Kyoto’s red gate-lined Fushimi Inari Taisha, little known among foreign tourists a decade or so ago, has been TripAdvisor’s top Japanese landmark for the last five years. There’s nothing like a scrum to take the shine off what was supposed to be a personal discovery of something precious. Yet, just a 10-minute train ride away are sights rich in history and culture that are well off the tourist path.
This dynamic is the real story of Kyoto, where its deep history and a ring of forest-rich mountains hide a wealth of sights that play second fiddle to the easily accessible, more famous tourist spots of the likes of Kiyomizu-dera Temple and the Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion). To shine some light on these hidden treasures, we asked readers — and the mayor of Kyoto — to tell us what they most enjoy about the city’s less travelled areas.
The flood of comments show how, in the face of a seemingly unstoppable tourism boom, Kyoto still offers visitors something to discover — whether it’s their first or 15th time in Japan’s ancient capital.
And from early morning shrine visits to flea markets to mountain hikes, it seems that what keeps Kyoto special and always worth visiting is defined by what you make of it.
Mayor’s Pick: The Fushimi Region
The Fushimi region, in the south of the city, is one of Kyoto Mayor Daisaku Kadokawa’s recommendations. The old port town is blessed with water used for sake brewing and features the Jikkoku-bune pleasure boat which, about 150 years ago, served as the main method of transportation between Osaka and Kyoto. The Gokounomiya Shrine is also there. Dating back to before 862, it is well known for its natural spring water and is patronized by the many local sake breweries. You can visit the nearby sake museum to learn how sake is made, and how it tastes.
In Kyoto You Discover Japan
“Tradition” was the overwhelming answer from Japan Today readers when asked the best thing about Kyoto. Reader Takashima Akihiko nailed it with the comment, “When you go to Tokyo, you can see Tokyo. When you go to Osaka, you see Osaka. But when you go to Kyoto, you can see Japan.”
This is not only because many historical buildings and sights still exist in Kyoto, but also because much of what we today consider to be traditional Japanese culture (tea ceremony, Zen gardens, ikebana, Noh) was created there. Known as Higashiyama Culture, it was originated by shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa after he retired to what is now known as the Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion).
“The blend of traditional and modern culture” is reader Nelson English’s best thing about Kyoto. Fellow reader who goes by the username inkochi agrees, “Wandering backstreets among the older and also the newer — always something interesting to see.”
Take A Walk
One good way to do that is to stroll Oike street where plaques at the street intersections tell the origins of the names of the north-south running roads in the center of Kyoto. Head south along those lanes and you’ll see chic shops and cafes, and hip, new products being sold out of handsome old buildings. Soaking up the atmosphere at a café, especially one in an old machiya townhouse, along with anything matcha flavored, made the list of favorite things for Japan Today commentators Fouxdefa, jcapan and Jea Odegard.
Mayor Kadokawa also cites walking around town and enjoying the atmosphere as a favorite thing to do. “In Kyoto, you used to see the bustle of the town everywhere, with people stopping in the street to chat and children playing on the road. Even now I think you can catch a glimpse of the aesthetics of people’s lives in these everyday scenes.”
Rise And Shine
The best time to do that, the mayor says, is early morning. He suggests having breakfast at Nijo-jo Castle, which is served from 8 a.m. in the summer.
Japan Today readers concur that early morning is the best time to see the city. Jcapan advises “hitting even the most popular districts at dawn when 90% of the tourists are still asleep.” Avoiding the peak tourist hours worked for reader Nicholas Panzarella at Fushimi Inari Taisha, where “you can find it pretty empty in the early morning or late at night.” Another reader, Roland Cajis Austria, agreed: “We were there late in the afternoon, in the Golden Hour, and the place was almost empty.”
Avoiding Kyoto’s peak seasons of spring and autumn, is another way to avoid the crowds. In February, 200 restaurants are participating in the Kyoto Restaurant Winter Special with special menus and prices to brighten up the off-season. Many Japan Today readers, however, will be more than happy with a hot bowl of ramen instead. Ash Jenkins and Craig Close recommend Honke Daiichi Asahi Ramen.
“It’s true best ramen in all Japan,” Craig says.
Going Low Key
Kyoto’s northern region gets a thumbs up from reader Jcapan. “The north of the city, where the botanical gardens, Kamigamo Shrine and Takaragaike are — mostly locals, low key and a tremendous difference from the more mobbed districts,” Jcapan says.
Those are all good places to chill out in the great outdoors. The Kyoto Botanical Gardens are Japan’s oldest and most comprehensive such grounds, with interesting things to see throughout the seasons. The vast Takaragaike Park (129 hectares!) offers a big lake, natural forest and animal inhabitants to go with it, and the city’s best playground, called Kids’ Paradise (Kodomo no rakuen). Even the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kamigamo Shrine is a wonderful place to explore and relax, with beautiful buildings, streams and a broad, green lawn. On the fourth Sunday of each month it hosts a craft market of handmade goods which is also a great chance to chat with the locals.
Jcapan also recommends Kyoto’s flea markets, which allow you to combine sightseeing with street food while shopping for second-hand kimonos, clothes, pottery, art and more. The Kitano Tenmangu Shrine holds one on the 25th of each month, while Toji Temple (a UNESCO Heritage Site) runs its market monthly on the 21st. The lesser-known Chionji in northeast Kyoto holds a handmade goods market on the 15th of each month.
Three used-book fairs are run each year in Kyoto, including a mid-August one in the primeval forest path that leads up to the Shimogamo Shrine (another UNESCO Heritage Site).
The village of Kurama in Kyoto’s northern mountains offers a great escape from the city, as well as what some say is the city’s best onsen (hot spring bath). Get a dose of both culture and nature by hiking from there, via the mountaintop Kurama-dera temple to the hamlet of Kifune.
Along with the red lantern-lined Kifune-jinja Shrine, this area is known for kawadoko dining, which is Roland Cajis Austria’s pick of Kyoto’s hidden attractions. “It’s a type of restaurant where you eat LITERALLY on top of a flowing river!” This is a summertime specialty aimed at cooling diners as they eat while sitting on a broad wooden platform erected on the riverbed.
Ohara is a rural town in the northern mountains, about a one-hour bus ride from the city center. The Sanzenin Temple there is a symbol of autumn in Kyoto. The village of Takao in the northwest mountains is a good day-trip destination that features the three superb temples of Jingoji, Saimyoji Temple and the wonderfully atmospheric Kosanji (a UNESCO World Heritage Site).
Another highlight among Japan Today readers that is similarly “hidden” in plain view was Kyoto’s history. The city became Japan’s capital in 794 and was the home of the emperor for more than a thousand years. Plaques detailing the endeavors of famous historical figures can be found throughout the city, but if you don’t know who they are talking about, it’s all a bit of a yawn, really.
Reader Nandakandamanda recommends “reading an easy history book like Yoshikawa Eiji’s ‘The Heike Story’ before you visit…old Kyoto came alive for me, in the gardens, the buildings and even in the street names today. Magic!”
And reader Fouxdefa agrees: “Since a lot of stuff in Kyoto city has a long history, they are in the guidebooks—but get skipped in favor of Instagrammable, more convenient locations.” Study up on Japanese history, Fouxdefa says, and you will naturally find places worthy of a visit. “Not all of them enjoy the same fame among tourists today that they had in the past, so you can find ‘obscure’ but historically interesting places.”
There is more to Kyoto than meets the eye.
“I tell visitors from Japan and overseas that Kyoto is not a tourism city,” Mayor Kadokawa says as he explains the nature of Kyoto. He describes it instead as a city that makes things — from traditional industry to advanced industry — and makes stories, like those from Noh and Kyogen theater, ikebana, tea ceremony, incense ceremony and martial arts.
“That is to say, (Kyoto) has developed as the people have been nurtured and the town has been created from the mutual stimulation of the material culture and the spiritual culture.”
It is a dynamic that continues today and gives Kyoto “diversity and depth,” the mayor says.
As a city that knows its own worth, modesty is part of the nature of Kyoto. It’s not going to tell you how wonderful it is — you have to discover that for yourself. Whether it’s a matter of reading up on history, or hiking the mountains, or taking a bus beyond the city sprawl, the effort you put in to getting to know Kyoto will be rewarded.
Despite its image as Japan’s ancient city, Kyoto has the capacity to evolve woven into it. When our tastes change, along with the times, the next “new” thing will be found here — though it may be an old thing, or just your thing.
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