Sunday, April 1, 2018

Kyoto: The Tourist Beat

It took me three tries to find my rythym in Kyoto. 

As much as I hate the tourist side of Kyoto, it’s almost impossible to go there and not visit the amazing templates and shrines….I said almost.

On my first trip to Kyoto in the winter of 2008, I was so fed up with the crowds of tourists that I stayed in my hostel all day and only ventured out at night.

The second time I went to Kyoto was with a Japanese friend and I skipped all the tourist sights in favor of Kyoto’s much-written-about café scene.

The third time I went to Kyoto I got dressed up in a kimono and took pictures on the street. Then went home for the day.

So on this fourth trip I was determined to make an effort to see what there was to see what the big deal was and finally check off some of those sights.

My advice: go early. 6:00am early. If you want to be the only one and take great photographs with no people in them, go early.

We planned each day so that the sightseeing stuff happened first thing in the am, and in the afternoons we explored the city and drank coffee. I don’t regret it one bit.


I start with the most-popular first. This is the sight every single tourist in Kyoto is going to want to hit. It it a peaceful and serene Buddhist temple in the mountains overlooking the city. Unfortunately, it feels neither peaceful nor serene when you show up at noon and there are 5,000 people there. But the magic of this place does not have to be missed – for they open everyday at 6:00am.

Show up at 6:00am and here is what you will find:

  • Completely empty streets around Ninenzaka, the traditional neighborhood at the foothills of Kiyomizu Tera.
  • One other tourist besides yourself.
  • Mists on the edges of the mountain.
  • The low murmur of chanting and bells.
  • A few local Japanese people quietly praying at the shrine.

It is worth getting up so early to experience the real magic of  Kiyomizu?


the entrance to Kiyomizutera

morning mist on the mountains

another view from the temple

a shrine inside the template for praying 
an outdoor shrine

hardly a tourist in sight

the deserted streets of Ninenzaka at 6:00am

Fushimi-Inari shrine

This is undoubtably the most photographed place in Kyoto, which iconic vermillion (orange) gates. There is no opening time with this site, so early is always better. I would have showed up here at 6:00am if it wasn’t for going to Kiyomizu first. By the time I finished with the first temple, it was 9:00am.

Let me show you what Fushimi inari looks like at 9:00am on a Tuesday:

coming down you'll see the names on the gatea

The first quarter mile of gates is sheer madness.  Crowds of people crammed into a tiny corridor, each one trying to get their signature Kyoto photograph. But if you keep climbing up and up the crowd thins. And then you are left with trekkers who want real photoshoots, and couple trying to get a portrait selfie, and a few legit businessmen just hiking on their mid-morning break.

It took about 45 minutes to reach the top shrine (not the top of the mountain, just the top of where the gates end). Often, we were the only ones on those last few steps, but again at the top there was a bit of a crowd. Coming down, we took a different path that was opposite from the tourist section and allowed us to avoid the crowds. I recommend that.

view from the top

Once you climb back down, reward yourself with some excellent festival food, like yakiniku, fresh squeezed orange juice, and fried potatoes.


Gion is a  famous part of the city with historical charm that many tourists frequent for cafes and a glimpse at the Maikos (Geisha-in-training). I’ve heard that your greatest chacen of seeing a Maiko is around 9:00pm 10:00pm, when they finish with their dinner appointments and are heading to their after-dinner appointments. While in Kyoto for 3 days, I saw one Maiko.

If you see a Maiko, do not touch

The troubl with Gion is not only that it is crowded, but that for some odd reason, the city of Kyoto still allows cards to pass through. So with tourists spilling out over the sidewalks and into the street, the constant threat of car traffic is more than a nusance.

Again, coming to Gion in the wee hours of the morning solves a lot of problems, but the appeal of Gion is the amazing restaurants and cafes and sweet shops, so showing up before they open kind of defeats the purpose.

The best way to do Gion is to research in advance which stores, cafes, and restaurants you want to visit, then get there when the open to avoid lines-out-the-door.


the bamboo forest

A 45-minute train ride from Kyoto, the town of Arashiyama is famous for two things: Bamboo forest and Monkey Park. Beyond those two attractions, it is an idyllic town on the edge of a river over looking mountains, and simple a beautiful place to be.

I saw my share of monkeys while living in Shimane, so I didn’t visit the Monkey park, but it’s impossible not to walk through the Bamboo forest as it is easy and free.

My go to spots in Arashiyama consist of % Arabica (arrived when it opened to avoid the line), the Bamboo forest, (a quick walk through), and the Okochi Sanso Japanese Garden. For 800 yen you can tour the garden and enjoy traditional green tea with a okashi (sweet). It’s one of the most amazing Japanese gardens I have ever seen, and an impressive testimony to the life of actor Denjirō Ōkōchi, who built the garden as his personal retreat.

% Arabica with one customer: me

the bamboo forest with one tourist (not me)

a view of the river

When we visited the garden there were only a few other tourists. Although it is just steps away from the famous bamboo forest, not many tourists go there. I would recommend this place above the bamboo forest.

Okochi Sanso Japanese Garden

the super hot Denjirō Ōkōchi who built the garden

a serene place

lush landscaping

Hike from Kifune to Kurama

the journey begins

Kifune (also spelled Kibune) and Kurama are two scenic towns in the mountains that can be reached in just one hour from Kyoto. It is possible to hike between the two towns by way of a trail that takes one through many beautiful and isolated shrines.

We started in Kifune with the aim to end at Kurama and go to Kurama onsen.
Kifune is famous for its Kawadoko-dining, which allows people to sit on platforms over the river.

next time we'll stick around for dinner-over-the-river

In Kifune, we made a quick stop at Kifune shrine and savored the solitude as we were the only ones awake at 7:30am in this quiet town.

The hike itself took us about 2 hours as we went slow and stopped at all the shrines and an obscure museum along the way.

After reaching Kurama, the onsen (hot springs) and meal that followed was our reward for a long journey.

There are a number of ways you could make this hike memorable, with stops at a museum, shrines, and onsen. The only MUST is that you do it in daylight, because the trail is unlit and dangerous after nightfall. That being said, here are some advantages for doing the Kifune to Kurama route:
  1. get to soak in the Kurama onsen at the end of the hike 
  2. more restaurant options in Kurama (though we ate at the onsen)
  3. the climb starts grueling uphill for a short time, but then it downhill all the rest of the way

I obviously missed a lot more like Kinkakuji and Ginkakuji and countless other templates and shrines that make the travel guides. If your goal is to check every temple off your Kyoto list you will be temple-hunting all day.

For my trip, my goals was quality, not quantity, and I would suggest a similar curation of Kyoto’s beaten path.

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