I have found myself back in Japan once more. This time on business with a new, more permanent job. And this time starting in the ever popular city of Kyoto. It’s never been my favorite and I’ve avoided endorsing it— this ancient capital filled to the brim with 1600 temples and shrines and approximately 50 million tourists. Probably because it’s so on the beaten track and so damn spread out that I just end up annoyed. There is no Kyoto without tourists.
Our picture perfect image of Kyoto is one of serenity. But my experience in reality has often been corrupted by selfie sticks and very unspecial visits to World Heritage sites… and more so lately. The city has seen an influx of tourists— mostly from mainland China— and the guidebook recommendations are ever a challenge to take in without an audience. Places like Fushimi Inari Taisha and Kinkaku-ji are of particular lust, the latter never experiencing a moment of solitude.
So in my journey back to Kyoto, I was determined to find a small chunk of land to claim for my own. To find Kyoto without tourists. Luckily, I had a bit of unhindered time to explore and two excellent resources at hand: Mr. Duncan Flett, a laid-back tour guide with a ridiculous amount of know-how; and Mr. Peter Macintosh, geisha photographer and community member. With their assistance, the tricks behind beating out the crowds and discovering Kyoto without tourists became obvious.
1). Get your ass up early— think of it as rising with the land of the rising sun— and see the sites at first light.
2). Hit up sites post tour bus time.
3). Visit the unvisited.
Let’s investigate on how to see Kyoto without tourists:
Kyoto without tourists: Gion
At 8 a.m., Gion is dead. No traffic bisecting tour groups. No geisha or maiko (apprentice geisha). Just quiet machiya (wooden houses) and those signs that warn tourists of being assholes. Some cats. And that new Starbucks that’s less of an eyesore than a sigh of American disgust (go to Arabica instead… it’s making global waves).
Some of Kyoto’s most notable sites are within this area. But they are rarely explored before 10 a.m., the hour at which boat loads of buses make their way to Kyoto for the start of day-long itineraries. In the morning, you have the run of Gion to yourself. This includes places like Yasui Konpira-gu Shrine, a shrine where visitors go to make or break relationships. Be it a romantic one or a toxic one involving copious amounts of alcohol, crawl through a large boulder to seal the deal… without a line of other visitors. Another place to stop by is Yasaka Koshin-do, filled to the brim with colorful kukurizaru. These represent monkeys, whose hands and feet are bound in an effort to curb their desire.
Of course the bigger venues like Kiyomizu-dera (under construction until 2019) are also up for morning exploration. As are about a hundred other temples and winding alleys that comprise an area now referred to as tainted by the locals. In its unfiltered light, it’ll feel less like the rodeo.
Kyoto without tourists: Alternative temples
As mentioned, Kinkaku-ji is a lost cause. Even at opening hours, a hungry crowd awaits to push through and capture the temple in its golden reflection. And it’s sort of underwhelming, at least in my humble opinion. With so many temples and shrines to choose from, maybe opt for ones that don’t see an influx of lemmings?
Ryoan-ji is one alternative, also a World Heritage Site, but often overshadowed by its neighbor Kinkaku-ji. Rebuilt in 1499, this temple features a Zen garden that often makes the brochure-perfect advertisement for meditation. The temple opens at 8 or 8:30 depending on the season, but doesn’t see any tour groups or interested parties until after they’re done with Kinkanku-ji. Thus its immense appeal. For me, the Zen garden was intriguing (there’s 15 rocks?) but I was entranced by the pond… blanketed with water lilies in the morning cool.
Another superb option for temple-ing on your lonesome is Daitoku-ji, a temple complex sort of akin to a university campus. There are 20 sub temples, each with its own Zen garden if you hadn’t had your fill at Ryoan-ji. Some raked at interesting angles. Not every one of the sub temples is open to the public, but a simple stroll through the grounds— especially during the fall foliage season— makes for quite the visit.
Kyoto without tourists: Geisha spotting
Like every other teenage girl in the 90s, I was obsessed with Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha.” The allure and mystique of this aspect of Japanese culture— of maiko and geisha— became a focal point of my desire to visit Japan. In 2007 whilst living in Kansai, I finally had the pleasure of meeting a maiko as part of a community group. And she was lovely (even busted out a peace sign for our photo together). But I had never seen one in what some describe as their “natural habitat”— on the streets of Kyoto, in one of the five hanamachi or geisha districts, flitting between evening appointments.
Until this week.
Alongside Peter, we took a stroll in his stomping grounds: the lesser known geisha districts. “Everyone goes to Gion,” Peter pointed out, an area so synonymous with geisha spotting that every evening, tourists stake out real estate in paparazzi stance. In Gion, in particular, the geisha are often treated like zoo animals. And although “no touch” and “please respect” signs have been erected in Gion, enforcement is non existent. We witnessed this firsthand. After our own experience described below, we practically ran into a maiko in Gion. She was on guard, serious, and had to dart between tourists using the narrow alleys as their own personal photo studios. It was unsettling to watch the paparazzi descend.
Which is why Peter recommends scouting out a different area and, naturally, photographing with respect. We chose Miyagawa-cho, an area once famous for its population of street performers. There, we were soon rewarded with our own sighting during the magic hour between 17:00 and 18:00. Peter coached us on when it was okay to take photos and the maiko— whom he was acquainted with, as he is with all— even managed a smile. She was beautiful. And we didn’t feel skeevy.
Kyoto without tourists: Fushimi Inari Taisha
As they say, you cannot NOT visit the red tori tunnels of Fushimi Inari Taisha. 233 meters of torii winding through the dense woods up to sacred Mt. Inari. The photo opportunities are incredible, more so if you can manage to get a shot without another human in mid pole dance. And while the morning rule applies to this destination as well, you really have to make it damn early to guarantee supreme solitude.
So… go at night. The shrine never closes. Sure, you may need to bring along a camera tripod but the torii are illuminated. Travel Caffeine took some night shots to showcase Fushimi Inari’s beauty and vouch for its peaceful atmosphere. I have also been told by friends to bring along a bento dinner and bottle of wine for the ultimate romantic city view. Sexy time ops if there if there ever was one.