’ll just suggest the least crowded times to visit. The least crowded and safest time to visit Fushimi Inari Taisha is early morning. While the shrine is open 24 hours, wild boar populations in these mountains have been on the rise, and they sometimes forage in the shrine grounds at night. If you want to do a night visit, it’s safer to go in a group. If you can’t but visit at a busy time, though, just keep going up toward Mount Inari’s peak and explore the side pathways.

Rainy Morning at Shinnyodo

On a rainy morning at Shinnyodo. This temple’s gates are open as early as 6:00 a.m.

Avoid Peak Hours
Most of Kyoto’s attractions are open 9:00-5:00, but the big tour groups usually arrive only after 10:00 a.m., and depart by 3:30 since many of them aren’t lodging in Kyoto. To avoid the crowds, simply time your visit for before or after these peak times.

Avoid Rush Hour
The Japanese workday is really hectic. For many, specially working moms and dads, every minute of the morning is precious. You’d want to leave home at the last possible minute to spend more time with your kids, wouldn’t you? So these parents rely on the efficient public transportation network, with its tight timings. But if we tourists are competing with them for the limited space on those buses and trains, Kyotoites end up having to leave home earlier or be late for work. So do yourself and them a favor, and plan to take public transport only before or after rush hour. If you need to go out at rush hour, it’s better to walk or use a bicycle.

On a rainy night at Kiyamachi.

On a rainy night at Kiyamachi.

Go Out in the Rain
I’m learning to love rain in Kyoto. Okay, I’ve yet to be out during a typhoon, but the spring and autumn rains are gentle enough for the most part to still go around. And I’ve been getting nice pictures in, and right after, the rain. So do try it. The rain really adds its own magic to places like Kiyamachi and the Pontocho, and it makes the quiet temples even quieter!

Tonkatsu lunch at Fujito with newylyweds Sean and Anna.

Tonkatsu lunch at Fujito with newylyweds Sean and Anna.

Eat at Hole in the Wall Restaurants
Spread the tourism income around by trying out some of the city’s little family-run shops in the side streets. The restaurants in all the famous districts are making a killing, but there are quite a few places that serve really good, authentic local food but hardly ever see a foreigner. Just be prepared to order from pictures or food replicas alone; better yet, if you’ve any Japanese or Japanese-speaking friends, invite them along.

Up to now the best tonkatsu we’ve ever had was at Fujito, a little shop run by an elderly couple near Tofukuji. No English sign, no English menu, no problem! Everything was so good! Another good one is Ramen Margaux, near Kitano Temmangu; the proprietress is a fan of all things French, so aside from some really tasty ramen she also makes some Western food and even serves wine!

Hiyoshi Taisha

The spectacular autumn colors at Hiyoshi Taisha. This shrine is right by the Sakamoto Hieizan Cablecar station in Sakamoto.

Explore Lake Biwa
Otsu city is a mere 10 minutes train ride from Kyoto Station, and is the gateway to the lovely Lake Biwa. This is the largest lake in Japan, and because the Tokaido, the old route between Kyoto and Edo, runs beside the lake its shores are full of historic sites. There are fine old, historic temples here like Miidera, once home to fierce warrior monks, and Ishiyamadera, one of the Eight Classic Views of Omi.

The Biwako Canal.

The Biwako Canal. This canal was built to bring water from Lake Biwa to Kyoto, and links to the aqueduct you see in Nanzenji.

The towns along Lake Biwa also have their various attractions — a castle at Hikone, a mountaintop shrine at Omihachiman, a floating torii at Takashima, and the western approach to Mount Hiei via the Hieizan Sakamoto cablecar.

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