With seventeen different locations recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites, and many other incredible places not on ‘the list’, Kyoto is normally packed with tourists. With basic precautions (wear a mask, social distance, wash hands often…), a visit to Kyoto, before inbound tourists return, should be at the top of the list for anyone living in the country.
According to the article, ‘Over-Tourism – Can Japan handle Abe’s visitor push?’ by Eri Sugiura in the Nikkei Asian Review, “…the city hosted 53.6 million visitors in 2017, dwarfing its population of 1.5 million…. More than 70 percent of the foreigners were first-timers to Kyoto, so the crowds were concentrated in well-known temples and sites…”.
As it will take time for overseas tourists and large Japanese school groups to return, this will be a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience a calmer, more authentic Kyoto. The city relies heavily on tourism, so you will also be helping to support Kyoto’s culture and its residents.
Although there are thousands of sightseeing choices in Kyoto, this is an opportunity to see the most famous ones in relative quiet. This is a list of my ‘Top 10 places to see’ before crowds return. It is not a list of my favorite sights (although some of them are favorites); it is a list of locations that currently have a completely different, more authentic, atmosphere – and won’t be that way for long.
Note: On weekends, crowds are growing. Japanese who have not been to Kyoto in many years are starting to visit. Weekdays, however, are still relatively quiet.
#1. Kiyomizudera: A World Heritage site and the city’s most famous temple – built on a mountainside. Start one of your days here and walk downhill toward Maruyama Park.
#2. Sanneizaka, Ninenzaka, and their surroundings: These cobblestone slopes, lined with historic buildings filled with shops and restaurants, make up one of Kyoto’s four main historic preservation districts. They also connect Kiyomizudera to Maruyama Park and Yasaka Shrine.
#3. Gion’s Hanamikoji: The main street of Kyoto’s largest Geisha district has gotten so crowded, and visitors so unruly, that the district’s council posted warning signs that photography is no longer permitted on the private back alleys. Visit Gion properly by enjoying dinner and drinks there – and try to spot some Geiko/Maiko before and after.
#4. Pontocho: A long, extremely narrow alley that is lined with restaurants and bars. It runs parallel to the river and is another of Kyoto’s Geisha districts. In summer months, many of the restaurants that overlook the river have outdoor patio seating.
#5. Nishiki Market: Previously locals would do their shopping here, but the market had mostly been ‘taken over’ by international tourists. Wandering the long, narrow, covered arcade is now quite enjoyable and, happily, many locals have returned.
#6. Fushimi Inari Jinja: The head shrine of approximately thirty thousand Inari shrines around Japan. There are approximately 10,000 torii gates along its mountain paths. It has been rated the top attraction in Japan for a number of years.
#7. Kinkakuji: The Golden Pavilion is probably Kyoto’s most iconic structure. Due to the fantastic design of the garden itself, it has always been possible to take beautiful photos here. But, the rudeness of visitors jostling for just the right spot, and their utter disregard for this sacred place, made it Kyoto’s least enjoyable temple. Now it is fairly peaceful.
#8. Ryoan-ji: The compound of the world’s most famous rock garden is also really well designed and visiting is always a special experience, even when there are serious crowds. However, it is now possible to sit down and take some time to admire the beauty of the rock garden itself.
#9. Arashiyama’s Bamboo Forest: An amazing walking path through towering green bamboo. It had become virtually impossible to take a human-free photo, unless you were willing to be there at the crack of dawn.
#10. Ginkakuji: The ‘Silver Pavilion’ (although not silver), also has a meandering trail – so it is always enjoyable to visit. However, taking a photo that didn’t include other tourists was quite difficult. Now it isn’t.
NOTE: Until it is safe to do otherwise, when you visit these, and any other travel destinations in Japan, please act responsibly – in particular, please wear a mask. This is especially important if you are eating indoors – please wear a mask until your food comes, have minimal conversation while eating, and then wear your mask again when you are finished, but still at the table. Restaurant/bar staff greatly appreciate this act of courtesy.