No city has been as impacted by Japan’s rising tourism numbers as Kyoto. Crowds during cherry blossom and fall colors seasons can be oppressive, as can national holidays and school breaks. In this post, we’ll offer a sober appraisal of the congestion you might face in Kyoto, plus ways to survive and avoid the worst of the city’s crowds.
We love Kyoto, a sentiment we frequently proclaim when writing about it. Kyoto isn’t just our favorite city in Japan, it’s our favorite city in the world. Nevertheless, we don’t view Kyoto through rose-colored glasses. We are incredibly cognizant of the crippling crowds that frequently plague the city, and things are only going to get worse.
One of our biggest fears with regard to Kyoto is that people will read our effusive praise, go during the busiest times, only do ‘headliner’ temples, and have a bad time or find Kyoto to be overrated. If reader comments are any indication, this has yet to happen, but it’s an inevitability.
For the last 5 years, tourism to Japan has been on the rise. This is part of a concerted effort by the Japanese government, and the trend is only expected to continue through the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics and beyond. While this can be considered a savvy move as Japan’s population ages, we have concerns that the growth is not being properly managed–especially in Kyoto.
Whereas Tokyo is a mega-city that can easily absorb millions of visitors, Kyoto is not and cannot. The city’s infrastructure is insufficient, and the masses of tourists are antithetical to the very nature of the city’s traditions and sense of serenity. Rather than thoughtfully managing the rise in tourism, Japan has seemingly allowed it to proliferate in Kyoto unfettered and unmanaged.
As cultural outsiders, perhaps it’s not our place to have a strong opinion on how Japan deals with crowds in Kyoto and the impact tourism will ultimately have on the city’s traditions. It’s also arguable that we’re “part of the problem” both as tourists and de facto salespeople for the city. However, we’d like to think we’re advocates of responsible visits to the city, and want to further that here with advice that should redistribute crowds and ease the burden, at least to a degree…
Use An Itinerary – We hate crowds. Despite that, we often find ourselves visiting crowded places in Kyoto at crowded times of year. For the sake of our own sanity, we’ve developed a number of touring plans for Kyoto, which you can find in our 1-Day to 1-Week Kyoto, Japan Itineraries.
Aside from the 1-Day Kyoto “Best Of” Itinerary, these all seek to avoid crowds to the greatest extent possible (even that one does to a degree), and just following one of these is going to save you so much headache and beat the crowds. Those itineraries are basically written around the rest of the advice here, which is mostly helpful if you question our premises or don’t want to follow our prefab itineraries.
9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Is Least Valuable – If you only take one kernel of ‘wisdom’ away from this post, it should be this: every hour outside of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. is twice as valuable as every hour within that window.
Remember this when your alarm goes off at 5 a.m. and you just want to sleep for a little longer. Drag yourself out of bed early, stay up late, and load your itinerary with things during those times. (Related: Kyoto’s Best Spots for Coffee.) Nap in the middle of the day if necessary.
Note that getting up early and staying out late can be a slight challenge from an itinerary-building perspective. Most temples in Kyoto operate exclusively between those ‘half-value’ hours. However, many open early or stay open round the clock. Two high profile examples are Kiyomizudera and Fushimi Inari Shrine, and beating the tour groups at both locations makes all the difference in the world. Both are simply sublime without crowds.
Visit at the “Right” Times – Our When to Visit Kyoto, Japan post tackles the busiest times of the year, as well as offering our subjective assessment of good and bad times to visit. We think that’s a helpful resource because it assists you in striking the right balance between seasonal beauty and crowds. (For example, you should be willing to bear some crowds for the gorgeous fall colors season.)
In addition to those good and bad weeks and months, it’s worth knowing that weekends and holidays are generally more crowded, with weekdays being comparatively less busy. Kyoto is one of the most popular cities in Japan for domestic tourism, and you’ll find a lot of people taking long weekend trips to Kyoto, especially during peak seasons.
The 44th Best Without Crowds is Better Than the 4th Best With Crowds – In our Top 100 Temples & Shrines in Kyoto, Japan list, we note that any one of these spots in the top 52 could be your ‘surprise favorite’ temple or shrine. Kyoto’s “bench” is surprisingly deep, which is worth reiterating.
No one should skip Golden Pavilion, Kiyomizudera, Fushimi Inari, or the handful of other “must dos” that frequently make lists of the top 10 things to do in all of Japan. After that handful, there’s a lot of subjectivity at play. Travel guidebooks often tell people what they expect to hear or what’s consensus, and as such, they skip hidden gems in favor of popular options…which creates something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We’re willing to buck conventional wisdom: if you’re visiting during peak season or need something to do during the middle of the day, choose something lower-profile between #12 and #52 range (note: #17 & #18 are both busy during fall and #21 is busy when it’s open) rather than something in the top 10.
You should experience a fraction of the crowds, and will still see an amazing place. (It’s also worth noting that #2 and #4 on our list are usually uncrowded, they just require slightly longer commutes–that are absolutely worth it.)
Don’t Use Buses – Many of the “best” resources about Kyoto were written a decade or more ago and have been poorly (or not at all) updated since. It’s worth reiterating that even though Kyoto’s highlights are of the “ancient” variety, a lot has changed in the last 5 years, particularly in terms of visitor patterns.
In few ways is this more pronounced than via the city buses. They are nice, modern, efficient, and all of that. In the abstract, they’re quite nice. In practice, they are buckling under the increased demand. Go to Kyoto Station in the morning, and you’ll find a line that snakes around the station for the most popular buses (routes to Golden Pavilion and Kiyomizudera, both of which are poorly serviced by train and subway).
Later in the day, you’ll find elbow-to-elbow congestion on all of the bus lines that service major tourist attractions. Using the buses here and there is unavoidable–they’re a necessary evil. When Google Maps shows the bus transit time as 20 minutes and walking is only 25, you should go by foot.
Don’t Do Group Tour Buses – Several of the most popular temples and shrines in Kyoto have enormous bus parking lots. Other excellent temples have no bus parking and nearly no crowds. This sort of begs the question: are some spots popular because they’re the best, or does having the best parking make them the most popular?
That might sound cynical, and it partially is. Most of Kyoto’s most popular spots are deservedly so. However, visiting in a tour bus ties you to going at the same time and to the same places as hordes of others, virtually guaranteeing that you’ll encounter a sea of humanity every single place you visit. This is a problem because most of Kyoto’s best temples and shrines are inherently serene–or at least should be–and you’re missing that by experiencing them exclusively with a tour group.
Do Small Tour Groups – If visiting with a tour group is a must for you, find a smaller tour guide that specializes in intimate experiences and “unseen Kyoto.” We don’t have any specific recommendations for this, as we’ve never been in the market for such a thing, but there are definitely a number of quality options.
We’ve seen private tours in a number of unexpected, under the radar parts of Kyoto, and have been impressed by the ‘deep cuts’ some of them make. While these tours undoubtedly cost (much) more money, and are nothing you couldn’t do on your own, our perspective from the outside looking in is that these personalized tours are absolutely worth the premium over large groups. Either do it on your own, or do a private tour–nothing in between.
Overall, that about covers it in terms of avoiding the worst of Kyoto’s crowds. We hope this post doesn’t scare you too much. While crowds are absolutely an issue in Kyoto, it’s still our favorite place in the world. If you visit armed with realistic expectations and a good plan of attack, you’re more likely to feel the same as we do about the city. We feel grounded planning advice is much more helpful than showering Kyoto with glowing praise, and hope you find it useful!
If you’re planning a trip to Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend that you start by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit!
If you’ve visited Kyoto, what tips do you have for avoiding the crowds? Did you find the congestion to be unpleasant anywhere? Any off-the-beaten-path options you’d recommend in an itinerary? What did you think of the experience? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Any questions about what we’ve covered here? Does visiting this spot in Kyoto interest you? Hearing about your experiences—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!