There’s been a lot written lately about over-tourism in Japan, and how popular destinations such as Kyoto are becoming overcrowded. Tourists often note in their reviews of Kyoto’s most well-known sights how crowded they are. For someone researching and planning their trip, these reports can sound pretty discouraging. What they imagined was admiring beautiful historic temples and shrines, not being wedged in with the teeming tourist hordes.
Do not worry! There are ways to see Kyoto without constant crowds and stress. Here are a few tips to help you do this.
1. Avoid the top 4 in 1 day trap
Some visitors have a list of “must see” sights, and often at the top are Fushimi Inari shrine, Kiyomizudera and Kinkakuji temples, and the bamboo forest at Arashiyama. In some cases they even want to see all of these in one day. This makes for a stressful day, as they are located at all corners of Kyoto, and seeing them involves several cross-town trips. If you’re unfamiliar with Kyoto and public transport, this could be a really grim day.
What you can do instead is spread those sights out across two days, and see some other sights close by.
Day 1 could be Fushimi Inari and Kiyomizudera, and you could visit Sanjusangendo and other temples in the south Higashiyama area, perhaps ending up at Gion.
Day 2 could be Arashiyama, seeing some temples or the monkey park as well as the bamboo forest, followed by Kinkakuji and one of the other temples in the area, either Ninnaji or Ryoanji. This way you’ll have less time spent travelling and a mixture of busy and less busy places.
If you really, really must see all four places in one day, seriously consider a bus trip. There are companies that will ferry you around all four places in one day as efficiently as possible. This will remove the stress of figuring out where to go and finding your way through crowded train stations and bus stops. You’ll be able to focus on what you’re seeing instead.
2. Choose your season wisely
If you have a choice about when to go, consider carefully whether you really want to go during cherry blossom or autumn foliage season, which are very busy and crowded at their peak. If it’s been a long held dream to see Kyoto during cherry blossom, definitely follow your dream as you’ll regret it if you don’t. Just take on board the information in tips 1, 3 and 4. You might also like to avoid weekends as well.
If you’re not absolutely set on seeing cherry blossom or autumn foliage, then visiting Kyoto on either side of these seasons still gets you pleasant weather and interesting things to see. In spring, plum blossom is before cherry blossom, and wisteria and azalea are after it. In autumn, some temples start their illuminations as early as mid-October, and there may be special openings of buildings not normally open to the public. These include the ground floor of Toji’s famous 5-storey pagoda and the museum at Ninnaji.
3. Choose some lesser known sights
Kyoto is full of interesting things to see which can make your trip enjoyable and fulfilling. They are also less busy, sometimes surprisingly so. To find these places, as well as looking in guidebooks, blogs etc, look on maps and locate sights near what you’ve already decided to see, or near your hotel. Another good place to look is JNTO’s helpful Kyoto walking guide, with routes that include famous and lesser-known sights.
Here are some examples from my own experience.
Konchi-in – this has a beautiful garden and I was the only person there, while Nanzenji next door was busy.
Komyoin – there were only three other people in this beautiful and serene temple, while Tofukuji nearby had queues, even though it was only the very start of the autumn foliage season.
Nishi Honganji and Higashi Honganji – I was staying near Kyoto station and these temples are close by. They are both UNESCO World Heritage listed sites, but often overlooked. I went to Nishi Honganji early in the morning (around 6.30 am) because of jetlag, a time when locals are there for worship. Hearing the monks chanting was a great way to start the day.
4. Take a break
Make sure you allow time to sit down and relax, and recharge by having something to eat and drink. If you’re worried about not making the most of your sightseeing time, try choosing somewhere that has some scenic or historic appeal. Some places I’ve been that fit the bill are:
Sarasa Nishijin – this café is in a former bath house. It’s a traditional wooden building where the walls still have the original tiles and some plumbing fixtures on them.
Starbucks Coffee Kyoto Karasuma-Rokkaku – it may seem odd suggesting an international chain such Starbucks, but this particular location has a fabulous view of Rokkakudo temple next door. Rokkakudo is a beautiful historic temple that is the home of ikebana floral art.
Yojiya Ginkakuji – this café is in a traditional house along the Philosopher’s Path near Ginkakuji. The seating looks out onto a Japanese garden.
There are plenty of other places that you’ll spot as you’re wandering around, and it’s definitely worth trying them out.
What doesn’t really work
Getting there early – often recommended for the Arashiyama bamboo grove and Fushimi Inari, this strategy works to a limited extent. It certainly beats the tour buses, but unless, you’re insanely early, there will be other people doing exactly what you’re doing – trying to beat the crowds. The same applies to arriving at Kinkakuji at opening time – there will be a queue to enter, and then to see the Golden Pavilion.
You also have a whole day to fill and there will inevitably be busy spots at some point in your day’s sightseeing. If you’re the sort of person who doesn’t normally get up early, attempting early morning sightseeing may actually be more stressful than dealing with crowds here and there.
I hope this helps you in planning how to spend your time in Kyoto. Above all, focus on making your trip enjoyable, not a list-ticking exercise.
Do you have any questions about sightseeing in Kyoto? Please feel free to contact me.
Would you like to receive my quarterly newsletter with the latest news for visitors, plus useful seasonal information? When you sign up, your email address will only be used to send you the newsletter.